Thursday, 10 December 2009

Technology transfer to developing countries is an impossible dream

Collaboration between private investors and public sector is the only way to introduce low-carbon technology to poor countries
Cath Bremner, Wednesday 9 December 2009 07.00 GMT
One of the most contentious topics for discussion at the Copenhagen climate talks will be "technology transfer", the proposition that climate technologies should be handed from rich nations to poor.
It's a fine idea in theory. It happened in pharmaceuticals with the licensing of HIV/Aids medications to the developing world. But climate change is a different ball game, where technology transfer is a complex challenge. For a start, governments don't own intellectual property, companies do. Getting companies to surrender it is no easy task.
A hybrid car has more than 350 individual patents. How do you manage the licensing of each of these? If you jump that hurdle, you still need to build, market and install the technology in a new market that lacks much of the skills, capital and infrastructure the developed world takes for granted.
The second fatal flaw in this concept of "technology transfer" is the assumption the technology is there and ready to be transferred. It isn't. Developed nations are still inventing and trialling much of it. Take biofuels: we know algae could be part of the answer to an alternative to oil. But it is at least 15 or 20 years away from large-scale reality. If we haven't got it now, we can't transfer it.
The focus needs to shift from technology transfer to technology collaboration. While the public sector can stimulate demand and create markets for low-carbon technologies, the large-scale investment required to deploy these climate friendly technologies will come from the private sector. Partnership between the two is a critical success factor.
Our answer at the Carbon Trust, developed with the Indian Institute of Technology and Climate Strategies, is to establish a global network of Climate Innovation Centres in developing countries, funded by the international community, national governments, local and global businesses. These centres would build local capacity, encourage enterprise and provide finance to roll out the technologies we have today and develop the ones we'll use tomorrow. We estimate that an initial investment of £2bn in 20 centres would leverage up to £20bn in private money and they could be up and running within two years.
They will enable the right solutions to be developed in the right places. There is no silver bullet: every region faces its own climate and energy challenges.
In the developed world, most clean energy technology is developed for use with existing electricity grids. Yet there is no grid in much of the developing world. In Africa, how do you replace millions of diesel generators with solar photovoltaics? In India, how can you drive mass household uptake of solar thermal and cooling for cleaner water and refrigeration?
These problems are best solved by the academic and business brains of the nations and regions they affect, with the backing of international finance. Creating local economic opportunity will encourage the private sector to engage and drive change.
The next decade is crucial in reducing global carbon emissions. If we continue to pursue the impossible dream of technology transfer instead of collaboration, we will let time slip through our fingers and progress will be slow and haphazard. Some of the biggest challenges the world faces simply won't be addressed. We cannot afford to let that happen.
• Cath Bremner is head of international development at the Carbon Trust