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Reaching energy and climate goals requires a sharp acceleration in clean energy innovation

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Without a major acceleration in clean energy innovation, countries and companies around the world will be unable to fulfil their pledges to bring their carbon emissions down to net-zero in the coming decades, according to a special report released today by the International Energy Agency.

The report assesses the ways in which clean energy innovation can be significantly accelerated to achieve net-zero emissions while enhancing energy security in a timeframe compatible with international climate and sustainable energy goals. The Special Report on Clean Energy Innovation is the first publication in the IEA’s revamped Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) series and includes a comprehensive new tool analysing the market readiness of more than 400 clean energy technologies.

“There is a stark disconnect today between the climate goals that governments and companies have set for themselves and the current state of affordable and reliable energy technologies that can realise these goals,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “This report examines how quickly energy innovation would have to move forward to bring all parts of the economy – including challenging sectors like long-distance transport and heavy industry – to net-zero emissions by 2050 without drastic changes to how we go about our lives. This analysis shows that getting there would hinge on technologies that have not yet even reached the market today. The message is very clear: in the absence of much faster clean energy innovation, achieving net-zero goals in 2050 will be all but impossible.”

A significant part of the challenge comes from major sectors where there are currently few technologies available for reducing emissions to zero, such as shipping, trucking, aviation and heavy industries like steel, cement and chemicals. Decarbonising these sectors will largely require the development of new technologies that are not currently in commercial use. However, the innovation process that takes a product from the research lab to the mass market can be long, and success is not guaranteed. It took decades for solar panels and batteries to reach the stage they are at now. Time is in even shorter supply now.

Notably, the report highlights the importance of making sure crucial clean energy solutions are ready in time for the start of multi-decade investment cycles in key industries. Doing so could create huge markets for new technologies and avoid locking in vast amounts of emissions for decades to come. If key technologies become available by 2030 to take advantage of the next round of plant refurbishments in heavy industry, nearly 60 gigatonnes of carbon emissions could be avoided.

Another issue is that many of the clean energy technologies that are available today – such as offshore wind turbines, electric vehicles and certain applications of carbon capture, utilisation and storage – need a continued push on innovation to bring down costs and accelerate deployment.

Around three-quarters of the cumulative reductions in carbon emissions that would be needed to move the world onto a sustainable path would come from technologies that have not yet reached full maturity, according to the IEA report. For example, it would require rapid progress in new battery designs that are still at the prototype stage now to shift long-distance transport from fossil fuels to electricity.

But the public and private sectors are currently falling short of delivering the innovation efforts to back up their net-zero ambitions – and the Covid-19 crisis is threatening to further undermine projects around the world focused on developing vital new energy technologies.

“A recent IEA survey revealed that companies that are developing net-zero emissions technologies consider it likely that their research and development budgets will be reduced, a clear sign of the damage that the Covid-19 crisis could do to clean energy innovation,” Dr Birol said. “Now is not the time to weaken support for this essential work. If anything, it is time to strengthen it.”

To help guide policy makers at this challenging time, the IEA report offers five key innovation principles for governments that aim to deliver net-zero emissions while enhancing energy security:

  1. Prioritise, track and adjust. Review the processes for selecting technology portfolios for public support to ensure that they are rigorous, collective, flexible and aligned with local advantages.
  2. Raise public R&D and market-led private innovation. Use a range of tools – from public research and development to market incentives – to expand funding according to the different technologies.
  3. Address all links in the value chain. Look at the bigger picture to ensure that all components of key value chains are advancing evenly towards the next market application and exploiting spillovers.
  4. Build enabling infrastructure. Mobilise private finance to help bridge the “valley of death” by sharing the investment risks of network enhancements and commercial-scale demonstrators.
  5. Work globally for regional success. Co-operate to share best practices, experiences and resources to tackle urgent and global technology challenges, including via existing multilateral platforms. 

