Environmental technology - is Canada falling behind?

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Source: GLOBE SERIES

Canada takes great pride in its research and development achievements pertaining to environmental technology and sustainability solutions. We have much to offer the world in this area Prime Minister Harper has stated often. But are we really as good as we say we are? By some measures, we are falling behind our OECD colleagues in terms of environmental technology development and commercialization.

Canada is a world leader in many areas of environmental research. We are particularly strong in climate science, oceanography, hydrology, environmental engineering, fuel cell and hydrogen technologies, and urban geography.

The desire to position Canada as a leading supplier of environmental technology solutions stems back to 1993 when the Canadian government developed the Network of Centre’s of Excellence (NCE). The NCE consists of partnerships among universities, industry, government, and not-for-profit organizations and is focused on turning Canada’s research capabilities and entrepreneurial talent into economic and social benefits for all Canadians.

Currently the NCE Program supports more than 6,000 researchers in 71 Canadian universities. The program’s partners include 756 Canadian companies, 329 provincial and federal government departments, 525 agencies from Canada, and 430 international partners. These multidisciplinary and multi-sector partnerships are intended to connect Canada’s research with industrial know-how and strategic investment to help commercialize Canadian technology.

Earlier this month the federal government invested an additional $13.6 million in the National Research Council’s (NRC) Vancouver-based fuel cell and hydrogen cluster and officially opened the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Gateway - a technology demonstration and exhibit centre showcasing Canada’s world-leading fuel cell and hydrogen industry.

The announcement is part of a larger $118 million Government of Canada investment in six NRC technology cluster initiatives - Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technologies in Vancouver; Nanotechnology in Edmonton; Plants for Health and Wellness in Saskatoon; Biomedical Technologies in Winnipeg; Photonics in Ottawa and Aluminium Transformation in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region.

However, throwing additional money into the pot appears not to be paying off - at least not as much as many might desire.

Although progress is being made in some sectors, according to the 2006 report The State of Science and Technology in Canada, Canada’s patent activity, a not insignificant measure of achievement, is relatively weak. The report, developed by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), states that there is a perception from Canadians that Canada is a global leader in environmental technologies such as green energy technology however this is not indicative of reality.

The truth of the matter according to the report is that Canada is globally competitive in discovery research, but the translation of this knowledge either to commercial applications is insufficient by comparison. According to 2007 data on technology patents developed by all OECD members, Canada developed only 4,000 patents (this includes all technologies) of the 133,000 patents developed by all OECD members. By comparison the US registered over 80,000 patents in 2007.

The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) also reports a 10% increase in trademark filings during 2007 for green-themed marks, making it the busiest year ever according to a report released by the Dechert law firm. Applications for everything from 'Eco-Friendly' and 'Go Green,' to the slightly more creative 'Green Is the New Black,' 'Red States, Blue States, Green States,' flooded the USPTO office in 2007.

The CCA report concludes that Canada is falling behind the rest of the world in developing environmental technology. The report also notes that the gap between research and commercialization of technology has been a long-standing deficiency in Canada’s innovation system.

Environmentally friendly technologies are being developed to address a myriad of global challenges, including the need for alternate fuel sources, better drinking water treatment, and air quality improvements.

Investment in the cleantech space is indicative of the increased attention to green innovation -- venture capital investment alone in this category has been estimated at $5 billion. Therefore, the advancement of these technologies is of significant interest to business and the public at large. However, Canada’s share of this market is quite small, representing only 3% of total spending. In terms of trading activity, Canada is still a net importer of environmental goods and technologies.

Not only is Canada missing out on such important opportunities for economic growth, but it remains dependent on other countries to provide the technologies needed to deal with its own environmental problems. In 2005, for example, Canada’s trade deficit in this area exceeded $3 billion.  Industry Canada suggests the deficit will reach $1 trillion by 2015.

The CCA believes that more effective regulation is required to help Canada remove this deficiency. Current regulatory frameworks are falling short and are often perceived by those in the industry as inhibitors to successful commercialization.

Canada’s Science and Technology Strategy

In 2006 the federal government introduced a new Science and Technology Strategy seeking more private research and development and selecting natural resources and the environment as priority areas.

The strategy outlined broad policies and measures to promote science and technology development in Canada, identifying private sector investment as the key to bringing environmental and economic solutions forward. 'The private sector in Canada needs to do more of what it alone can do, which is to turn knowledge into the products, services, and production technologies that will improve our wealth, wellness, and well-being,' says the strategy.

According to government figures however, only 54% of R&D in Canada is performed by business, well below the OECD average of 68%. Canada ranks 14th in the OECD in terms of business expenditures on R&D as a percentage of GDP and 16th in the OECD in high-quality patents per million population.

In summary, it appears there is a significant gap between aspiration and current reality, and if Canada is to become a serious international player in green technology, according to Council of Canadian Academies there is a great deal of work that must be done.

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