The role of technology transfer in raising climate ambition
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To help mitigate the effects of climate change on a global scale, there are projects in place to promote the transfer of climate technologies in developing countries. Why aren’t they working?
Technology is clearly crucial to tackling the climate crisis. From solar panels and smart grids to electric vehicles and green steel, much of the policy plans relies heavily on innovation and new technologies. But since the development and implementation of these technologies is dominated by the richer, developed countries, the UN climate negotiations include a key idea known as ‘technology transfer’.
This compels wealthier countries to support developing ones in accessing climate technology, a notion found in the original 1992 treaty that began the climate talks and later repeated in the Paris Agreement. This fits into a wider pillar of UN climate negotiations, which recognises that richer developed countries must take the lead in reducing their emissions and in supporting poorer countries to do so as well.
In their climate plans, submitted to the UN in 2015, some 67 countries said they have a need for technology support. Thirty years after the promise was made, however, technology transfer can hardly be described as a pillar of support and collaboration on climate change.
“There’s a failure to set in place mechanisms to enable developing countries and least-developed countries to properly acquire clean technologies at scale,” says Matthew Rimmer, a professor of intellectual property and innovation at Queensland University of Technology. “If you want to have a transition to a low-carbon economy, it seems like an important issue to deal with.”
Rich countries have not allowed climate technologies to be made available to developing countries to reduce their emissions and become resilient to rising climate impacts, says Harjeet Singh, senior advisor at Climate Action Network International, a conglomerate of green non-profits. “They have only focused on guarding the interest of their private corporations so that they can continue to make profits,” he says.
“There are huge inequities in terms of the development and implementation of clean technologies. Just look at the distribution of ownership of clean-tech patents. This is dominated by certain key countries in the EU, some Nordic countries, the US, Japan, and South Korea,” says Rimmer. “China over the last decade has [also] really risen in terms of patent filings.”
After much discussion, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) established a Technology Mechanism in 2010 consisting of two bodies: the Technology Executive Committee and the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN).
Many say progress has been slow. “There is a real gap between the original ambitions and aspiration for that mechanism and what it is actually doing in practice,” says Rimmer. “It was meant to facilitate technology transfer but really is only providing technical information. It was meant to be driving research and development and deployment of new technologies but, really, it’s only done that in a marginal way.”
Singh says that rich countries, particularly the US, Australia and Japan, have blocked progress at the UNFCCC. “The nexus between large private corporations and governments of rich countries is not leading to any meaningful progress on technology transfer and development in developing countries,” he says.
Suggestions have been made by developing countries to buy patents through the Green Climate Fund, or by developed countries to directly reward innovation and make it available for mass production, he says, but these have been brushed aside.
It is actually the bigger developing countries such as China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa which are leading the way on tech transfer, says Neth Daño, Asia director at the non-profit ETC Group.
“These countries produced technologies that are more appropriate and accessible to communities in other developing countries, such as low-cost solar panels,” she says. “The technology is accessible, replicable and not constrained by intellectual property rights, so that smaller companies in other developing countries get to copy and produce them for the local markets.”
The most contentious source of conflict on clean technology transfer is intellectual property rights. The debate has much in common with the ongoing discussion about waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines. “Developed countries have been unwilling to find ways to provide a waiver to development of technologies that are vital to dealing with the climate crisis,” says Singh.
The question centres on how intellectual property holders should be encouraged to share their technologies or enable them to be deployed and used elsewhere, says Rimmer. He adds that debates around intellectual property of clean technologies have intensified in recent years due to a rise in litigation such as battles over patterns and trademarks.
Even if many consider it too little, the establishment of the Technology Mechanism is the biggest shift that has been seen in the UNFCCC on technology transfer.
The CTCN acts as both a matchmaker between developed countries that have technology and developing countries that need it, and a repository of knowledge about technologies in different countries, says Rose Mwebaza, director of the UN CTCN.
Developing countries can come to the CTCN with requests about certain technologies and be linked up with companies in other countries that have these technologies, allowing the faster spread of clean technologies.
The CTCN also works with developing countries on laws and policies to provide security of investments, incentives, and frameworks to support the roll-out of climate technologies. “We have facilitated over 300 technologies to over 100 countries,” says Mwebaza.
Most of the requests are currently focused on the energy sector and renewables such as solar and wind, since many developing countries still have power challenges, says Mwebaza. But a wide variety of projects are covered, from technologies to reduce emissions in dairy farms in Uruguay, to developing energy-efficiency regulations in Nigeria, to the introduction of electric buses in Jakarta.
The CTCN is also working with the World Intellectual Property Organization, another UN entity, to create a framework which incentivises bigger companies with transformational technologies to release them on scale so they can be used in poorer countries, says Mwebaza.
With an operating budget of $10m (£7.2m) per year, the CTCN’s funding is a fraction of the UN disbursement bodies for climate finance such as the Green Climate Fund, and many argue it is not enough. Daño notes that the scale of technical assistance is too small and goes mostly to consultants, while the advice provided by networks mainly from the Global North is too limited.
“Overall, the Technology Mechanism has failed to scale-up production and distribution of climate technologies in developing countries that could have helped in urgently bringing down greenhouse emissions and enhancing resilience to climate impacts,” says Singh. “The finance that is being offered under the mechanism by developed countries is largely to facilitate the deals between their private corporations and developing countries to sell those technologies.”
The failure on technology transfer fits into a wider picture of discontent in the lead-up to COP26 this November. Developing countries are frustrated with the failure of developed countries to reach a $100bn (£72bn) per year climate finance goal, and there are concerns about the accessibility of the conference to those from vulnerable countries who have not been vaccinated.
The negotiations will include some discussions on technology, says Singh. But he is not too optimistic about progress. “Such processes have not proven to be more than a lip-service or a delaying tactic to avoid actual technology transfer from the Global North or providing genuine support to poor countries in developing the technologies for climate action.”
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