Our Man in Warsaw: Day 3 - Technology can be funny, just ask Switzerland


Technology is always a big theme at the UN Climate Change Conference. Newer, cleaner technologies are key to reducing emissions, and figuring out how to deploy them at scale, at low cost and in a locally appropriate way is important.

Technology is also one of the best ways to get the private sector involved in reducing emissions. Businesses are innovative and action-oriented and see the opportunities that climate change creates rather than the obstacles that seem to plague negotiators.

Siemens has hitched its wagon to the climate agenda and is eager to show negotiators how their technologies can reduce emissions, save energy and improve competitiveness.

Kersten-Karl Barth, Director of Corporate Sustainability at Siemens, couldn’t have been more forthright and confident, telling the crowd “business is not only part of the solution, it is the solution.”

He has a point. This is the 19th UN climate summit, and the most optimistic scenario is that we reach an agreement in 2015 that becomes binding in 2020. A lot of change has to happen in the intervening years, and people are relying more and more heavily on business to deliver that change.

The benefits of emission reductions are clear. Lou Leonard, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s climate change programme, discussed his organisation’s recent report called The 3% Solution. It shows that the US corporate sector is sitting on $780 billion worth of energy savings that could be captured between 2010 and 2020, which would reduce emissions by more than 3% per year.

These opportunities are real and significant, but in the context of the UN process, many countries struggle to implement technology solutions. They either can’t afford them, don’t have access to the right technology, or don’t have the capacity to identify the opportunities.

That’s where UN mechanisms come in. I sat in on the negotiators’ Technology Plenary to find out what countries were saying about the UN’s technology mechanisms.

To set the scene, these plenary sessions are held in giant temporary auditoriums set up on the field of Warsaw’s National Stadium. Hundreds of glossy-eyed country representatives wait patiently to be acknowledged by the session’s chair, then present their country’s position on the issue. Their input is translated into the UN’s six official languages, and the assembled listen on headsets to what’s being said.

In this plenary, delegates had two guiding questions:

  1. How could technology development and transfer be reflected in the 2015 agreement?
  2. What institutional arrangements would be required in the post 2020 period for technology development and transfer?

So you can tell why people are a bit glossy-eyed.

But their positions were actually rather interesting. They spoke about the need to improve Technology Needs Assessments (TNAs), which are meant to help countries identify and prioritise their technology needs. TNAs help overcome that capacity barrier I mentioned earlier.

Delegates touched on the need to link TNAs with UN financial mechanisms, like the Global Environment Facility, which provides grants and co-financing for clean technology projects. That $100 billion/year Green Climate Fund would be another potential source of cash. These are meant to overcome the financial barriers developing countries face.

There was also concern about patents and upholding Intellectual Property Rights, which are needed to encourage innovation. You can’t just “transfer” technology without compensating innovators. The World Intellectual Property Organisation was thought to be a more appropriate forum for that particular discussion.

While these talks are very high-level, they’re also really important. Siemen’s might argue that business is the solution, but business needs this kind of enabling infrastructure to thrive in places that are underfinanced, outcompeted, and lacking information. 

It’s the pace of the process that frustrates some delegates and onlookers. One delegate acknowledged the proliferation of committees and enabling vehicles but lamented the slowness of action, saying “we have the car, now let’s fill the tank!” To which the representative from Switzerland replied, “we have the car, now let’s charge it!” As far as UN technology jokes go, that one wasn’t bad. 

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