Technology Transfer Deal Likely in Cancun, but Nitty Gritty Missing

Still up in the air are critical elements: how financing will flow, who will govern the scheme and intellectual property rights

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CANCUN, MEXICO — A global agreement on technology that would pass cleantech solutions from rich nations to poor is possible in Cancun, according to officials and observers in the negotiations. But some of the most crucial and contentious details of the program are being left for another time.

Still up in the air are critical elements like how technology financing will flow, who will govern the scheme and the extent of global intellectual property rights (IPR).  

Despite the holes, “tech transfer” is seen as one of the furthest along and least controversial aspects of a potential Cancun package at the Nov. 29 to Dec. 10 talks.

With the summit less than 48 hours from its scheduled end, UN officials appear eager to wrap up a tech deal in talks that may otherwise produce little progress.

A technology pact is “ripe for adoption,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared on Tuesday evening. “We hope that this green technology could be disseminated as widely and as soon as possible.”

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was more matter of fact.

It is “well advanced”  but “not finalized,” she told reporters. “Issues related to institutional arrangements” are still unsettled.

China, India, Brazil, South Africa and India the so-called BASIC nations — made tech transfer progress one of their three Cancun “non-negotiables.” The U.S. position, however, is complicating matters, observers say. 

The delegation has said it would block tech transfer if emerging economies fail to do more to curb their emissions and verify cuts.

Negotiators Punt on IPR

A transfer scheme would require industrialized nations to hand over clean technologies, along with the know-how for how to use and manufacture them. 

The goal is to help developing states “leapfrog” over coal and into the clean energy economy. Few dispute its value.

“Technology transfer is certainly an important part of mitigation,” Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told SolveClimate News. But solutions “cannot be para-dropped,” he said. “It really has to be a collaborative effort … with local institutions and local communities.”

One seemingly intractable barrier is IPR, with discussions marred by the same rich-poor rift that has dominated the broader negotiations.

The G77 group of 130 developing countries wants rich states to share their green technologies openly. Rich nations led by the U.S. and Japan, whose companies own most of the world’s low-carbon energy patents, are opposed.

To no one’s surprise, negotiators from the 194 parties that make up the UNFCCC punted on the issue in Cancun. 

The latest bracket-filled negotiating text, released on Wednesday and expected to go to high-level ministers and heads of state, deferred discussions until 2011.

“We have seen very strong resistance from developed countries to even talk about intellectual property,” Chee Yoke Ling of the Malaysia-based non-profit Third World Network told reporters on Wednesday.

The delay is a “denial” of the enormous importance of IPR, she said.

“It’s been a very ideological fight,” Lutz Weischer, a climate research analyst with the World Resources Institute, told SolveClimate News.

Bolivia and Venezuela continue to press for stronger measures.

“It’s a trust issue for developing countries,” Victor Menotti, executive director of the non-profit International Forum on Globalization, told SolveClimate News. “They’re told they can’t use fossil fuels anymore … They’ve been asking for help with these technologies and flexibility in the patents.”

Rich countries have their own concerns.

Companies are not willing to give up technology to countries with weak IPR enforcement, Weischer said. 

The “disagreement should not hold up the important decision of creating the technology mechanism,” he added.

Key Mechanisms Missing

More pressing this week than IPR is how the program would work.

High-level ministers now have two days to decide on the structure and composition of  the two core institutions — the Technology Executive Committee and the Climate Technology Center. These bodies would determine which technologies to deploy and how they will be shared or accessed, among other fundamental issues.

Delegates are also stuck on how tech transfer would link into the future climate fund that will deliver money to poor countries, and who would be in charge.

Rich nations prefer existing multilateral groups like the World Bank. Developing nations want finance and tech transfer handled by the UN climate convention, where they claim to have more of a say.

Absent UN control, cutting-edge clean energy technologies may lose out, warned Tirthankar Mandal, a program coordinator for WWF-India.

“Countries could actually divert all of the money to nuclear program research, and then claim that it is green because it doesn’t release carbon dioxide, instead of focusing more on the renewable sources,” Mandal told SolveClimate News. “Anything would be possible.”

As the UNFCCC stalls, some of these issues are already being hammered out between countries and firms, experts say.

According to Weischer, the “real issues” are “much more in the nitty gritty.”

These include “capacity building” in poor countries to make protected technology more accessible by helping them them negotiate deals with companies in rich states in ways that “wouldn’t undermine the IPR regime,” he said.

Whether businesses are willing to license their technologies, and if they’re willing to do so at reasonable conditions and prices, is at the heart of the battle.

It’s a trillion-dollar market, said Mandal. “It’s big enough and deep enough that everybody can get a piece of the pie.”

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