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Climate talks must move from technology transfer to 'innovation cooperation' to develop and deploy technologies effectively, says Ambuj Sagar.

For developing countries, the challenges of climate change come on top of existing — and urgent — sustainable development needs. For example, more than a billion people worldwide, mostly in the developing world, are malnourished.

Almost 2.5 billion people are still reliant on biomass, burnt in open fires or traditional cookstoves, for their energy and more than 1.5 billion lack access to electricity.

Such critical needs must not be sidelined by action on climate change. Instead, we must focus on both climate and development — integrating the two wherever possible.

Focus on technology

Technology can play a key role in combining these aims. For example, we can expand access to clean energy sources, deploy efficient end-use technologies, or 'climate-proof' development, such as by designing buildings that can withstand high winds, paying particular attention to marginalised and vulnerable populations.

We can accelerate the transfer of commercial technologies, such as lighting systems, that can be used with little modification, and adapt other technologies such as energy-efficient buildings and power plants to meet local conditions.

Further, we can develop technologies that meet pressing local needs but are not considered priorities in global markets — for example, improved cooking stoves, small-scale biomass gasifiers and solar lanterns.

We can also establish research and development (R&D) programmes for the long-term technology needs of developing countries.

And finally, we can develop policies and mechanisms that overcome a multitude of barriers — economic, financial, information, trust, market organisation and infrastructure — and strengthen human and institutional capacity.

Systems of innovation

But to do all this it is clear that different technologies may require different interventions or support at different stages in the innovation 'chain' — across basic and applied research, technology and product development, and commercial deployment.

It is also clear that we need to focus on the innovation process itself. We need to recognise the role that policies and institutions play in advancing innovation, the range of actors involved — firms, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, bankers, policymakers, researchers and consumers — and the variation in the nature of markets, policies and actors relevant to different technologies and countries.

Strengthening innovation requires policy initiatives and targeted activities to increase support both for each component and for the linkages between them.

This 'systems of innovation' approach is increasingly being recognised as an effective way of approaching and strengthening innovation (see Systems of innovation: Their time has come).

The idea of innovation centres

International action to harness technology for climate and development in poor nations must go beyond an outdated debate on technology transfer and focus instead on 'innovation cooperation' — joint action to accelerate the development, adaptation and deployment of suitable technologies. 

This is precisely the thinking behind the Climate Technology Innovation Centers proposal that India introduced to UN Framework Convention on Climate Change discussions and that will be on the table at next month's climate talks in Copenhagen (see Brainstorming: Climate Technology Innovation Centers).

The proposal recommends creating a global network of innovation centres — strategically placed throughout the developing world — to support the activities needed to advance the deployment of climate technologies.

These activities could refine and adapt technologies and products to local conditions, implement demonstration projects, stimulate new markets, design innovative deployment approaches, incubate new enterprises and develop appropriate policy regimes.

From concept to action

The centres would be a collaborative effort between developing and developed countries to harness global innovation capabilities to meet the needs of developing countries, which have widely varying but often fairly limited technological, financial, and institutional capabilities. 

Institutions in industrialised nations would contribute their knowledge and experts. Placing them in developing countries would help ensure their activities are relevant to local settings and would also engage local firms, universities, research institutions and other stakeholders, building up institutional and human capacity.

Such a network would be similar to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which has a network of 15 research centres around the world.

Each climate innovation centre would serve the needs of a region and the network would build synergies across developing countries.

Such cooperation on innovation — driven by local needs and based on an understanding of how technology is developed and deployed — could go a long way towards enabling and accelerating the use of new technologies in developing countries to meet both climate and development goals. 

An agreement in Copenhagen on the concept of climate innovation centres — with details on their scale, scope, funding and governance for subsequent discussions — could prove pivotal in building confidence for future cooperation on climate change.

Ambuj Sagar is Vipula and Mahesh Chaturvedi Professor of Policy Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.