Q&A: Clean technologies with Yvo de Boer

Yvo de Boer Copyright: Flickr/oxfam international

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Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been involved in climate change policies since 1994, for the Dutch government, the European Union and the UN. At the last climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007, he warned delegates that failure to reach an agreement on tackling global warming could "plunge the world into conflict".

Now de Boer says that getting technology transfer policies right must be one of four central planks of climate policy (See ‘UN climate chief calls for green technology revolution’). He tells SciDev.Net what he hopes to achieve over the next 12 days at the UN Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland.

You have called for a ‘revolutionary push’ for environmentally sound technologies. What do you mean by this?

Incrementalism is the enemy of fundamental change. We really need a major and fundamental shift, and technology has to be at the heart of that shift.

The economic reality is that the shift is not going to happen unless we succeed in incorporating the cost of pollution into prices — otherwise many of these technologies will simply not be affordable.

You have suggested a ‘technology leveraging facility’. What is this?

Before the financial crisis, the Economic Energy Agency calculated that over the next 25 years we will be investing US$20 trillion in order to provide the energy that the world needs to grow its economy — about half in industrialised countries and half in developing countries.

Our estimates are that 85 per cent of that investment capital will come from the private sector, so the challenge is to use limited public sector resources to ensure that private sector investments go in the right direction.

For example we have some experience of the Clean Development Mechanism, which allows rich countries to undertake emission reduction projects in developing countries, and we see a very large percentage of the investment — 90–95 per cent — is commercially sound private sector investment. But a small public sector component pays for the technology that can’t make it into the market on its own. So there, you are in a way using public money to catalyse private money in the right direction.

On top of that, we are not going to solve everything through markets. We will need intelligent tax policies and standards in a number of countries as well.

What do you mean by ‘green technology’? Does it include nuclear?

I have never seen a credible scenario that gets us to the types of emission reductions that the scientific community is calling for without nuclear energy being a significant part of the energy mix. Having said that, nuclear energy is a clean technology in the eyes of some and very dangerous in the eyes of others.

Another key aspect is carbon capture and storage. I don’t see how countries like China and India, with an abundance of coal, are going to power their economies without using that coal. The question is, how can you capture the CO2 that results and store it either in aquifers or empty gas fields? Many people feel that it is a highly controversial technology, but I don’t see how we are going to get to the desired results without using that as well.

We will need a full mix of investments in different technologies. I don’t think we have the luxury to pick and choose.

What is the most we can hope for in terms of negotiations on technology transfer in Poznan?

Poznan is not going to be spectacular. It is a halfway point between Bali and Copenhagen (the December 2009 UNFCC conference, which is supposed to conclude negotiations). But it is important in at least three ways.

The first is that, during 2008, countries have been coming with ideas of what should be part of a Copenhagen agreement and all those ideas are being pulled together for the first time in a single document for Poznan. So I expect a significant step change in the process, with governments much more focused on identifying the options that need to go into an ultimate agreement.

Secondly, Poznan is the first time that ministers are meeting since they launched negotiations in Bali. So it is an important moment for them to take stock of where things stand and provide guidance for the future. My hope is that they will focus that guidance on how to design mechanisms and the institutions that will make it possible for developing countries to engage further on this issue.

Thirdly, I hope Poznan will mark the launch of the Adaptation Fund, which is important to developing countries and will provide real money for them to adapt to the inevitable impact of climate change.

Are you worried by the economic climate? U.S. Senator John Kerry recently said, "We are not going to be in the position we were two years ago", in terms of undertaking technology transfer or economic assistance.

I think that’s correct. The financial crisis will have an impact in the area of climate change, as in every other area. The challenge we face is to design a climate regime that over time becomes self-financing.

If you begin to auction emission rights in industrialised countries — and that’s the intention both in Europe and the United States — and if you introduce a ‘polluter pays’ approach, and if you then use some of that revenue for cooperation with developing countries, the money for international cooperation on climate change will be generated from within the regime itself, rather than having to go to finance ministers in these difficult times.

How big a barrier to technology transfer are intellectual property rights?

Many developing countries mention it as a major barrier. If we can think about creating mechanisms in Copenhagen that make it possible to buy down the intellectual property rights of some new technologies — for example, wind and solar technology — it would be an important step forward.

Perhaps even more critically, we need to design mechanisms that make joint research and development between rich and poor countries possible. Both China and India have become major producers of renewable sources of energy, so it’s not a matter of all the technology being in the North and none of it being in the South: it’s more a matter of finding affordable ways for developing countries to get access to that technology.

The Clean Development Mechanism has already demonstrated that it can be effective.

Are you disappointed with the rate of progress of the technology transfer negotiations?

The mood has certainly changed. For many years, developing countries have been saying the North needs to transfer technology and the developed countries have been saying, "We don’t own the technology, it’s owned by the private sector". Now there’s a broad realisation that without an advance on technology cooperation, we are just not going to get a result and that is making everybody take this issue much more seriously and look for real ways of advancing it.