Climate change: Technology urgently needed for human rights protection

By Stephen Humphreys

Climate change impacts are felt in both the North and South – but in general, wealthier countries have better technological capacity both to mitigate greenhouse gases and to adapt to climate change’s impacts. Moreover, those impacts are likely to be much worse in the South: some 97% of deaths related to natural disasters occur in developing countries. About 17 million people in Bangladesh could be homeless by 2030, as encroaching Himalayan melt waters destroy their homes. Changing rainfall patterns are contributing to increased desertification in West Africa, causing massive losses of livestock and persistent food insecurity. Approximately 2.7 billion people worldwide still rely on wood or dung stoves for cooking, considerably compromising their health as well as damage the environment.

Technological solutions to some of these problems already exist: renewable energy sources (biofuels, biomass, wind, solar and hydro power); low carbon building materials; crop rotation; improved irrigation techniques to cope with drought, and new plant varieties that are resistant to drought or to salt water. Nevertheless, these technologies are not reaching people quickly enough. Despite decades of debate, there has been virtually no practical movement on technology transfer, due largely to profound disagreements over the appropriate reach of intellectual property rights. While governments are fiddling in Bali, Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban, the world burns (or floods, or freezes).

The ICHRP’s summary report on Climate Technology Policy and Human Rights: Protecting Rights in a Climate-Constrained World, shows that human rights concerns must be taken into account if climate change technology is to function justly and effectively. Beyond this, the urgency of the threats climate change pose to human rights can play an important role in kickstarting technology policy. They can do so in the context of both mitigation and adaption policies.

Effectively, mitigation requires a dramatic shift towards low carbon technologies in every walk of life—a shift that must ultimately take place globally through the universalisation of renewable energy technologies. Adaptation is of great urgency in the developing world, where the worst effects of climate change are already being felt. Access is critical: technologies must not only be developed but also be made available where they are needed. In this regard, threats to human rights can function as a kind of early warning system, helping locate where technologies will be most useful and are needed most urgently.

So what is technology transfer? Article 4.5 of the UNFCCC says, “The developed country Parties … shall take all practi­cable steps to promote, facilitate and finance … the transfer of, or access to, environmentally sound technologies and know-how to … developing countries, to enable them to implement the provisions of the Convention.”

This provision has an obvious ethical dimension: wealthier countries recognised both their greater contribution to climate change and their greater capacity to deal with it. However, technology transfer is also practical – it is impossible to imagine dealing effectively with climate change if advanced technologies are not made available where they are most needed. This provision also has a political dimension. Technology transfer is the quid pro quo of global solidarity: part of the deal by which poor countries too agree to pull their weight for a problem they did not cause.

However, it is probably unproductive today to approach technology transfer as a simple matter of rights and duties. It will only succeed if based on cooperation. Indeed there are a number of points upon which everyone is agreed: there is a moral need for greater responsibility of the world’s wealthiest countries; it is imperative to have a concerted effort to effect technology transfer; it cannot merely be a ‘passive’ process between North and South; and it is not a coercive process, rather it involves channelling the power of private initiative into a shared and urgent public interest.

Thanks in particular to considerable efforts by the Maldives, at Cancun, for the first time, the working climate change text recognised the importance of ‘fully respect[ing] human rights’ in ‘all climate change-related actions’. Technology, which is one of the four pillars of the Bali Action Plan, is clearly one of the ‘climate change-related actions’ to which human rights are relevant. But what does this mean?

At first glance, it involves recognising the degree to which human rights are impacted by the failure to move on technology transfer. The delay on technology policy is itself a cause of human rights harm. But beyond this, we are called to take account of human rights in constructing technology policy. How might that work?
  1. A focus on human rights can help decide which technologies national policies should concentrate on. The identification of particular human rights threats caused by climate change provides a sound basis for prioritising the technologies best suited to meeting those threats. 
  2. Human rights can help international coordination of technology policy.. The fact that human rights embody agreed standards is essential: persons vulnerable to human rights threats constitute, in principle, a priority for international as well as domestic law and policy. 
  3. Making clean energy universally available is vital to protect human rights as climate change encroaches. 
  4. With regard to both adaptation and mitigation, least developed countries must constitute a priority for technology transfer policy. 
  5. The human rights principles of participation, consultation, accountability and access to justice provide a key resource in the construction of international policy in the technology domain (as in others). 
  6. A human rights focus can help the technology transfer debate transcend the old and worn-out arguments about intellectual property.
Further readings:

ICHRP (2011)
Climate Technology Policy and Human Rights: Protecting Rights in a Climate-Constrained World

Project - Executive Summary

ICHRP (2008)
Climate Change and Human Rights - A Rough Guide
Project - Report - Summary



About the Author:
    Stephen Humphreys is Lecturer in Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science and former Research Director of the ICHRP. 

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