Monday, October 5, 2009

Technology Transfer: not always a good solution for sustainable development

Climate Change discussions are filled with ideas for technology transfer, and every time I hear the discussions I shudder. From decades of attempts at building sustainable development, we can say for sure that technology transfer is, at best, a mixed blessing. Too often it is based on an old idea that has not yet been retired as it should have – that technology is good and will bring economic growth and development and that technology is transferable. But technology is not always transferable. And that includes renewable energy technology, a favorite among Sustainable development folks.

Let’s take the example of cooking stoves. Women in Southern Africa chop down trees (or gather dead wood if its available) for fuel to cook food, especially those women for whom petrol is too expensive. This contributes to deforestation and, when the cooking is done indoors, it can increase respiratory illness. Not a great situation for people or planet For the past decade, there have been various attempts to change this pattern to enhance sustainable development. They have rarely been successful.

Most of these ‘technological fixes’ have come from the West, designed in American or Dutch laboratories and then taken down to Southern Africa. There are problems of uptake, problems of usefulness, of familiarity, and of countless little things those who designed these new stoves didn’t think of. People prefer the taste of food made with fire. The new designs (there have been several of them) break easily, or take more time, or are not suited to other aspects of the culture.

So what does work? One really had to get to the heart of sustainable development. And that means, remembering that in putting people and planet first, that includes putting the knowledge of local indigenous people first. Technology should not be designed far away and then assumed to work. It needs to be designed with the local people as much as possible. Those times when that has happened, using local materials and local knowledge, has led to greater success.

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Battle for Leadership is just the beginning for UNESCO’s Bokova

It was a long, drawn out fight to determine the next leader, and the work of repairing and strengthening the organization which suffers financially means the real battle has only just begun. I’m not talking about a company, but about the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization more commonly known by its acronym, UNESCO. This past week, Irina Gueorguieva Bokova, a former Bulgaria foreign minister, won over her apponent, Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni. There is little question that Hosni’s comments that he was ready to ‘burn’ Israeli books led many to question him as anti-semetec – hardly appropriate for the leader of a global educational and cultural institution. Bokova will need to spend much of her first few weeks building bridges with those countries who supported Hosni, a painter much favored by the Arab world.

But Bokova has more to do than ease complicated relationships. To achieve some degree of sustainable development, she will need to put the ‘S’ for ‘science’ back into UNESCO, which has, of late, done little to advance science (much less on science for enhancing sustainability) around the world. If she is able to do that – and thus far there is only a little evidence that she is interested in sustainable science policies - sustainable development will have a greater chance of success. Like so many UN organizations, UNESCO has the potential to make a tremendous difference. And as is unfortunately all too common, the extent to which it can make that difference is compromised by a lack of financial resources, diverse political commitments, and weak political leadership. Hopefully Bokova can make a difference in at least some of those constraints.

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South Africa: Biofuels, Take II

South Africa has been making considerable strides towards renewable energy as part of its overall attempts for sustainable development. You may remember the last big attempt, a few years ago, when the company Ethanol Africa halted construction of a plant when the government suddenly realized the implications of using corn, the staple food for a country with roughly 25% unemployment and 50% under the poverty line, to fuel cars. The resulting food vs fuel debate has never died down – nor should it; food should never be taken out of the mouths of poor people and put into the gas tanks of rich(er) people’s cars. That’s not sustainable development.

But biofuels made out of waste vegetable oil? That’s another story entirely, and one ripe for sustainable sustainable development. And First in Spec (FIS) biofuels are looking to invest R1.5 trillion over four years in three biodiesel plants processing waste vegetable oil. The energy will go towards the mining, forestry, fisheries and agricultural industries, starting in the spring of 2011.

The problem: South Africa doesn’t produce enough waste vegetable oil to make it sustainable in-country. FIS’s solution: procuring waste vegetable oil from Canada, India and Australia.

I have to wonder if those countries have enough waste vegetable oil for their own biofuels – probably not. Waste vegetable oil is hardly plentiful outside of MacDonalds – and even in MacDonalds, it’s hard to say how long that will last. It’s trying to power its entire UK delivery vehicles on the company’s own grease. Though if we ask them, I suppose they would suggest that the solution to a lack of waste vegetable oil is to eat more French fries. Which, if health is a key component of sustainable development, doesn’t work so well.

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