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Energy pathways in low-carbon development: the needs to go beyond technology transfer

posted on 2023-06-08, 12:06 authored by Robert ByrneRobert Byrne, Adrian SmithAdrian Smith, Jim Watson, David OckwellDavid Ockwell
The relationships between energy and development are complex, compounded by increasingly differentiated situations amongst developing countries and within them. Moreover, the manner in which energy services are realised has consequences for our health, environment, wealth, and social relations. Two important issues currently preoccupying the realm of international development are enhancing energy access whilst simultaneously addressing climate change. A recurring theme in studies and policies for energy and development is the role innovation can play in improving sustainable energy access. International climate change negotiations place an emphasis on low-carbon technology transfer, which perpetuates a long history of expectations about technology providing solutions to energy and development challenges. Whilst these expectations are not entirely unfounded, this history indicates that solving the many problems associated with the provision of energy services involves a more complex set of interdependent processes than ‘straightforward’ transfer of technology. And yet, international discussions are intensifying (once again) around innovation in the form of technology transfer; discussions that frame the issue, we argue, in terms of financing the flow of low-carbon technological hardware to developing countries. This ‘hardware and finance’ framing of low-carbon development has resulted in a limited number of general purpose policy instruments – such as the Clean Development Mechanism – that tend to neglect important details of how technology can be ‘transferred’ successfully and sustainably. Moreover, they seem to neglect the contestable purposes of low-carbon development more broadly and the limited, though vital, roles technology transfer plays therein. Given the diversity of situations and concerns in energy and development, such a generalised yet narrow framing of the challenge could prove problematic. Drawing upon the history of technology transfer, and discussing the record of the Clean Development Mechanism, this paper questions just how much the dominant ‘hardware and finance’ framing will help communities explore and develop low-carbon pathways that meet their needs. Our view is that a much broader and ambitions approach to energy and development is needed. We suggest a ‘socio-technical transformation’ framework for organising low-carbon energy initiatives in development. In making this argument, we use a pathways approach to understanding the challenges of energy and development; an approach being developed by the STEPS Centre at the University of Sussex. Having argued for a broader and more plural perspective, we conclude the paper by suggesting a research agenda for testing its potential.


Publication status

  • Published


Earthscan Routledge

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Book title

Low-carbon technology transfer: from rhetoric to reality



Department affiliated with

  • SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit Publications

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David Ockwell, Alexandra Mallett

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