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Measuring progress on technology for development

This policy brief, published by the Secretariat of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), provides an overview of major science and technology (S&T) trends, commitments and achievements since the 1992 Earth Summit, with a view to informing discussions and priorities for the Rio+20 meeting.

Despite government calls for the rapid adoption of clean technologies, the brief notes that actual progress has been poor. Global carbon emission rates are speeding up, and the take-up of renewables has slowed.

On the positive side, the brief notes that since 1992, emerging economies are increasingly becoming research and innovation leaders, and that this is fuelling greater levels of South-South technology transfer, particularly in clean and renewable energy. Examples include biogas digesters and jatropha fuel.

But investment in research and development (R&D), as well as transfer and patenting of clean technologies has been increasing only in large emerging economies. For example, while R&D investment in middle- and low-income countries doubled to 1 per cent from 1996–2007, it remained far lower in the poorest nations.

This article is part of our coverage of preparations for Rio+20 — the UN Conference on Sustainable Development — which takes place on 20-22 June 2012. For other articles, go to Science at Rio+20

The brief states that the collaborative landscape has changed dramatically due to the rise of web-based technologies and open-source information, which have enabled new S&T collaborations for even the poorest of nations.

It notes too that a system of clean technology capacity-building mechanisms and activities has emerged, but that UN support for these activities is fragmented both in content and country coverage. There is no global mechanism to monitor progress in S&T and development.

To inform discussions on potential outcomes and priorities at Rio, the brief looks at progress made on time-specific targets set in 1992. These include technology commitments in the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 8, Agenda 21, and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Progress generally has been slow, although technology transfer and market incentives have fared better than knowledge transfer and R&D.

A separate summary outlines S&T-related proposals for Rio+20, including suggestions for sustainable development goals, which have attracted strong interest. It notes that 15 of 31 suggestions contained in official submissions are new. Some relate directly to green technology, such as developing public-private knowledge sharing systems, promoting green patents, and reaching a Sustainable Energy Trade Agreement.

The brief notes that debates leading up to Rio+20 reveal different and sometimes contradictory ideas about technological solutions. It concludes that discussions might benefit from focusing on accelerating progress towards two existing goals (MDG 8 and CBD target 19), and on setting additional time-bound, measurable targets such as ensuring universal access to sustainable technology and establishing a global green innovation system.

This policy brief was written by Richard Alexander Roehrl, policy analyst at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs in New York, United States. He is part of the Secretariat for Rio+20.

This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20.