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Innovation and Technology in the Climate Negotiations

Expectations for a major breakthrough at the Cancun climate negotiations are low. However, some negotiators and observers remain optimistic that progress can be made on several small, narrowly construed issues. One such issue is technology cooperation: over the past year, proposals on a possible new international institution to encourage technology development, access, and transfer have been solidified and now constitute one of the major negotiating points at this meeting. Some people have even argued that an agreement on this so-called “Technology Mechanism” may be within reach.

Technology has a long history in international discussions. In the past, when technologies were developed primarily in the OECD, the locus of these discussions was “technology transfer”—the treaty-driven sharing of technology from those who had it to those who hadn’t. While this traditional approach to technology transfer carried with it a large amount of overall support from both the developed and developing worlds, challenges arose in the details of execution. Payment, ownership, and intellectual property rights were just a few of the obstacles to developing a robust technology transfer regime.

In the current world, with innovative capacity and technological expertise spread more broadly across the developed world, emerging economies, and even some developing countries, the more pressing question with technology has shifted from this unidirectional flow of knowledge and devices. Instead, the major obstacles to technological development are now institutional—access to capital and financing, access to markets, and the integration of entrepreneurial risk takers with technical experts. Any new technological initiative within the climate negotiations should address these new areas.

Negotiators at COP-15 in Copenhagen were fairly close to an agreement on technology, and the main outlines of this agreement have been refined for consideration at Cancun. The Technology Mechanism is now conceived as having two elements. The first dimension is a Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN) which would likely involve a physically based centre for climate technology research. The CTC Network would be another dimension of the Centre which would allow for dissemination of knowledge to an international group of experts. The second dimension is a Technology Executive Committee (TEC) that would serve as the governing board for the CTCN and would perhaps have other political functions in convening participants and setting technology strategy.

While some consensus appears to exist over this two-part Technology Mechanism, important obstacles remain before agreement might be reached. The exact remit of the CTCN is not settled—for example, should it be a single location, or virtual, or spread across several countries? What is the niche of the CTCN with respect to existing research infrastructure in universities, national laboratories, and the private sector? Who will provide funding for the CTCN and for what purposes?

Similarly, questions remain about the mandate for the TEC. In imagining a new international institution, the challenge is to establish something that adds value to what is already happening in the many other institutions and in the private sector, and experience tells us that once such institutions are established, they are notoriously inert and difficult to change. Complicating the picture are the widely divergent views on how to understand technology and what how government—in this case international institutions—can most effectively encourage the development of new technologies. The negotiators are aware of these challenges, but have not yet articulated a strong case as to the specific routes by which the TM will benefit either technology or the countries that hope to tap into its resources.

Editor's note: For more on this subject, see the Brookings policy brief Taking Action on Climate Change: The Forecast for Cancún and Beyond  »