Our Common Future Under Climate Change

International Scientific Conference 7-10 JULY 2015 Paris, France

Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Climate innovation systems can help us reframe international technology policy


By David Ockwell and Rob Byrne, ESRC STEPS Centre

Technology and innovation are vital for efforts to tackle climate change in developing countries. But there’s a problem: the system for transferring and developing technology via international climate policy doesn’t seem to work as well as it should. 

More than that, it’s become arguably one of the most controversial aspects of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Most observers agree that access to new technologies was one of the key incentives for developing countries signing up to the Convention. Most observers also agree that so far actions under the Convention have failed to deliver.

The UNFCCC’s Technology Executive Committee (TEC) last year convened a meeting on strengthening National Systems of Innovation in developing countries. It started a discussion that could help to rethink the way that innovation and technology transfer are supported under the UNFCCC. 

The problem with hardware financing

First, a bit of background.

Developing countries need the right kind of support to address climate change challenges, and to develop along low carbon, climate resilient trajectories. The UNFCCC is supposed to help this to happen by supporting the transfer and development of climate technologies (technologies for climate change mitigation and adaptation). To date, however, there has been huge frustration at the failure of activities under the Convention to deliver at anything like the speed or scale needed. So why hasn’t it worked?

Research at the STEPS Centre demonstrates that a core reason is the current policy framing of the problem as one requiring ‘hardware financing’. Climate technologies are more expensive than conventional technologies, so market mechanisms are put in place to internalise the positive externalities of climate mitigation and adaptation currently not captured in the market (e.g. the Clean Development Mechanism, CDM, and various financing efforts under the Global Environment Facility, GEF). So these mechanisms help to pay for technologies that might not otherwise be affordable.

All this ignores the fact that technological capabilities are a prerequisite for countries to be able to absorb new technologies.

Creating an equal playing field

Technological capabilities are like soil in a garden. Without initial efforts to nurture the soil’s fertility, scattering seeds (bits of technology hardware) is unlikely to lead to a flourishing garden (technological change and development).

Moreover, commercial gardening contractors (technology investors) are unlikely to invest effort in sowing seeds in unfertile gardens in the first place.

Hardware financing mechanisms, therefore, serve simply to reinforce the comparative advantages of different countries. The majority of investment from the Clean Development Mechanism, for example, went to countries like China (60%) and India (11%) with comparatively high levels of existing technological capabilities – Africa as a whole only received 3% – the amount going to sub-Saharan Africa being smaller still. The CDM also tended to fund established, close to market technologies rather than nurturing the development and uptake of new technologies.

How National Systems of Innovation can help

So how do countries develop the technological capabilities they need to attract technology transfer and development? The key is to focus on nurturing National Systems of Innovation (NSIs).

NSIs can be understood as the gardens within which the fertile soil is to be nurtured. They provide the context within which all processes of technology development, transfer and uptake occur. National Systems of Innovation encompass the network of actors (e.g. firms, universities, research institutes, government departments, NGOs) within which innovation occurs, and the strength and nature of the relationships between them.

The idea of looking after these gardens – nurturing National Systems of Innovation – would begin to address the problem that hardware financing can’t fix. It could underpin more sustained and widespread transfer and development of climate technologies. As such, it provides a powerful new focus for international policy.

From gardens to gardeners

Moreover, insights from the above literatures suggest the existence of Innovation System Builders – key individuals who act to link actors and institutions up across niches of climate technology activity.

To extend our analogy, these are the gardeners who want their particular garden to thrive, preparing the fertile ground for leaps ahead in technological capability development (see, for example, our research on the off grid solar photovoltaic market in Kenya). This is a powerful insight for policy efforts, which could seek to fulfil the role of Innovation System Builders.

Nurturing National Systems of Innovation will take effort and capacity. More of this is needed in some countries and regions than others.

To see how this might work in detail, we need to look a bit more closely at the mechanisms and bodies involved and what needs to change.

Under the UNFCCC, the key delivery mechanism is the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN). It is here that the Technology Executive Committee has most influence and could make positive recommendations to the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) for a new approach.

The key thing the CTCN lacks is capacity on the ground in developing countries. At present this capacity consists of National Designated Entities (NDEs), but these are generally civil servants with only a small proportion of their time allocated to their work as an NDE.

What is required is the creation of Climate Related Innovation-system Builders (CRIBS). These would be dedicated institutions on the ground in developing countries who focus explicitly on NSI building, understanding local capacities, identifying opportunities to connect actors up across projects and programmes, across sectors, linking up with and understanding technology users, and so on.

Each CRIB would feed back into their country’s climate technology networks, and link to CRIBs in other countries and regions. But they would need long term funding to be designed and set up. They would also benefit from their direct link into the CTCN, providing for further, in-country demand driven support. Ideally, CRIBs wouldn’t be new institutions, but would be run through existing institutions with appropriate expertise (e.g. universities, research organisations or NGOs). 

There is an opportunity here for a new framing of international climate technology policy around nurturing NSIs. Decades of empirical research support the idea that this policy framing would have significantly more impact than one built around hardware financing approaches.

A longer version of this article first appeared on the STEPS Centre blog.

David Ockwell and Rob Byrne are researchers in the Energy & Climate theme of the ESRC STEPS Centre, a research hub based at the Institute of Development Studies and the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex.

This is part of a blog series profiling climate scientists, economists, social scientists and civil society members who are presenting and discussing innovative climate science at Our Common Future. For more follow @ClimatParis2015 and #CFCC15 on Twitter.

Further reading

Share this article

Further Information