Implementation of the Rio+20 outcome must account for changes in the global innovation landscape, says tech policy expert Ahmed Abdel-Latif.
The UN conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) recently reaffirmed the importance of transferring environmentally sound technologies (ESTs) to developing countries, 20 years after the first Earth Summit had put it under the spotlight.
It also requested UN agencies to identify options for a 'facilitation mechanism' that promotes the development, transfer and dissemination of ESTs. The UN secretary-general is expected to make recommendations on the facilitation mechanism at the forthcoming session of the UN General Assembly, which starts next month (18 September).
This result was not easy to reach. In discussions there were recurrent differences about how best to encourage the international transfer of ESTs, not least because there have been significant changes in the global technology and innovation landscape in recent years.
These changes need to be fully appreciated if progress is to be made on the facilitation mechanism envisioned in the Rio+20 outcome.
Road to consensus
Promoting transfer of ESTs, in particular to developing countries, was a chief concern at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Chapter 34 of Agenda 21, the blueprint for sustainable development, is entirely devoted to this issue.
In the run up to Rio+20, developing countries sought to reaffirm the prominence of technology transfer and called for the creation of a concrete mechanism that would promote it. The G77 group of developing nations and China suggested an "international mechanism" to "implement concrete actions focused on bridging the technological gap between developed and developing countries". They also underlined the need to consider the impact of intellectual property rights (IPR) in the context of promoting greater access to ESTs. 
Industrialised countries stressed the importance of cooperation, innovation and 'enabling' environments to develop and disseminate technologies, in particular through markets. But they opposed any reference to IPR in the context of access to ESTs.
Prior to the summit, the president of the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO) wrote to US officials, saying that "any references to technology transfer should be clearly qualified and conditioned to include only voluntary transfer of IP on mutually agreed terms". 
The Rio+20 outcome document strives, with some success, to reconcile these different viewpoints. It emphasises the importance of technology transfer to developing countries, but stops short of invoking Agenda 21 in this context, and simply recalls the provisions on technology transfer and IPR agreed in the 2002 Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, a follow-up to the Earth Summit. 
It also makes several references to innovation and cooperation, and states that transfer of technology to a developing country is to be "as mutually agreed".
Next step: the facilitation mechanism
The Rio+20 outcome document requests relevant UN agencies to identify options for a facilitation mechanism to promote technology transfer by assessing the technology needs of developing countries, options to address those needs, and capacity-building requirements.
The facilitation mechanism could be an important step forward — previous commitments on technology transfer tended to lack such concrete follow-up to make them operational. But it needs to take into account the important changes in the global technology and innovation landscape over the past two decades.
So what are the changes? First, the geography of innovation is changing. Emerging economies such as Brazil, China and India are playing a more prominent role in the global economy. Chinese and Indian companies have become world leaders in wind and solar energy. The technological needs of these countries and those of the poorest developing countries are very different.
Second, approaches to technology transfer to developing countries have evolved as a result of the experience gained in recent years. A traditional focus on access alone is giving way to a growing realisation that to succeed, technology transfer needs to be deeply embedded in the ability of recipients to diffuse and use the technologies in question, which is in turn shaped by a country's innovation system. 
Strengthening the capacity to innovate and absorb technologies are therefore key components of technology transfer.
The Technology Mechanism agreed by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2010 takes on board some of these considerations and could be a reference to help shape the facilitation mechanism. In particular, it places innovation at its core and seeks to promote greater R&D cooperation and partnerships.
At this stage, the most critical factor is to ensure that the follow-up to Rio+20 delivers an ambitious outcome that stands up to the challenges of achieving large-scale diffusion of ESTs — and avoids the fate of drifting into a sterile bureaucratic exercise.
Ahmed Abdel-Latif is senior programme manager for innovation, technology and intellectual property at the Geneva-based International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD). Ahmed can be contacted at [email protected]
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