An update on UNFCCC efforts to promote technology transfer between countries.
Note: This post has been updated. Read the most recent version here.
December’s UNFCCC climate negotiations were so fraught with disagreement that success stories seem rare. However, technology transfer was one area in which definitive progress was made in Copenhagen, progress that is likely to continue this year in the UNFCCC negotiations and other venues.
What is Technology Transfer?
In the context of climate change, “technology transfer” refers to how technologies that reduce greenhouse gases and aid climate adaptation efforts are developed and shared across borders. Developing countries will need more than finance to address climate change – they will need new technology for mitigation (emissions reductions), such as wind power, and new technologies for adaptation, such as flood control technologies and drought resistant strains of corn and wheat.
Because technology transfer will facilitate global emissions reductions, it is considered key to reaching a global agreement. The Bali Action Plan, a decision made at the UNFCCC meeting in 2007 to achieve a legally binding climate agreement, called for strengthened efforts to move technologies from developed to developing countries.
Progress in Copenhagen
In the early days of December’s negotiations, country representatives made progress on the technology transfer text. By the end of the first week, negotiators appeared close to agreeing that a new international mechanism for development and transfer of technology should be created. This mechanism would have two parts – an executive committee made up of politically appointed country representatives that would provide coordination, and a climate technology center made up of technical experts that could lead capacity-building in countries that need it. This carefully negotiated plan represented a smart compromise between the need for a political body to provide guidance and coordination and a more down-to-earth mechanism with technical experts than can implement solutions. Had the negotiations advanced further, this plan could have been brought to political leaders.
Heads of state arrived late in the second week and switched gears to drafting the Copenhagen Accord. The Accord acknowledged technology’s important role, stating:
“In order to enhance action on development and transfer of technology we decide to establish a Technology Mechanism to accelerate technology deployment and transfer in support of action on adaptation and mitigation that will be guided by a country-driven approach and be based on national circumstances and priorities.”
While the level of detail did not come close to what was in the negotiating text, this paragraph in the Copenhagen Accord did something that hadn’t been done before – it showed strong political support for an actual technology mechanism. However, details on how such a mechanism would be implemented remain to be seen.
Ironing Out the Details: Financing and Intellectual Property Rights
While the negotiations on technology were not a barrier to a successful global agreement, country representatives did disagree on some details. First, it was unclear how a financial mechanism (which was being negotiated separately) would mesh institutionally with the technology mechanism. Would the activities undertaken within the technology mechanism automatically be funded by the financial mechanism? Would the technology mechanism have the possibility to provide input for the financial mechanism’s funding decisions related to technologies?
The second sticking point involved intellectual property rights, such as patents and copyrights. Some countries felt that technologies, particularly those that help communities adapt to changing climates, must be shared freely, while others worried that without intellectual property rights protection and thus the potential to profit, the private sector will not invest in new innovations.
As countries begin to consider implementation of a mechanism, unresolved challenges will need to be sorted out either inside or outside the UNFCCC. Key questions that countries will need to think about include:
How will the financial mechanism address capacity building and joint research, and prioritize which technologies to support?
How can the non-financial aspects of technology transfer, such as making sure countries have the research capacity and supportive governance structures, effectively be addressed?
If there is significant movement on technology transfer occurring in multiple venues outside of the UNFCCC, how do we ensure a certain level of coordination?
How can the transfer of adaptation technologies and the transfer for emissions reduction technologies be addressed with equal attention?
Next Steps for Technology Sharing
Compared to many other areas of discussion in the formal UNFCCC negotiations, finalizing the technology part of an international agreement this year could be relatively easy. However, in order to finalize the technology text, negotiators will need more clarity on the outcome of the other negotiating areas, particularly on the financial mechanism. Before a UNFCCC mechanism can facilitate technology transfer flows, a lot of work will be needed to set up the mechanism, define roles and responsibilities, and secure funding.
In the meantime, implementation can move forward in a number of non-UNFCCC forums. The progress made in the negotiations and the high-level support outlined in the Copenhagen Accord could kick-start additional action on bilateral and mutlilateral technology cooperation agreements among countries that want to take early action. Several new and existing partnerships such as the Major Economies Forum, the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, as well as bilateral memoranda of understanding (MOUs), can encourage capacity building and technology sharing now. One key meeting to watch is the Clean Energy Ministerial to be convened by Steven Chu in July, where the United States plans to announce a series of cooperative projects on technology transfer, such as harmonizing appliance efficiency standards among the largest markets.
These meetings could move technology transfer forward now when momentum is needed, and the lessons learned can be wrapped into an eventual UNFCCC agreement, supporting the formal climate negotiations process.
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