Clean technology as a public good
Clean technology to meet poor communities' needs must lie at the heart of any sustainable strategy to combat climate change.
A widely-held myth among climate change activists is that discussing the need for improved technology to mitigate or adapt to climate change detracts from political debates on who is to blame for unsustainable lifestyles — and who should pay for their consequences.
Like many myths, this one contains an element of truth. Purely technological responses to climate change have, on occasion, been proposed to avoid difficult political choices.
The United States' approach to the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate four years ago (see Asia-Pacific climate pact launched) is a notable example.
But the myth is also a dangerous one. It ignores the fact that any effort to combat climate change will only succeed if it can draw on technologies that do not, in the long run, add to the global burden of carbon emissions (see Climate change's technology transfer challenge).
The first political challenge — due to emerge at next month's UN Climate Change Convention (COP-15) in Copenhagen — is to ensure sufficient funding to urgently develop clean technologies.
The second is to guarantee that equal effort is devoted to ensuring that such technologies do not hinder the world's poorest communities from improving their standards of living through economic development.
The good news is that the first of these challenges seems to have been taken seriously. Climate negotiators have long realised that developing clean technology and transferring it to developing nations are fundamentals of any global strategy to combat climate change.
But some assessments of the technological challenge ahead are sobering. A European Commission report emerging from pre-Copenhagen discussions, for example, estimates that the developing world will need up to US$150 billion over the next decade to cope with climate change.
One of the more ambitious, yet convincing solutions on the table next month is the G-77 plus China's idea of a UN-operated multilateral climate technology fund (MCTF).
Using a multilateral system to identify technological needs and priorities avoids the type of political trading that too frequently accompanies bilateral funding programmes, where donor's interests can be as influential as those of the recipient.
A free resource
But neither more money alone, nor an international mechanism to collect and distribute such funding, will be sufficient.
It is equally important to guarantee that a large part of the funded projects are directed at meeting the needs of the poor who are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
This will require political concessions from the developed world that are unlikely to be easily conceded at Copenhagen. In particular, the idea that clean technology should be a 'public good' — a resource free for everyone.
Such a commitment would significantly improve access to clean technology by those who need it most but are least able to pay. Similar to the thinking behind 'open access' to scientific research, the idea is that the easier it is to access clean technologies, the more widely the benefits will be felt.
But patents increasingly cover clean technologies — whether developed in the public or the private sector. And, despite calls for loosening patent protection, in practice the reverse is likely to happen as corporations and countries view the sale and export of green technology as a path to economic growth.
Markets not the answer
This is true for the developed and developing world alike. Countries such as China and India are already producing new technologies within a market perspective, developing them as a major future source of revenue rather than a free gift.
But, as long-argued by economists such as Nicholas Stern and increasingly accepted by governments around the world, climate change represents one of the biggest market failures of all time.
If, as with the financial crisis, it was the failure of global markets to stem excessive greed (in this case for energy) that triggered the current climate crisis, markets are unlikely to get us out of it. We need a massive public bail-out of precisely the type that the proposed MCTF represents and that governments have already provided for their financial institutions.
But those excluded from markets in the first place, including most of the world's poorest communities, need a different approach. It is here that the 'public good' approach to clean technology is most urgent.
If next month's climate talks in Copenhagen can enshrine such a commitment, it would be one of its most significant and long-lasting achievements.
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