Technology transfer: how the UNFCCC helps put the right technologies into the right hands

woman installing a rooftop solar panel
A rural electrification project in Bhutan. Image credit: Asian Development Bank

How do you ensure that the developing world has access to the key technologies needed to limit greenhouse emissions and adapt to a changing climate? Henrik Larsen, a PhD student at the Centre for Environmental Policy, checks in on progress on facilitating technology development and transfer at the UN climate change conference in Marrakech (COP22).

Ever since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established, the effort to support technology development and transfer to developing countries has been at the heart of international discussions on how to address climate change.

Climate technologies include any piece of equipment, technique or practical knowledge used to perform activities to respond to climate change. This includes cleaner and more efficient power generation, energy storage and transmission technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and also technologies such as waste water management, early warning systems and sea walls to help countries adapt to the adverse effects of climate change.

Technology transfer involves moving these technologies – and the knowledge required to make use of them – from one country or region to another. This concept figures prominently in the historic Paris Agreement reached in December 2015, yet the matter remains controversial in international climate negotiations. Countries have different positions on how the transfer of climate technology under the UNFCCC might effectively be achieved to address not only climate change but also a broader range of sustainable development goals.

As part of the Imperial College London delegation attending COP22 in November 2016, I travelled to Marrakech to learn more about how developing countries undertake technology need assessments and capacity building to identify their climate technology priorities and to get to grips with the ins and outs of the Technology Mechanism under the UNFCCC.

Why do we need technology transfer?

Climate change threatens to cause irreversible damage to fragile ecosystems and adversely affect economic development and human livelihoods. In order to limit the most severe impacts, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions rapidly, but also equip populations to deal with the changing weather patterns, sea level rise, and other consequences of a warming world.

Whether we succeed depends heavily on our ability to develop key technologies and ensure that they reach the right communities – all within a very short timeframe. Achieving this vision will require collective action from all countries, as reaffirmed in Article 10 of the Paris Agreement: Parties share a long-term vision on the importance of fully realizing technology development and transfer in order to improve resilience to climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions [10.1].

Technology efforts under the UNFCCC

The UNFCCC Technology Mechanism (source: UNFCCC)

Over the last two decades, the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC has increasingly recognised the need to accelerate and enhance action on climate technology. The importance of technology development and transfer was emphasised in the original text of the UNFCCC in 1992 and enforced by the establishment of the Technology Transfer Framework in 2001 and the launch of a Technology Mechanism in 2010.

The Technology Mechanism consists of two complementary bodies: the Technology Executive Committee (TEC) and the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN). The TEC is the policy component of the Technology Mechanism and provides policy recommendations to the COP while the CTCN as the operational arm promotes development and transfer of climate technology at the request of developing countries. The CTCN comprises a global network of public and private organisations that are engaged in activities related to development and transfer of climate technology.

What I find interesting is whether the emergence of networks at the global level, such as the CTCN, represents a new organisational form that potentially allows for more efficient coordination and incentive structures to technology development and transfer compared to more conventional approaches undertaken in the past. Other noteworthy examples of global networks include recently launched policy initiatives such as the United Nations Technology Facilitation Mechanism and the World Bank Climate Business Innovation Network. Strongly supported by new information and communications technology and knowledge management systems, these policy initiatives work at intersection of innovation and climate action.

Linking technology transfer to innovation

It is my opinion that innovation holds great promise to address not only climate change but also a range of other sustainable development objectives such as access to clean water and energy that developing countries aspire to achieve. Understanding how global network constructs influence innovation in developing countries is at the core of my research at Imperial.

Although the transfer of climate technology is recognised as an effective response to climate change, policy tends to fall back on what might be referred to as a narrow understanding of the process and practice. This understanding associates technology transfer with the movement of goods i.e. equipment and machinery, which can be transferred between or within countries using relatively simple market mechanisms. This builds on a strong conviction in technical fixes for solving environmental crises but often ignores the fact that climate technologies almost always have to be modified and adapted to fit new social environments. For example,  wind turbine technology developed for the UK might need adaptation for use in Ghana. Aside from technical modifications to use locally available materials and make the best use of local wind patterns, there is a need to consider how the introduction of this technology will interact with other elements ranging from existing energy infrastructures to regulation as well as new market and user practices.

In contrast, a broad understanding of technology transfer emphasises the importance of innovation capability building – the techniques, processes and skills needed not only to apply (know-how) but also adapt and innovate (know-why) technology transferred to changing economic, social and cultural conditions. The implication of linking technology transfer to innovation is emphasised in Article 10 in the Paris Agreement: Accelerating, encouraging and enabling innovation is critical for an effective, long-term global response to climate change and promoting economic growth and sustainable development [10.5].

A COP22 side event on enhancing climate technology development and transfer under the UNFCCC

While attending COP22, I was able to speak to policy makers and follow various sessions and events related to technology development and transfer. There are still many unresolved issues particularly in relation to intellectual property rights and how to link technology transfer and climate finance to achieve a more ambitious mitigation targets.

But it is my general observation that the effort currently undertaken to enhance climate technology development and transfer as part of the Paris Agreement acknowledges the importance of supporting innovation capability building in developing countries. I believe this is an interesting change in international climate policy objectives, which is very promising indeed.

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