It is imperative to ease transfer of technology between nations to save the world from the looming climate crisis that knows no borders.
It's 37 years since the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 in Stockholm emphasized the importance of technology transfer in achieving environmental and developmental goals. It's 17 years since the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 adopted the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Only months are left for the meeting in Denmark since the Bali Action Plan was initiated at the 2007 UN Climate Change Conference, which set the goal for an agreement on "deep cuts in global emissions" this December in Copenhagen.
More waiting will be more costly. When EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas announced the less-than-expected 15 billion euros (US$22.1 billion) assistance for poor countries to battle climate change on Sept 11, he emphasized the sum "will only get higher if we delay".
The developing world, victimized by greenhouse gas (GHG) releases in the West, not only suffer from extreme vagaries of weather that wreak havoc but also are forced to yield ground on development. They are facing costs of around 100 billion euros a year by 2020 and crying out for technology used to treat carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other GHGs. Yet slow and slim technology transfer remains one of the biggest hurdles for their environmentally sound pathways.
A victim of ecological degradation, China has been elbowed onto a more costly but environment-friendly pathway that has to rely on new energy and ecology-savvy technology. It has been consistently promoting sustainable development despite numerous difficulties. Yet even if the Middle Kingdom manages eventually to lead a middle way with eco-friendly growth, it still needs closer cooperation with other countries for clean technology.
In addition to political framework and sincerity, what we need most are practical details of "enhanced actions" to enforce the Bali Action Plan, which addresses "technology development and transfer to support action on mitigation and adaptation" and "the provision of financial resources and investment to support action on mitigation and adaptation and technology cooperation".
Unfortunately, techno-rich industrialized nations cling to repulsive standards in technology trade and cross-border licensing. The current intellectual property right (IPR) regime is "unduly biased toward the owners rather than the users of technology", said the UN World Economic and Social Survey 2009 released recently. Combined with the market power of multinationals in the advanced economies, such a regime could thwart global efforts in environment by suppressing low-emission uses of developing nations.
Take China's recent wind energy expansion for example. This is a promising sector that promotes new energy instead of fossil fuel. But lack of core know-how has reduced many ventures into processing and operating grounds for foreign owners to pry into gold mines without transferring the most-needed wind power technology. It turned out that too many low-efficiency turbines are being installed, and the high cost for patents, blueprints and maintenance could drive a third of current investors to a dead-end in just a couple of years before any yield.
Environmental scientists from Harvard and Tsinghua universities have concluded that if China meets 30 percent of its increase in electricity demand with wind power by 2030, it will be enough to realize a low-carbon future the world wishes as the best.
It is true that China and other developing nations could use the flexibilities of the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) such as limiting patentability and compulsory licensing, as suggested by the 2009 survey authors. Certain technologies, especially those deemed necessary to tackle climate change, could be excluded from patent grants. But the fight against global warming would gain most if nations hammer out amendments to TRIPS and other IPR pacts that could waive or reduce technology transfer costs in the climate change context just as in public health sector.
Thus the political will of advanced nations in facilitating the South in technology transfer would benefit all mankind. The governments could find easy tools in subsidies for technology exporters, funds or policy loans for joint research and development, and even training of professionals apart from signing international agreements.
The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) quartet should play a bigger role within the WTO and push for revising unbiased rules beside bilateral deals with the West. The Doha Round has again raised hopes of speeding up transfer of environment-savvy technologies to poor and emerging economies.
Despite different goals among nations, trade liberalization of environmental goods and services should ensure that developing countries have easy access to adaptation technologies. The fear of growing competition among emerging economies can hardly be compared to the fear of losing to global warming. Yet on the moral ground, a climate-friendly hall of fame that will be passed from mouth to mouth and from generation to generation would be more valuable than royalties.
A regional approach is also available to exploit the rule of universal exhaustion of patents and parallel imports. China could form a climate-friendly technology group or set up mutual funds with other nations.
Nations, however, need to clean up their own houses for the wider use of existing technology in emission and pollution control, not only for the purpose of expanding market potential, but also for the efficiency of their own industries.
As Premier Wen Jiabao said at the 2009 Summer Davos in Dalian on Sept 10: "Each and every country, enterprise and individual should assume a due share of responsibility in meeting the challenge."
(China Daily September 22, 2009)