Green Technology: Where We Are and What We Need

The Journal of International Affairs (JIA) interviews Dr. Kandeh K. Yumkella, Director General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) on September 20, 2010. In the interview, Dr. Yumkella relates a first-person account of the state of play of green technology, and defines the key tensions in the field, providing his outlook on the future of sustainable industrial development. UNIDO is a UN agency that has worked to reduce poverty through sustainable industrial development since 1966.

Editor's note:

Interview conducted by: Géraldine Ang (Journal of International Affairs Senior Editor),
Edited by: Gillian Tee (Journal of International Affairs Online Managing Editor), Julia Ritz Toffoli (Journal of International Affairs Lead Digital Assistant)
Digital Assistants: Rachel Murchison, Jennifer Wilmore

JIA Editorial Board
November 10, 2010
Green Technology: Where We Are and What We Need

In an interview conducted by Géraldine Ang, the Journal of International Affairs Dr. Kandeh K. Yumkella, Director General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) on September 20, 2010. In the interview, Dr. Yumkella relates a first-person account of the state of play of green technology, and defines the key tensions in the field, providing his outlook on the future of sustainable industrial development. UNIDO is a UN agency that has worked to reduce poverty through sustainable industrial development since 1966.


JournalIn a speech that you gave in May 2010, you stated that technology, access to technology, technology transfer, innovation and capacity building are essential to sustainable development. Can you elaborate on the role of technology in sustainable development?

Yumkella: Technology is a major part of the answer for promoting sustainable development. We know now that the way we have consumed and produced over the last century is not sustainable, so to make sure that we don’t destroy the planet, behavior and also some of the technologies we use must change. I will give you some examples.

In UNIDO we talk about resource efficiency and cleaner production (RECP), and we are promoting greener industry, which has the following three pillars. We believe that we should be more resource efficient, which means for every unit of output we are producing now, we should use less raw materials or less materials from ecosystems. So we are producing more with less. We take fewer minerals out of the soil, we cut down fewer trees and so on. We also believe we should optimize how we use water, because studies have shown that, in production systems around the world, for every liter of water that we bottle we often waste two liters in the process, and sometimes we pollute an additional liter. Energy efficiency is also something I have spoken much about. As we know today, over 80 percent of CO2 emissions come from energy systems; that is 64 percent of greenhouse gases. So we need an energy revolution to deal with climate change.

All of this will require new technologies that are more efficient in how they use raw materials, that not only waste less water but can also recycle and clean water, and that can reduce pollution.. And you also need clean energy technologies. I have just given you some aspects of sustainability that indicate that we must change the technology and management practices of how we produce, but also how we consume. We must change our consumption levels.


JournalDo you think that the prospect of an emerging green industries sector is sufficient to convince policymakers of the need to decouple greenhouse gas emissions from economic goals?

Yumkella: It is an important beginning that at least we now know that there is a green revolution and that green energy and a green industry are part of this revolution. I think that it is an important development for sustainability. I believe that it will drive a lot of changes around the world, because we see already from the banking sector that banks are beginning to invest in new green industries. In fact, we believe the fight against climate change can become an opportunity for what we call transformative changes. These transformative changes are changing production and consumption patterns and systems, which will introduce new technologies. And we believe that the push for green economy, green industry, green infrastructure and green energy is part of the key.

It is important to remember that those of us who studied biology many years ago in school were taught about the Malthusian theory that predicted that the Earth would become so populous that there would not be enough food to feed us. Well, thanks to technology, all of that has changed. It did not happen because yields have more than doubled or quadrupled; new products have been produced that can withstand certain natural diseases and so on. That is all a technological change. Green economy is beginning to project a framework – a green economy framework that has the right policies and the right incentives to encourage research and development to provide these new green technologies. I am confident that this will be key.


Journal: What mechanism in particular can UNIDO promote for the use of green technologies?

Yumkella: We are already doing that with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with financing from Switzerland, Austria and Italy. In forty countries we have what we call National Cleaner Production Centers (NCPCs). We are teaching these concepts to industries in those countries – helping them advise factory owners on how they can reduce pollution, how they can become more energy efficient and how they can optimize what they do. These Centers also help countries design programs and train countries on what kinds of policies can be created. This is practical on the ground.

We have been doing this for fifteen to twenty years in many countries, including some emerging economies. We started it even before green economy became fashionable two or three years ago. Now we need to do more of it. 

