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A new UN body to advise nations on climate tech may break the deadlock in the long-running debate on transferring technology finds Joanna Carpenter.
Rich nations have the technological know-how needed for poor nations to develop — but how do you deliver it without compromising the intellectual property and the business edge that such technologies gives economies that have it?
This is one of the big development questions that has been debated in the UN arena for decades, with little real progress made in finding a sustainable way of transferring technology and finding a way to pay for such transfer.
Now, some see the Climate Technology Center and Network, one of the pillars of the UN’s new Technology Mechanism, beginning its work to help developing countries access technologies related to climate change, as an example of a way forward.
- The UN’s Technology Mechanism aims to boost partnerships, investment and enterprise
- The process will transfer expertise as well as technology
- Intellectual property rights could prove problematic, warn experts
"You’d like to buy a new camera and you can find lots of information online but sometimes the best thing is to talk to a ‘friend’ that you trust. So you go to third parties, to independent testers or consumer advice magazines," says Mark Radka, the chief of the energy branch of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). "We want to fulfil that sort of role."
The CTCN was established by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and is designed to transfer technology from developed to developing countries.  It was officially launched in Nairobi, Kenya, in February.
As well to provide a platform for sharing knowledge, the CTCN’s aim will be to build capacity in entrepreneurship and in developing policies and programmes to attract foreign investment in climate technologies.
It will also work to expand international partnerships — both North-South and South-South — to accelerate the diffusion of environmentally sound technologies, particularly among communities in developing countries.
The Technology Mechanism’s second pillar is the Technology Executive Committee (TEC), which will examine broader policy questions, such as barriers to and mechanisms for technology transfer.
It will also consider countries’ technological needs, promote collaboration and catalyse the development and use of technology action plans by countries.
Plugging the advice gap
"When we decided to put in a proposal to run the CTCN, we sat down and gave some thought as to what was currently not working, not delivering, or missing," Radka says.
"Governments and people in the private sector who make decisions about climate technology often have a lot of information but not much confidence in making decisions based on that information," he says.
There was a conundrum, he adds: "if you had a well-articulated idea, funding was not such a problem, but you couldn’t get funding to develop an idea, at least not easily."
The CTCN is a UN Environment Programme-led consortium of organisations from around the world, each with more than 20 years’ experience, that can provide detailed advice on a range of technology issues to a country on request.
It includes the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand; the Bariloche Foundation in Argentina; South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research; India’s The Energy and Resources Institute; Environment and Development Action in the Third World in Senegal; The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center in Costa Rica; and the Kenya-based World Agroforestry Centre as well as organisations in Denmark, Germany and the United States.
Energy and food
In its proposal, the consortium gave two examples of how it might help transfer climate technology in practice. 
One was to help a country that needed further investment in its energy supply and currently relied on fossil fuels to prepare and implement a national energy programme to increase supply with at least half coming from renewable sources.
The CTCN would aim "to build long-term capacity of institutions, to strengthen enabling policies, and to assist in mobilizing increased investment in renewable energy development".
The second example was helping a country with variable rainfall and an under-resourced agricultural research institute to formulate a strategy for developing drought-resistant crops, including ideas for involving regional, national and international institutions and carrying out joint research with another country.
CA field team installs tensiometers in rice fields in India
The CTCN said it would "work together with local producers and communities, and also integrate aspects of environmental management … to ensure the resilience of the ecosystem that forms the basis of agricultural productivity" as well as "engage regional partners and national policymakers in a dialogue and reflection on potential maladaptations and policy gaps in crop research".
In both cases, a technical team would "provide training, technical assistance, data, analysis tools, and other technical resources along with support for peer exchanges with other countries".
The Technology Mechanism has been welcomed as "an important milestone towards operationalising the technology transfer provisions in the UNFCCC" by Ahmed Abdel Latif, senior programme manager for innovation, technology and intellectual property at the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, Switzerland.
Padmashree Gehl Sampath, an expert on innovation, technology and development, agrees. "We have moved from simply dealing with it in a rhetorical sense, to identifying the key issues, to fostering mutually acceptable solutions for all countries," she tells SciDev.Net.
"I think the Technology Mechanism’s main strength is that it is somehow trying to move away from dealing with technology transfer as an individual issue to looking at it in a systemic perspective. I think this is a very important and a very fresh change, and it’s needed," she says.
However, it is still early days and, despite the optimism, doubts remain.
"The institutional set-up at least is progressing, but whether in fact effective technology transfer will happen or not is yet to be seen," Meena Raman, coordinator of the Climate Programme of the Malaysian-based Third World Network tells SciDev.Net.
"Technology transfer actually means real transfer of the know-how and the technology, so that the developing country is able to manufacture, produce and adapt the technology for its purposes," she says.
Nevertheless, Gehl Sampath thinks the Technology Mechanism’s proposed approach — geared towards fostering innovation and technology development as opposed to a limited focus on technology transfer from developed to developing countries — is very promising.
"Other approaches to technology transfer have looked at it in terms of granting access to certain existing technologies, but not interfacing it with aspects that really lead to learning from them," she says.
"Innovation constraints in developing countries stem from the inability to build local indigenous technological capabilities," she adds. These capabilities "are not only essential for innovation of completely new products and processes, but also for greater adaptation, deployment and use of existing environmentally friendly technologies within local contexts".
This does not mean the financing of entire new production activities, she points out, but may involve simpler support such as seed money or demonstration and deployment facilities, where you can show how the technology can be developed into a product.
"Whether or not, and to what extent, this will really find a place in the implementation of the mechanism will be decisive, of course. But at this nascent stage, it is important that the emphasis [on fostering innovation] is there.
"I think that is the change in the Technology Mechanism, and that is a very important thing," she says.
Not a funding body
The CTCN will not charge for its assistance, but it does not include funding.
"We might provide initial technical assistance to help the client really dig into the heart of the matter and formulate an approach or take a decision," says Radka, "but the money to actually put it in place will come from somewhere else. The CTCN is not a funding mechanism."
However, the CTCN does intend to assist countries "in pursuing opportunities for additional donor support". These might include the Global Environment Facility, the Green Climate Fund and the World Bank.
Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany
Initially, the CTCN and its activities will be funded by contributions from developed countries. So far, Canada, Denmark, the European Commission, Japan, Norway and the United States have expressed an interest. In the longer term, a more sustainable source of funding is needed, says Radka.
Gehl Sampath agrees this is necessary if the CTCN is to be able to provide services to all developing countries. "Its performance will hinge upon it," she says.
Impact of intellectual property rights
She points out that one issue that has haunted technology transfer negotiations as part of an internationally agreed climate change agreement is intellectual property rights. Traditionally, developing countries have seen IP rights as a potential barrier to technology transfer, while developed ones have seen it as an incentive to innovation.
The TEC is looking at this issue. According to Abdel Latif, the wide diversity of climate technologies makes it difficult to precisely define the impact of intellectual property rights on the transfer of these technologies.
"It’s important to look at individual countries’ and sector situations on a case-by-case basis and in light of concrete evidence," he argues.
Abdel Latif says that while intellectual property rights should not be a stumbling block in the TEC’s work at this early stage, ultimately they must be considered as it is hard to envisage a credible approach to technology transfer without pondering their role.
If the Technology Mechanism is successful, it may point the way to successful technology transfer in fields other than technology to fight climate change.
"If we are able to make it work in the field of climate change, there will be lessons that we can derive from that for sectors beyond," says Gehl Sampath.