Innovation and the path to sustainable development

04 December 2019

A discussion held yesterday at COP25 on partnerships in innovation to achieve the United Nations ninth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 9) showed how the various UN agencies and industry are working in an increasingly collaborative manner.

IFEMA - Feria de Madrid, the venue for COP25 (Image: World Nuclear News)

World Nuclear Association shared its contribution to SDG 9 alongside representatives of COP 25, the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN), the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

COP 25 UN System Side Event for Sustainable Development Goal 9: Driving innovation for low emission industrialisation via digital technologies, partnerships and new business models considered ways to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.

Karina Larsen, CTCN's knowledge and communications manager, said infrastructure, industry and innovation are three "interconnected pillars" that share the same objective of being "socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable in terms of their economic development". Larsen noted that industry is responsible for roughly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), the main cause of climate change. At the same time industry is the "leading generator of climate change solutions", she said, including clean technologies, innovative models for business, financial instruments and market design.

CTCN is the implementation arm of the UN Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Technology Mechanism, hosted by UNIDO. It promotes the accelerated transfer of environmentally sound technologies for low-carbon and climate resilient development at the request of developing countries.

Political commitment

Andres Landerretche, chief of contents in the Ministry of Environment of Chile, and the coordinator of COP25, said investment in infrastructure and innovation is crucial to drive economic growth and development.

"With over half of the world's population now living in cities, mass transport and renewable energy are becoming ever more important for the growth of new industries and information and communication technologies," Landerretche said. "Technological progress is also the key to finding lasting solutions to economic and environmental challenges, such as creating new jobs and increasing energy efficiency. Promoting sustainable industries and investing in scientific research and innovation are all important ways to facilitate sustainable development. This implies moving away from fossil fuels, haphazard urban growth and oil-dependent agriculture to a new paradigm of decentralised energy production, interconnected appliances and less destructive agricultural practices."

Aspects of the prevailing global economic model have not been conducive however to rapid progress with SDG 9, he added. "Some 2.6 billion people in developing countries do not have reliable access to electricity. The renewable energy sector currently employs more than 2.3 million people globally and that number could reach 20 million by 2030. It is true that financing for cost-effective infrastructure has increased in developing countries and impressive progress has been made in mobile connectivity, but some countries are still lagging behind and face serious challenges in doubling the manufacturing industry's share of GDP by 2030 in a sustainable manner, while investment in scientific research and innovation remains below the global average.

"The Chilean government is committed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, he said. As a middle income country, a member of the OECD and "one of the most open economies in the world", Chile also faces significant long-term challenges reaching inclusive and sustainable development, reducing poverty and inequality, addressing climate change, and strengthening democratic institutions, he said.

"Chile has taken important strides in boosting its credentials as a climate champion. In June, it vowed to go carbon-neutral by 2050 and completely phase out coal-fired power generation by 2040, commencing a radical transformation of our electricity system," he said. The country has, for example, a roadmap for electrification of 100% of public transport by 2040 and 40% of private vehicles by 2050.

Development with low emissions

Rose Mwebaza, CTCN director, referred to conversations she had had during COP25 about Africa's industrialisation and development "within the context of stranded assets, because the narrative is that Africa's industrialisation and development is predicated on its natural resources, particularly fossil fuels". The question is, she said, how Africa could pursue its developmental agenda without contributing to global climate change.

"Low-emission industrialisation is critical and it speaks to the important role that UNIDO and its partners play in working with countries in order to pursue carbon pathways especially in relation to industrialisation," she said.

"The technological solutions that come to us from the countries are out of their Nationally Determined Contributions and the commitments they made under the Paris Agreement, and the vast majority of the requests coming from the developing countries are in relation to energy, industry and infrastructure," she said.

Enabling environment

Victor Owade, external relations officer at WIPO, said that for SDG 9, WIPO sees that increasing digitalisation provides both opportunities and challenges for addressing climate change. "Digital technologies can effectively offer strategic greenhouse gas emissions reductions through, for instance, the deployment and uptake of smart metres and smart grids at scale. Of course, to see this happen at sufficient scale, partnerships and collaboration mechanisms will be critical," he said.

But WIPO data show that the majority of the world's digital innovation clusters, or hotspots for international technology collaboration, are concentrated in only a handful of cities. A challenge for SDG 9 therefore is to make sure that "other regions are not left behind".

Custodians of SDG 9

Alla Metelitsa, head of climate policy and partnerships at UNIDO, described the UN agency as "one of the custodians of SDG 9".

"Existing technologies are not enough, not only for SDG 9, but also for SDG 7 and SDG 10. And we need new technologies, models and policy frameworks to support their development," she said. A "new era of digital technologies is coming and our lifestyles will change,” she added.

SDG 7 aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, while SDG 10 is focused on reducing inequality within and among countries.

Asked whether nuclear power is a  part of UNIDO's conversations on technological innovation in climate policy, Metelitsa told World Nuclear News: "Currently UNIDO does not work on any projects related to nuclear power technology because we are co-located in the same building with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is why we don't tread on their toes. They assist developing countries with their requests related to nuclear power and we focus on renewable energy and various other new advanced technologies which are coming. In the future there may be closer cooperation. Actually, we have various cooperative projects but not in nuclear power at the moment."

Nuclear power’s role

King Lee, director of the Harmony Programme at World Nuclear Association, reminded delegates that nuclear power is the largest source of low-carbon electricity generation in advanced economies today, providing 40% of all low-carbon generation. Innovative nuclear technologies, such as small modular reactors, would complement existing large reactors to enable deep decarbonisation as part of the clean energy transition, he said.

Nuclear energy is a mature and proven low-carbon source of electricity, with a 60-year track record of providing reliable and safe operation, he said. Further innovation and technological development will enable even wider applications aimed at deep decarbonisation of economies around the world and supporting sustainable development, he added.

Asked how countries could learn about innovations in nuclear power, King highlighted the Nuclear Innovation: Clean Energy Future (NICE Future) initiative under the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM). The initiative is led by the United States, Canada and Japan with the support of countries including Argentina, Poland, Romania, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. The initiative envisions a world in which nuclear energy innovation, together with variable renewable energy, plays a key role and advances clean energy goals. King added that SMRs can support these goals thanks to their flexibility (being able to be located where energy is needed, to generate energy on demand and to produce a range of energy products).

Shipping and emissions

Camille Bourgeon, technical officer in the marine environment division of the IMO - the UN's specialised agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine and atmospheric pollution by ships - said that 80% of global trade is carried by sea and that maritime transport is thus the "backbone of the global economy and trade". Shipping is particularly important for developing countries, he added, since they account for more than 60% of exports and imports.

"On the other hand, this has an impact on our planet and we must be aware that shipping, although one of the most energy efficient modes of mass transports, accounts for 2-3% of global emissions," he said. Worldwide shipping consumes about 300 million tonnes of fuel oil a year, he added, resulting in emissions of around 950 million tonnes of CO2. IMO has said that, unless concerted action is taken, these emissions are expected to grow by up to five times by 2050.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News