In particular, the report highlights issues requiring immediate attention in the context of the Covid-19 crisis, such as the importance of governments maintaining research and development funding at planned levels through 2025 and considering raising it in strategic areas. It stresses that market-based policies and funding can help scale up value chains for small, modular technologies with overlapping innovation needs like new types of batteries and electrolysers, significantly advancing their progress.

“Together with the Sustainable Recovery Plan that the IEA presented last month, this innovation report will provide the foundation for the IEA Clean Energy Transitions Summit on 9 July,” Dr Birol said. “The Summit will be the most important global event on energy and climate issues of 2020, bringing together more than 40 government ministers, industry CEOs and other energy leaders from countries representing 80% of global energy use and emissions. The aim is to build a grand coalition to help drive economic development and job creation by accelerating transitions towards clean, resilient and inclusive energy systems.”

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‘Industry 4.0’ tech for post-COVID world, is driving inequality

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Developing countries must embrace ground-breaking technologies that have been a critical tool in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, or else face even greater inequalities than before, UN economic development  experts at UNCTAD said on Thursday.

“Very few countries create the technologies that drive this revolution – most of them are created in China and the US – but all countries will be affected by it”, said UNCTAD’s Shamika Sirimanne, head of Division on Technology and Logistics. “Almost none of the developing countries we studied is prepared for the consequences.”

The appeal, which is highlighted in a new UNCTAD report, relates to all things digital and connective, so-called “Industry 4.0” or “frontier technologies”, that include artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, 5G, 3D printing, robotics, drones, nanotechnology and solar energy.

Gene editing, another fast-evolving sector, has demonstrated its worth in the last year, with the accelerated development of new coronavirus vaccines.

Drone aid

In developing countries, digital tools can be used to monitor ground water contamination, deliver medical supplies to remote communities via drones, or track diseases using big data, said UNCTAD’s Sirimanne.

But “most of these examples remain at pilot level, without ever being scaled-up to reach those most in need: the poor. To be successful, technology deployment must fulfil the five As: availability, affordability, awareness, accessibility, and the ability for effective use.”

Income gap widening

With an estimated market value of $350 billion today, the array of emerging digital solutions for life after COVID is likely to be worth over $3 trillion by 2025 – hence the need for developing countries to invest in training and infrastructure to be part of it, Sirimanne maintained.

“Most Industry 4.0 technologies that are being deployed in developed countries save labour in routine tasks affecting mid-level skill jobs. They reward digital skills and capital”, she said, pointing to the significant increase in the market value of the world’s leading digital platforms during the pandemic.

Innovation dividends

“The largest gains have been made by Amazon, Apple and Tencent,” Sirimanne continued. “This is not surprising given that a very small number of very large firms provided most of the digital solutions that we have used to cope with various lockdowns and travel restrictions.”

Expressing optimism about the potential for developing countries to be carried along with the new wave of digitalisation rather than be swamped by it, the UNCTAD economist downplayed concerns that increasing workforce automation risked putting people in poorer countries out of a job.

This is because “not all tasks in a job are automated, and, most importantly, that new products, tasks, professions, and economic activities are created throughout the economy”, Sirimanne said.

‘Job polarization’

“The low wages …for skills in developing countries plus the demographic trends will not create economic incentives to replace labour in manufacturing – not yet.”

According to UNCTAD, over the past two decades, the expansion in high and low-wage jobs – a phenomenon known as “job polarization” – has led to only a single-digit reduction in medium-skilled jobs in developed and developing countries (of four and six per cent respectively).

“So, it is expected that low and lower-middle income developing countries will be less exposed to potential negative effects of AI and robots on job polarization”, Sirimanne explained.

Nonetheless, the UN trade and development body cautioned that there appeared to be little sign of galloping inequality slowing down in the new digital age, pointing to data indicating that the income gap between developed and developing countries is $40,749 in real terms today, up from $17,000 in 1970.

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Greater Innovation Critical to Driving Sustained Economic Recovery in East Asia

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Innovation is critical to productivity growth and economic progress in developing East Asia in a rapidly changing world, according to a new World Bank report launched today.

