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Decoupling pollution from economic growth

Being a climate scientist is a pretty depressing thing, says Ben McNeil.

Ben McNeil"It's like being a doctor and all the patients coming in are terminal cancer victims," he said at the annual LESI conference yesterday.

But as McNeil  – a senior research fellow at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales – says, we've got the diagnosis and we're working on a cure. Our best hope, he says is in innovation, technology and its commercialisation.

What's needed is more economic prosperity and less carbon and pollution. While traditionally growth in one has come hand in hand with the other, McNeil says decoupling emissions from economic growth, based on technology, is more than possible.

"Energy is needed. Carbon is not."

Technology is empowering us to do new things and can promote sustainability by creating abundance from scarcity, he says.

"We can automate the sustainable and we need to make the sustainable easy, to do good for the world. If it's not easy we’ve got problems. It's not just global government and singing Kumbaya that set the rules – it’s about making things easy for people."

Our cleantech story is good – we've seriously cut down smog and pollution in the developed world, the ozone hole is recovering, and investment in clean energy has been outstripping investment in fossil fuels since 2008 – but he says it could be much better.

According to McNeil, an innovative environment is about short-term sacrifice, giving up value now in order to capture more value over time.

That's why he says Saudi Arabia won’t be wining the environmental race anytime soon. Scarcity can be a good thing, forcing us to experiment and come up with new ways to do things. With plenty of oil at its disposal, Saudi Arabia's abundance is a constraint.

"Their abundance makes it easy to not innovate, not think about the future."