Unlocking sustainable opportunities for green innovation in developing countries
Upward-facing shot of green buildings. (Image: Gábor Molnár via Unsplash).

Sustainable opportunities for green innovation in developing countries

Support from the international community is needed to help developing countries take advantage of green windows of opportunity.

By Carlos Leónidas Leiva, Fabianna Bacil, Wai Kit Si Tou and Clovis Freire

The green transition offers great economic possibilities for developing countries, but profit imperatives alone are not sufficient to capture these opportunities. Regrettably, the least technologically advanced nations face challenges in capturing the “green dividend”, despite increased climate-related official development assistance (ODA) (see figure below). While the additional finance arose in response to the 2015 Paris Agreement, there is limited international collaboration concerning green innovation, and efforts remain insufficient. To achieve the goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, an estimated annual investment of approximately $4 trillion in clean energy by 2030 is required.1 Therefore, the least technologically advanced countries rely on the assistance of the international community through an enhanced architecture that facilitates sustainable global growth.2

Changes in climate-related ODA 2012–2020

Collaborative efforts for more sustainable production

Global efforts must be undertaken to accelerate the development and deployment of green technologies, guided by the principle of common contributions to common goods. Successful partnerships for research leading to technology transfer and innovation, exemplified by organizations like CERN, ITER, and SKAO in the field of natural sciences, demonstrate the potential for collaborative innovation and shared benefits among participating countries. Similar collaborations can shape international cooperation for green innovations, ensuring that the perspectives and priorities of developing countries are equitably incorporated.3

Currently, science, technology and innovation (STI) efforts predominantly operate at the national level, reflecting the priorities of developed countries.4 The international community can address the differences in priorities of developed and developing countries by shifting research for green innovation from the national to the multinational level. To foster more inclusive progress, research should adopt a multilateral approach based on open innovation, making results available to international experts and knowledge communities. A useful example of this is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) which is internationally financed and located mainly in developing countries.

Technology has both positive and negative impacts and every country needs to be able to assess them according to its own needs, concerns and priorities. In this regard, UNCTAD is implementing pilot projects involving three African countries to enhance their capacity for technology assessment. However, a more comprehensive multilateral system is needed to evaluate new technologies, considering the opportunities and risks they present to different types of countries.5

Moreover, there is limited regional cooperation on STI for sustainable development in developing countries. More technologically advanced developing countries should intensify efforts to promote regional and South–South cooperation. With the support of donor countries, regional centres of excellence for green technologies and innovation, such as the Southern African Science Service Centre for Climate Change and Adaptive Land Management, could be established.

International collaboration can also mitigate the lack of funding for green technologies in developing countries. Successful innovation systems create incentives for companies and entrepreneurs to develop their own ideas and translate them into practical solutions. However, many developing countries lack the necessary financial and managerial capabilities to foster similar incentives. To address this gap, the UNCTAD Technology and Innovation Report 2023 proposes the establishment of a multilateral challenge fund called “Innovations for our Common Future”. This fund, financed by international organizations, donors, and philanthropic entities, would stimulate creative thinking and innovation to address a wide range of global challenges. By providing resources and support, the fund would empower developing countries to drive innovation and contribute to a sustainable future.

Overall, by unlocking sustainable opportunities, promoting global collaboration, fostering inclusive research, facilitating regional cooperation, and establishing a multilateral challenge fund, the international community can drive the transition towards a greener and more sustainable world. These actions are essential for ensuring that the benefits of sustainable development are accessible to all countries, regardless of their level of technological advancement. By working together, we can build a future that prioritizes sustainable development and addresses the pressing global challenges we face.

The text is based on Chapter 6 of the UNCTAD Technology and Innovation Report 2023.

  • Carlos Leónidas Leiva is an MSCA-COFUND imπACT fellow at Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
  • Fabianna Bacil is PhD fellow at UNU-MERIT.
  • Wai Kit Si Tou is economist in the Technology and Innovation Policy Research Section, Division on Technology and Logistics at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
  • Clovis Freire is Chief of Commodity Research and Analysis Section, Commodities Branch, Division on International Trade and Commodities at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNIDO (read more).

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