Countries in developing East Asia have an impressive record of sustained growth and poverty reduction.  But slowing productivity growth, uncertainties in global trade, and technological advances are increasing the need to transition to new and better modes of production to sustain economic performance.

To support policy makers in meeting this challenge, The Innovation Imperative for Developing East Asia examines the state of innovation in the region, analyzes the key constraints firms face in innovating, and lays out an agenda for action to spur innovation-led growth.

A large body of evidence links innovation to higher productivity,” said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Vice President for East Asia and Pacific. “The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, along with the fast-evolving global environment, have raised urgency for governments in the region to promote greater innovation through better policies.

While developing East Asia is home to several high-profile innovators, data presented in the report show that most countries in the region (except China) innovate less than would be expected given their per capita income levels. Most firms operate far from the technological frontier. And the region is falling behind the advanced economies in the breadth and intensity of new technology use.

“Aside from some noteworthy examples, the vast majority of firms in developing East Asia are currently not innovating,” said Xavier Cirera, a lead author of the report. “A broad-based model of innovation is thus needed – that supports a large mass of firms in adopting new technologies, while also enabling more-sophisticated firms to undertake projects at the cutting edge.”

The report identifies several factors that impede innovation in the region, including inadequate information on new technologies, uncertainty about returns to innovation projects, weak firm capabilities, insufficient staff skills, and limited financing options. Moreover, countries’ innovation policies and institutions are often not aligned with firms’ capabilities and needs.

To spur innovation, the report argues that countries need to reorient policy to promote diffusion of existing technologies, not just invention; support innovation in the services sectors, not just manufacturing; and strengthen firms’ innovation capabilities. Taking this broader view of innovation policy will be critical to enabling productivity gains among a broader swath of firms in the region.

“It is important for governments in the region to support innovation in services, given their rising importance in these economies – not only for better service quality but increasingly as key inputs for manufacturing,” said Andrew Mason, also a lead author of the report.

Countries also need to strengthen key complementary factors for innovation, including workers’ skills and instruments to finance innovation projects. Building stronger links between national research institutions and firms will also be critical to fostering innovation-led growth in the region.

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Sea transport is primary route for counterfeiters

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More than half of the total value of counterfeit goods seized around the world are shipped by sea, according to a new OECD-EUIPO report.

Misuse of Containerized Maritime Shipping In the Global Trade of Counterfeits says that seaborne transport accounts for more than 80% of the volume of merchandise traded between countries, and more than 70% of the total value of trade.

Containerships carried 56% of the total value of seized counterfeits in 2016. The People’s Republic of China was the largest provenance economy for container shipments, making up 79% of the total value of maritime containers containing fakes and seized worldwide. India, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are also among the top provenance economies for counterfeit and pirated goods traded worldwide.

Between 2014 and 2016, 82% of the seized value of counterfeit perfumes and cosmetics by customs authorities worldwide, 81% of the value of fake footwear and 73% of the value of customs seizures of fake foodstuff and toys and games concerned sea shipments. Additional analysis showed that over half of containers transported in 2016 by ships from economies known to be major sources of counterfeits entered the European Union through Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. There are also some EU countries, such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Romania, with relatively low volumes of containers trade in general, but with a high level of imports from counterfeiting-intense economies.

To combat illicit trade, a number of risk-assessment and targeting methods have been adapted for containerised shipping, in particular to enforce against illicit trade in narcotics and hazardous and prohibited goods. But the analysis reveals that the illicit trade in counterfeits has not been a high priority for enforcement, as shipments of counterfeits are commonly perceived as “commercial trade infractions” rather than criminal activity. Consequently, existing enforcement efforts may not be adequately tailored to respond to this risk, according to the report.  Tailored and flexible governance solutions are required to strengthen risk-assessment and targeting methods against counterfeits.

As well as infringing trademarks and copyright, counterfeit and pirated goods entail health and safety risks, product malfunctions and loss of income for companies and governments. Earlier OECD-EUIPO work has shown that imports of counterfeit and pirated goods amounted to up to USD 509 billion in 2016, or around 3.3% of global trade.

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