Innovation in climate change adaptation: Does it reach those who need it most?

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Modernized weather forecasting equipment in Tajikistan. Modernized weather forecasting equipment in Tajikistan.

Many people will adapt to climate change by changing their behavior, perhaps by moving to a new location or changing their occupation. As they take these steps, they will rely on technologies that increase resilience to climate risks and extremes, such as new irrigation systems, advanced weather forecasting tools, and more-resilient crop varieties. The extent to which such technologies are developed and made globally available will significantly shape the “new normal” of life—if not sheer survival, for millions—in adapting to climate change. 

Most technological innovation in today’s knowledge-based economy takes place in the Global North and China, while it is the low and middle-income countries, which are particularly vulnerable to climate shocks, that need it most urgently.  To better grasp the current state of innovation and future needs, we analyzed patent data recently made available. The picture arising from this research is not very reassuring.  


Less innovation in adaptation than in mitigation
Globally, the number of patented inventions in technologies for climate change adaptation has increased steadily over the last two decades.  However, when considering the total number of inventions across all technologies in all fields, the share of climate adaptation inventions in 2015 was roughly the same as in 1995. This stagnation of research and development for adaptation stands in sharp contrast to the trend for climate change mitigation technologies, whose share in total innovation (including non-climate-related) more than doubled during the same period. Moreover, adaptation innovation is concentrated in a limited number of countries. China, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the United States together account for nearly two-thirds of all high-value inventions (inventions seeking patents in more than one country) filed globally between 2010 and 2015. 


Limited technology transfers 
This concentration of innovation activity could, in principle, be compensated by international technology transfer from the innovating countries to developing countries most in need of it. However, there is virtually no transfer of patented knowledge on adaptation to low-income countries (though knowledge transfers may take other routes, such as through the movement of skilled people). Cross-border transfers of patented inventions for climate change adaptation predominantly occur between a small group of countries consisting of high-income economies and China (85% of global technological flows).  

As for innovation, fewer adaptation inventions cross borders compared to climate change mitigation technologies and non-climate-related innovations. The dissemination of adaptation technologies related to agriculture and coastal and river protection is particularly low. Whether this shows that technologies for adaptation are less applicable outside the innovating country than other technologies, or that higher barriers exist to their international distribution, is an open question. 

It is also important to note that the reliance on patent data restricts the scope of this analysis to solutions that are at the technological frontier. There may be technology transfers that are outside the patent system, such as low-tech solutions and organizational innovation which many middle and low-income countries mainly rely on.


A mismatch 
Another interesting finding is that innovation and technology transfers do not seem to be driven by future adaptation needs, but by a recipient country’s ability to absorb new technology. Typically, industrialized countries with stronger technological capacities face lower adaptation needs yet have the most access to adaptation innovation. The opposite is true for middle to low-income countries. This mismatch between adaptation needs and technology access is particularly serious concerning technologies for mitigating temperature increases such as passive air cooling systems or heat-tolerant crops 


More questions than answers
These statistical observations raise more questions than policy answers and, relying on patent data, they also ignore the role of softer forms of innovation which are arguably essential in low-income countries. That being said, the main takeaway is that economic forces seem currently unable to transform local adaptation needs into market demand for patented adaptation technologies. 

Solving this problem and creating the right incentives for adaptation technologies to spread where they are urgently needed requires a better understanding of the market failures that hinder demand. Technological capacity-building also is an essential ingredient to narrow the gap – and this factor is not at all specific to technologies for adaptation to climate change. 

Finally, the data do not necessarily suggest that the applicability of individual adaptation inventions to specific national contexts is lower than in other sectors. Relying on foreign technologies is not less relevant than domestic innovation. The promotion of technology transfer should thus be a pillar of the policies implemented in this area. 


Matthieu Glachant

Head of CERNA (Centre for industrial economics) and professor of economics (MINES ParisTech - PSL)

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