i3, une unité mixte de recherche CNRS (UMR 9217)

Institut Interdisciplinaire de l'Innovation

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Technological innovation and climate change: effectiveness of technologies
Posted on 2 March 2021

Simon Touboul is a PhD student in economics at CERNA, Mines ParisTech University PSL. His thesis focuses on technological innovation and adaptation to climate change.  To respond to climate change, two solutions can be combined: mitigation or adaptation to climate change. "In the case of mitigation, the objective is to reduce the impact of human activities on climate change, mainly greenhouse gas emissions. The main sectors are energy, transport, construction and agriculture. In the case of adaptation to climate change, the aim is to limit the impact of climate change on human activities. The sectors concerned are more diverse, such as infrastructure, agriculture, transport, but also tourism and health. I'm trying to find out, by consulting patent data, whether technological innovations are reaching those who need them the most," says Simon Touboul.

 "Globally, the number of patented inventions in the field of climate change adaptation technologies has increased steadily over the past two decades.  However, when considering the total number of inventions across all technologies and fields, the share of climate adaptation-related inventions in 2015 was about the same as in 1995. This stagnation in adaptation research and development contrasts sharply with the trend for climate change mitigation technologies, whose share in total innovation (including non-climate related technologies) has more than doubled over the same period," he notes.

 "In addition, innovation in adaptation is concentrated in a limited number of countries. China, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the United States and Mexico together account for nearly two-thirds of all high-value inventions (inventions filed in at least two countries) between 2010 and 2015. The United States, Japan and Germany together account for half of all adaptation inventions," he says.

Annual evolution of the share of climate-related inventions in all inventions


"One of my research questions is to assess the effectiveness of (adaptation) technologies as a means of protection against extreme weather events, one of the most worrying consequences of climate change. I am looking at whether the technologies created to deal with extreme climate events are effective in protecting people and property. If we take the example of tropical storms, the answer is yes," says the PhD student. Faced with these convincing results, countries continue to innovate to protect themselves in the future from even more violent storms. But how can the effectiveness of these technologies be evaluated? There are many factors that can be taken into account to evaluate their effectiveness. "In our studies, we consider technologies to be effective if they reduce the damage (human or material) caused by storms. The theoretical idea is as follows: "Let's take the case of two islands that are identical in every way (surface area, population distribution, culture, wealth, etc.), hit by the same storm at the same time. The first has certain technological options and the other does not. The technologies are effective if the island using them suffers less material damage or mortality than the other" he explains. In practice, econometric tools allow us to go back to this theoretical situation and carry out this evaluation at the country level.

But what technologies are we talking about? In the case of tropical storms, the technologies consist, for example, of advanced weather forecasting tools, or alarms allowing the evacuation of people threatened by the event. Refined modeling of weather systems makes it possible to determine, a few days before the event, the cyclone's impact zone, the wind speed and therefore the most threatened places. The alarms can be alarms on the phones or sound evacuation signals. These storms provoke mini tsunamis inundating all habitats and production centers in their path. One of the many ways to deal with the consequences of these tsunamis is to build dikes or create bottlenecks that guide the wave towards virgin areas, such as mangroves. Many technologies are available to protect infrastructure, such as pile dwellings or floating homes (illustration below). There are also wind barriers, which allow wind speed to be reduced or redirected elsewhere to protect crops or forests.


Illustration du principe de maison flottante issue d’un brevet

In addition to more violent and potentially more dangerous storms, climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of many other extreme events, such as heat waves and droughts. Crops are particularly impacted by these phenomena. How can the effectiveness of drought technologies be measured? "In the same way as for tropical storms, criteria need to be established. If we take the example of drought-resistant seeds, should they simply remain alive during a drought episode, or continue to produce as much as plants that are not subject to this water stress? The first step is to define the objective, the criterion of effectiveness. In economics, we will try to compare a situation where we have this technology and a situation where we don't, and then analyze how efficient this technology is," explains Simon Touboul.

The time it takes to implement a patentable innovation differs from one technology to another. For example, it is eight years for flood technologies and three years for drought technologies. Floods cause major damage to a small area near rivers, while droughts extend over the long term, impacting agriculture significantly. The fact that droughts take place over a longer period of time and impact larger areas makes them easier to predict and could explain a more rapid response, and therefore faster innovation.

"Innovation always takes time. Just look at the innovation time required to develop Covid-19 vaccines when it is a global priority and when colossal financial resources and unprecedented devices have been put in place," explains Simon, drawing a parallel with current events.

While innovation always takes time and time is always needed to implement a patent, the company always innovates for a market and customers, whatever the sector. In the case of technological innovation, in the face of climate change, companies innovate for private (manufacturers, farmers, pharmaceuticals, shipowners ...) and public (States, communities, municipalities ...) actors. These private innovators are guided mainly by market opportunities. "Let's take the example of a French company producing large quantities of seeds for Brazil. The company notes that Brazil is affected by drought and that climate change will aggravate the phenomenon. It notes that the Brazilian government is communicating to Brazilian farmers about the importance of using drought-resistant seeds and may even go so far as to legislate on the issue. It will innovate to respond to this new market by giving itself the means to be the first to succeed. We can still draw a parallel with the Covid-19 vaccine," he concludes.