And remember, to ensure that sustainability is practiced by various countries you need regulatory systems. Somebody has to help build those. We have trained ministries of environment around the world, even where some of those ministries were very new. For example, we worked with the Nigerian Ministry of Environment, which was created in 1999-2000. Before then, they only had environment departments that they eventually consolidated into one ministry. We organized many workshops and trainings on policy and on how to design products to clean out the river systems.

We are doing the same in the Gulf of Guinea, all along the coast, from Mauritania to Angola. For about fifteen years, we have had programs there monitoring fishery stocks. We call it the large marine ecosystem. It is a project carried out jointly by UNIDO, UNEP, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). First of all, trends indicate that pollution from upstream coming into the Atlantic into the gulf is being reduced. Second, we are consistently checking the biodiversity. And we are using ships from the American Oceanographic Association (NOA). Those countries did not have the required technology, skills, measurement techniques and so on.

We also now have programs in China, India and Eastern Europe. I was in Russia recently visiting some of the republics, and these are some of the issues we were discussing. How do we support them in terms of policies, but also in terms of incentives, because some actions require action by the private sector? In Russia, we were discussing how to deal with e-waste. You and I just use a mobile phone then throw it away. Or we use a computer and then throw it away. They both contain hazardous chemicals.

The final point I should make is on the work being done to identify some of these hazardous wastes. In the old days we used to just burn them, but we found out that if you burn them, they come back down. We call these persistent organic pollutants, such as dioxins, furans, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and so on. All of these pollutants need to be treated using new technologies. We call these non-combustion technologies, and only a handful of companies in the world have these kinds of technologies. But countries need them to keep the planet safe.

How do you give these countries and the companies that have these technologies incentives to partner? They aren’t going to do it for free.  The companies that have the technology spend good money on research and development over several years to perfect them. Our role in UNIDO has been to bridge that gap so that those that have technology and those that need them can have viable arrangements to transfer the technology and technical assistance so that hazardous waste can be dealt with.


Journal: What are the challenges for creating best practices? Knowledge sharing is critical for scalability, but you also mentioned public-private partnerships. What is the role of public-private partnerships in promoting the use of clean technologies in sustainable development?

Yumkella: You need good public-private partnerships to be able to promote the use of clean technologies. In a number of these countries you need demonstration projects to show how the technology works. You need to train people at the very early stages so they become aware that there is a problem of pollution before the private sector can have confidence to say, “Okay, we will invest now to help you solve your problems.”

I will give you an example in India, from the famous Bangalore information and technology hub. Well, right in the middle of Bangalore, with one of the best private medical colleges and a number of reputable medical professors, we have a program dealing with persistent organic pollutants (POPs). What we have done with this university is an assessment of hazardous medical wastes. You know the population of India, so you can imagine the amount of medical waste we are talking about. First, we developed a system to assess the levels and types of hazardous medical wastes that exist in the area and exactly where they are located. Second, we have begun to create awareness that these are hazardous wastes that you don’t just burn and that to dispose of them properly, they should not be mixed.

How do we begin to train people to begin to sort them out? To carry out all of the initial stages you need the government, so this has been a joint program with the Ministry of Environment of India, UNIDO and the funding source at the Global Environment Facility.

The government has invested a lot of money to develop systems and policies and to train people. Their hope is that in two years, they can show the private sector the technologies that are available to dispose of waste, how to collect it from various sources, and how to run it as a business so hospitals can pay for the service by including it in patient fees. It becomes a commercial process. But first you need a government to work with entrepreneurs in Bangalore and other regions who are thinking, “You know something, I can do that service for you Mr. Government; pay me.” Otherwise it will not be sustainable. These entrepreneurs ask for a fee, so hospitals pay for the disposal.

I give this example as a case of public-private partnership. During the first few years, the heavy lifting involves demonstrating the technology, training people, creating the right public policies and introducing regulations so somebody can check whether, for example, people are quietly tossing medical waste in garbage dumps. You need governments to build frameworks and institutions to create an enabling environment that gives the private sector the right incentives to invest.


Journal: Regarding best practices, UNIDO has several programs such as the network of universities and the energy technology centers. What is the role of knowledge centers, networks and universities in the support of clean technologies?

Yumkella: Crucial. Many of our cleaner technology production centers are hosted within universities. Universities are already geared toward training and working systematically. So for us, the link with universities is crucial. Second, you need universities to codify best practices around the world. They will know how to adapt these best practices to their own local environment.

