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International Climate Technology Transfer : an issue of human rights

By Nicola Sharman, Early Stage Researcher

In recent years, the link between climate change and human rights has been increasingly recognised and used as a legal tool to demand stronger action by governments to address the global crisis. However, one element of the international regime in which rights-based arguments remain underutilised is in respect of technology transfer obligations. In this blog, Nicola Sharman considers why and how climate technology transfer should be framed as human rights issue.

This blog is based on Nicola Sharman, ‘Inter-state climate technology transfer under the UNFCCC: A benefit-sharing approach’ (2022) Review of International, Environmental and Comparative Law.

The role of technology transfer in the global response to climate change

Technology supports many elements of climate mitigation and adaptation action. It includes, for example, technologies supporting renewable power generation and distribution, sustainable transport and agriculture methods, resilient infrastructure, and weather warning systems. Accelerating the development and deployment of these technologies, and ensuring they are widely accessible, is a crucial component of an integrated global response to the climate crisis. According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, state governments are obliged to promote, facilitate and finance technology development and transfer, with developed countries being expected to provide particular support to developing countries.

What progress has been made so far?

Technology transfer is not a straightforward exercise of simply making equipment available to the recipient. Innovation and diffusion of technology involves complex processes that are multidimensional, incremental, and involve multiple networked actors. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that technology transfer involves ‘the process of learning to understand, utilize and replicate the technology, including the capacity to choose it and adapt it to local conditions and integrate it with indigenous technologies.’

The UN has recently released its first Climate Technology Progress Report. So far, studies suggest that the success of many projects implemented to date has been mixed, based on the ability of the recipient to operate, maintain, replicate and scale up the technology. The distribution of funding and projects has also been heavily skewed towards nations in higher stages of development, while projects in low-income developing countries remains comparatively low. There is clearly still a lot more than needs to be done.

The reason for this patchy implementation can be attributed to a number of factors such as knowledge gaps, scarcity of resources, polarised political interests and complex geoeconomics . Overreliance on market-based mechanisms has been criticised for neglecting to invest in longer-term goals, and favouring countries that already have exploitable markets. The role of intellectual property rights remains fiercely defended by many developed countries, who argue that strong financial incentives are necessary to encourage innovation. Lack of capacity of the least developed countries is a significant barrier to their ability to participate in research and development of technologies suitable to their own contexts, to self-innovate, and to take long-term ownership of projects.

Framing climate technology transfer a human rights issue

Like any element of the response to climate change, insufficient technology transfer contributes to the overall risk of climate change impacts threatening basic human rights, such as the right to life, food, water, health, housing, and self-determination. The connection between climate change and human rights is now widely understood, and has been recognised in the Paris Agreement, by the Human Rights Council, and by many courts around the world.

But technology transfer obligations can also be linked to the fulfilment of two more specific rights, which are concerned with global equity and justice, and confer a deeper meaning about technology transfer’s purpose.

First, climate technology transfer can be understood as part of fulfilling the right to science. This right is enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as a right ‘to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications’. On the international plane, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights translates this into a duty on developed states to promote collaboration between scientific communities of the developed and developing world, to build developing country capacity, and to contribute to endogenous development of technology. Climate change is specifically understood as a ‘risk to the world’ that requires robust international scientific cooperation.

Second, climate technology transfer can be conceptualised as part of fulfilling the right to sustainable development. This right is recognised in several international agreements and has political value. One of the components of this right is the fair distribution of benefits resulting from development (See e.g. The 2002 New Delhi Declaration of Principles of International Law Relating to Sustainable Development, Article 2). Climate change contextualises the right to sustainable development by highlighting the fact that developed countries have benefited for decades from carbon-based development models, at the expense of the climate and most vulnerable states. Developing countries therefore have a right to be supported in adopting low-emission and climate resilient development pathways, including access to suitable technology. 

What added value could this rights-based approach bring?

Reconceptualising climate technology transfer as an issue of human rights may not change the practical requirements of the obligation. However, it could have powerful normative value as a framing device to emphasise its role in addressing broader and more deeply rooted issues of global inequity and injustice, and to highlight the importance of some of its neglected elements.

Something that the right to science and the right to sustainable development have in common is the language they use, referring to the need for ‘benefit-sharing’. This mirrors the concept of fair and equitable benefit-sharing found in other legal contexts, such as biodiversity law, oceans governance and regulation of natural resource exploitation. Principles relating to benefit-sharing have been fleshed out in these other areas (See Morgera, 2018), which may help inform how they might be similarly applied in the technology transfer context.

From a substantive perspective, the concept of benefit-sharing could help to accentuate its global co-benefits, rather than burden or cost, thereby stressing the need to invest more in capacity-building to empower developing states in technology transfer processes, collaborative research initiatives, non-market approaches, and consider easing certain intellectual property barriers to climate technology transfer. From a procedural point of view, benefit-sharing stresses the importance of iterative dialogue and partnership building, and giving the recipient the power to determine what is of value to them, rather than unidirectional provision of goods.

The spotlight on what developed countries are doing for developing and vulnerable states is becoming brighter, as the climate crisis becomes more urgent, and its effects are increasingly felt. As other dimensions of the climate regime are increasingly framed as a human rights issue, perhaps it is the time to extend this approach to technology transfer obligations.

Photo by Anna Jiménez Calaf on Unsplash