Sunday, November 9, 2008

Beijing High-Level Conference on Climate Change, Technology Development, and Technology Transfer

Sponsored by both the Chinese Government and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the High-Level Conference was held this past week in Beijing to "promote international technology development and transfer, as well as the international negotiation process on climate change." Underscoring the importance Beijing attached to the event, the conference opened with remarks from senior Chinese officials, including Premier Wen Jiabao and Zhang Ping, Director of the National Development and Reform Commission. According to Zhang, some 600 delegates (including China Greenspace, which weaseled itself in) from 70 countries attended the conference.

Despite all the hoopla, the conference appeared mostly to buttress Beijing's determination to place technology transfer at the heart of its climate negotiating stance (see previous post). The conference comes at a crucial time, following hard on the heels of China's recent white paper on climate change, and little more than a month before the annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change- Conference of the Parties. With this timing in mind, the conference positioned Beijing as a leading voice calling for developed nations to take greater responsibility for reducing global emissions, and for accelerating green technology transfer and development in the developing world.

Premier Wen's opening statement set just such a tone: "Climate change is a global issue, and concerns the prosperity and development of all countries. China's government takes climate change seriously, and always asks responsibly. It has made serious efforts to combat climate change, assigned tasks to all levels of government, and changed patterns of production and consumption towards a more sustainable level." Wen cited a number of statistics regarding China's efforts to green its infrastructure, before emphasizing China's status as a developing country. Noting that China's per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are about 1/3 that of developed nations, Wen then alleged that a large proportion of its emissions come from "subsistence" activities necessary to eliminate poverty, as well as from industrial enterprises transplanted from the West. In a further knock at developed nations, the Premier noted that developed nations established environmental regulations in fits and starts over time, while China faces a "compressed timeline" to do so. Wen did, however, pledge that China would strive to create a "low input, high output" economy.

From the outset, then, the conference made clear that it is up to the West to pay for its past climatological sins by financing technology transfer. NDRC Director Zhang proposed a new framework to do so, based on four parameters:

1) A new, specialized agency, set up under the UN Framework Convention, to speed technology transfer. The agency would work with designated technology development agencies in each country to coordinate technology transfer.

2) A new, specialized financing mechanism through which developed nations would provide "stable and predictable" funding for technology transfer and development.

3) A provision in a new climate agreement to review the implementation of parties on technology transfer and development [CGS: essentially an enforcement/compliance provision]

4) Use of private sector to mobilize and leverage resources for technology transfer.

Belief in the need for such a framework is not limited only to Chinese government officials. Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UN's Climate Change Secretariat, stated that a "global green economic transformation is inconceivable without green technology at its heart"; Ricardo Lagos, the UN's current Special Envoy on Climate Change, similarly cited the need to ensure that clean energy technology should be available to all countries.

In the conference itself, a number of crucial issues for clean technology transfer and development emerged. Many developing nations stressed the need for greater government involvement, even as developed nations stressed that private-sector capital has to be used to leverage technology gains. There was consensus that while the diffusion of advanced, clean technologies is an urgent priority for the international community, the ultimate objective must be to strengthen green technology development capacity around the world. Some experts, including Cath Bremner of the UK's Carbon Trust, emphasized that this capacity includes strengthening regulations, business environments, academic research bases, and "cultures" that encourage innovation.

Perhaps the most important technical issue with respect to clean technology transfer and development concerns intellectual property rights (IPR). Strict IPR regulations and concerns in the West present a significant barrier to the diffusion of clean technology One German government official involved in technology transfer noted that German wind power companies do not seven want to sell their latest turbine models in China, for fear that they will be reverse-engineered and copied by Chinese producers. A number of experts proposed that IPR regulations, such as compulsory licensing, be loosened with respect to clean energy technology. A South Korean official, for example, noted that the United States provides IPR exemptions for technologies that contribute substantially to public welfare or national security, and proposed that clean energy be added as a third such category. In the humble opinion of CGS, unresolved IPR considerations will nonetheless continue to discourage companies from innovation and diffusion in the green tech arena.

Technical issues aside, the crucial implications of the conference were with respect to developing country commitments to reduce emissions. The conference's closing statement, which affirmed commitment to the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility," appeared to place the onus on the West to both develop and finance the technology to reduce emissions throughout the world. As CGS has argued previously, this stance imperils a global deal on climate change. A promising, if incomplete, way forward was offered by Harvard's Kelly Gallagher, who proposed a global bargain on technology transfer. Developed nations, Gallagher proposed, would created a Carbon Mitigation Fund to pay for all incremental (marginal) costs of implementing low-carbon technology. In exchange, developing countries who wish to access the fund would adopt "concrete, enforceable" emissions reductions plans.

This is just the kind of bargain that might underpin a global climate deal. It addresses developed countries' responsibility to finance adoption of the newest, greenest technology, while also acknowledging that developing countries will soon account for the majority of the world's emissions. Yet this kind of deal also involves much harsher terms than China, on the basis of this conference, appears prepared to accept. We can only hope that the passage of the next few months, and the appearance of new leaders like Barack Obama, will help to change minds.

In the meantime, the conference suggested some new ways that technology transfer can be enhanced without addressing the big, thorny questions. The final conference report claimed that a 70% reduction in global emissions can be accomplished without IPR issues, primarily by financing adoption of energy efficiency technology in developing nations. Richard Bradley of the International Energy Agency had particularly innovative ideas, for example, for improving the performance of consumer electronics. Additionally, many experts highlighted the importance of human capital in transferring technology. New academic and fellowship exchange programs between developed and developing nations could prove a profitable investment in enhancing this kind of social capital.

As the High-Level Conference concluded, CGS was left with the impression that the upcoming UNFCCC negotiations might be rocky indeed. Here's to hoping that China, and the world, looks beyond technology to the great and overarching challenge we all face to live sustainably and responsibly.

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