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Op-Ed

The Durban Climate Talks: Making the Technology Mechanism Useful

Nathan Hultman

There is little controversy that developing and implementing better technologies must form the core of any successful global strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, there is a renewed focus in international discussions on embedding and encouraging the innovation process in all parts of the world, not just in advanced economies. Such a process would help facilitate the broad implementation of better technologies in places making major and sustained capital investments in energy, housing, and transportation infrastructure over the coming decades.

What is less clear, however, is how best to encourage this process, and in particular what the international community can do to meaningfully contribute to these widely held priorities. There is no shortage of proposals: multilateral financial institutions or funding mechanisms; revisions to the international intellectual property regime; expanding the use of market mechanisms; or bilateral cooperation on energy standards, are just a few of the possibilities. All of these have, in some form, been discussed at the climate negotiations in recent years, and last year yet another possibility was added: the Cancun meeting in 2010 established a new international institution charged with facilitating knowledge sharing and technology transfer for mitigation and adaptation technologies. The motivation behind the establishment of this Technology Mechanism (TM) is that technological development in many countries, particularly the least developed countries (LDCs), can be constrained by lack of information, training, and the expert networks that characterize successful innovation and knowledge clusters. The new TM was intended to address this gap by establishing a Climate Technology Centre (CTC) and facilitating a network of experts.

Although the Technology Mechanism was established in the Cancun Agreements, many of the details about how it would affect these changes were left unresolved. Such details ranged from basic administrative questions—How large should it be? Should there be one or more technology centers? Should any centers be completely new or embedded within existing institutions?—to more philosophical ones—What should be the remit of the center? Should it do more than encourage networks and run capacity building workshops?

As a new international institutional arrangement that seeks to provide a new and different approach to technology development, the TM presents at once a promising idea, but also one whose proposition will be difficult to achieve. Based on previous experience with international institutions, there are four dimensions on which the Technology Mechanism can focus to achieve its difficult but important mission:

  • First, create a nimble institution that will stay nimble. This involves keeping in-house overhead low, by regular and mandatory geographical rotation (discussed below), retaining a small staff, and maximizing institutional leverage through convening power and not in-house capacity.
  • Second, stay focused on the technology mission. This involves setting a very clear set of mission principles—which may be difficult given the variety of tasks likely to be included by the Conference of Parties (COP), but should still be possible. It also involves developing a set of metrics and funding quality data collection on those metrics.
  • Third, identify the strategic advantage for the CTC. It will not be helpful to replicate the functions currently served by existing knowledge centers and innovation clusters in the regions of interest, or those served by the private sector. The advantage for the CTC is its status as a prestigious international body and the ability to establish peer-to-peer learning.
  • Finally, build the CTC around the private sector. To ensure that technology ideas are tested and deployed in the field, heavy involvement of individual companies is essential to the mission of the CTC. This includes firms of all sizes, but particularly multinationals and medium sized firms; and efforts should be made to focus on sectoral dialogues since information from direct peers is often far more useful to internal decisionmakers in the companies. The first CTC should draw on its network to investigate successful institutional models of involving research for the private sector.

Delegates in Durban have had no shortage of ideas about how to implement the center. One question that seems technical, but may now be quite important to address, is the choice about the Center’s location. Delegates have been spending large amounts of time specifying the criteria on where the Technology Centre will be based. These discussions are understandable, as many countries are vying for the honor of hosting the CTC, and useful for transparency. Nevertheless, there is a risk in many institutions that if they become embedded in a specific country, they can grow less useful over time, perhaps becoming ossified and more associated with a regional, and not a global agenda.

The draft texts discussed in Durban so far indicate that these same risks may arise with the CTC. To their credit, negotiators have included the need for renewable terms in the draft language, with an initial period of three to six years and with renewal for up to six years, and possible extensions. Yet even this sets up the possibility that the CTC will be situated in one location for at least 12 years with the possibility of extension. And, given the dynamics of negotiations, it would be difficult for one country or bloc to demand the removal of the CTC from a specific country. Thus, awarding the COP the option, but not the requirement, to rotate the CTC is tantamount to setting up a permanent location.

A better, though imperfect, solution is to limit the terms of the CTC to a set time, perhaps five years, in any particular country. After the completion of the term, the CTC should be required to move. Not giving the option to extend is vitally important—without it, the center may never move. On the other hand, a rotating center has incentives to set a new agenda as the needs evolve over time; bring a fresh perspective on priorities, which will encourage experimentation; and draw from a different regional mix of participants. Of course, rotating the center would have downsides as well. It could be more inefficient to start up and wind down operations every five years, for example, and there might be some loss of expertise with each shift. Some of these problems can be minimized with good planning and transition strategies. Overall, the benefits should far outweigh the costs.

The Climate Technology Centre is itself a potential institutional innovation. As with any new approach to a thorny problem, there are risks of failure. Nevertheless, if the institution is structured well, it might have a better chance of success by remaining focused on its core mission and not becoming stale over time. Rotating the center’s location could be a key element of that process.

The above piece is one of several that Nathan Hultman, an attendee at the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, has written about topics discussed at the conference. Topics include low-emissions development, the Kyoto Protocal and the Clean Development Mechanism.

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