I want to underscore that universities are critical for training the younger generation. In environmental debates, people talk about intergenerational equity. We are creating problems that future generations will have to solve, so it is very important that the younger generation  also be trained on sustainability. For us, it has been a deliberate strategy to host some of these partnerships within universities. Also, many times we need local data collection to be able to provide evidence and obtain a good picture of the local situation. In many cases, we have used universities to conduct local assessments and training. Universities are well-suited for the task because they are trained in methodology. In the program in Bangalore, for example, we are using technology from Japan because they have some of the best technology for getting rid of POPs. That is a partnership we have established.

I visited Bangladesh two months ago and arranged for the Bangladesh Minister of Health to come to India with four experts to see what India is doing with hazardous medical waste. In fact, the visit just happened last week. Bangladesh will now use India and this medical school as the hub for training. So the linkage between the universities and the centers is very crucial for technology adaptation, training, sharing of best practices and general capacity building.


Journal: Why do you think energy issues and clean technology diffusion have not been directly addressed by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? 

Yumkella: When the MDGs were adopted in 2000, our focus was to support the social sectors, which was good. In the process of mobilizing global support, we decided to narrow it down to poverty, hunger and key social sectors. Now it is ten years on and we realize that some things were left out, energy being one of them. Because of climate change, suddenly we realized that the way we have been producing and using energy was choking the planet. So there is a new impetus, because even ten years ago the issue of climate change was not as prominent. Fifteen to twenty years ago when I was in school, the top issues were ozone and depleting substances, sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere and acid rain. Climate change hit the global agenda more forcefully within the last five to seven years. It is time now for energy to come back to the forefront because of climate change issues. And also because we are now more convinced about the connections between energy poverty, income poverty and some of the problems we have in the social sectors.


Journal: If you had to prioritize the key technology transfers that are lacking in developing countries, especially in the least developed countries, what do you think should be the top three priorities?

Yumkella: Well, there are so many sectors to prioritize related to technology. My bias is that we must pay closer attention to rapid deployment of clean technologies in poor countries, because we know that these new clean technologies create an opportunity for distributed power supply and off-grid solutions for communities to have access to energy. I feel that is a priority, because of  linkages it creates. People will then have access to energy to deal with other problems. So these new clean energy technologies create an opportunity if they are used in an integrated form, helping communities to access bio-energy, solar and hydro power.

I would say the second priority is agri-business technology. This is critical in relation to the MDGs, because 75 to 80 percent of the poor live in rural communities. If you can increase their productivity in agriculture, agri-business and food processing, you will raise their incomes overnight. You will also be able to liberate women. Energy access technologies, food processing technologies and agri-business tie in to gender-based economic empowerment, because women do the heavy lifting in food processing and food distribution. Most of them are in rural communities and are the most vulnerable to poverty.

The next priority is water technologies, water management, irrigation technology, and also water purification and distribution systems. And the fourth priority, for me, is health–taking health to communities. If you address those four priorities, you impact rural communities overnight.


Journal: What do you think is the next step countries should take to promote clean technologies in developing countries over, say, the next two years?

Yumkella: Well, we want to see more official development assistance going into energy access initiatives at the country level. We hope to see this beginning to happen in the next year or two.

Second, it is our hope that by 2012, we can mobilize political support behind energy access. For me, that is an immediate priority. We hope that 2012 will be declared the “year of energy access.” In another year, we should know whether this declaration will be made.

Third, finance is crucial. Ideas are good, but you have to invest in them. When we meet in Cancun for the climate summit in December 2010, we will need to address the promises we made in Copenhagen, including the $30 billion for “fast start” funds for addressing climate change. This will show the poor that we care. It will be useful. Right after Cancun it will be important to show countries that there is a plan for long-term funding. The long-term funding was supposed to be $100 billion per year by 2020.

Those are immediate priorities for me. Now we need to build the momentum for the climate change discussions and reach a deal. We need to reach n agreement if we want to be able do a lot of what I have said. Then we need the funding. The last issue would be that right after the summit in Cancun, the Doha trade round can be completed as well.


Journal: What do you think investors want to see?

Yumkella: They always say stable public policy, a good global deal on energy and hopefully a price on carbon. If there is a global deal, everyone will have a level playing field. Second, if there is a price on carbon, renewable energy and other clean technologies will be competitive, because then producers pay. Those are signals I have heard from people in the private sector. If the public policy is there and is stable, then the money will follow.