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Status: Published

Climate change: technology policy and human rights (2011)



Climate Technology PolicyThe transfer of technologies is a central plank of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the treaty under which global climate change action is currently being negotiated. In that treaty, wealthier countries, recognising their greater contribution to the climate change problem and their greater capacity to deal with it, agreed to make technologies available to developing countries to assist both in managing the impacts of climate change and in transiting to low-carbon economies. Until technology transfer is “effective”, poorer countries are not required to accept greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Technology transfer largely remained stalled from the ratification of the UNFCCC in 1992 through to the Bali Conference of the Parties in 2007. Since Bali, however, it has become clear that further progress on climate change will depend on movement on technology transfer. It is therefore timely to begin to think through some of the policy consequences of this difficult and untested issue, including its human rights dimensions.
With this in view, the International Council determined to follow-up its initial broad climate change research with a project that would link and draw out a more specific set of policy questions on issues that to date have remained separate, but that in fact share significant mutual relevance. The project will provide guidance to policy-makers on the relevance of human rights principles and practices to technology policies. It will also provide human rights organisations with insight into a pressing current issue that is likely to have significant human rights implications in the near and medium future.

The human rights dimensions of technology policy
More than most topics in the climate change arena, actions and decisions on technology will have significant human rights implications. These are of two main kinds, one immediate, the second longer-term. Each involves both hard and soft technologies. (“Hard technologies” include infrastructure and hardware; “soft technologies” include policy and institutional mechanisms, and know-how.)

First, technological solutions will be required to ensure that the expected human rights consequences of climate change impacts are avoided or minimized. In short, technological solutions are necessary for adaptation, especially where climate change threatens basic subsistence. As the ICHRP Guide notes, expected threats include droughts, water salination and sea-level rise; livelihoods will be at risk as crops, fisheries, livestock and even land will deplete or vanish. In order to head off the most dire consequences of these impacts – forced mass migration and conflict – solutions will need to be found and mobilized quickly. In every case, such solutions will rely in part on the availability of appropriate technologies to meet the new conditions of life under a changed climate. While certain of these technologies are currently being researched and developed, others already exist but are not yet readily available in the places that will most need them. These include water treatment technologies for desalination and irrigation, for example, or agricultural solutions to changing or reduced crop cycles. Other relevant technologies include protection from hotter temperatures through building materials or aeration techniques, from higher sea-levels through protective walls or other measures, from the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, etc.

However, investment in these technologies is beyond the resources of many of the countries that will be worst hit. Finding a means to make them available at low or no cost is therefore critical, if major harms are to be avoided. As the ICHRP Guide notes, bringing human rights analysis to bear on such climate change impacts can help direct attention to where harms are foreseeable, and can also orient responses in ways that make them more useful and relevant. Since these solutions will involve – and are likely to some extent to hinge upon – technological know-how, a human rights angle can usefully be fed early on into both the development and delivery of technology. Where these considerations are not yet present in the climate change debate, attention to human rights consequences will concentrate minds. Where agendas are being drawn up, looking ahead to human rights needs can provide useful orientation. In both cases, a human rights lens may lead policy-makers to recognise the need for an intensive, coordinated, technically and in some cases legally creative response to climate change in keeping with the requirements of the UNFCCC.

Second, as the ICHRP Guide also makes clear, long-term development, upon which human rights fulfillment ultimately depends, will come under immense stress due to climate change mitigation policies. For developed and developing countries alike – but especially for the latter where, in many cases, basic human rights still remain unfulfilled and development is therefore pressing – development in the future will increasingly rely on access to efficient, clean and renewable technologies. Indeed, it will require restructuring of entire economies. The imperative to establish security for human rights over the long-term in conditions of climate change will require the dissemination (and transfer) of technologies for energy generation and distribution, for transport, housing, water generation and so forth.

This is not a controversial demand, but once again little attention has thus far been directed to the human rights consequences that will result from failure to plan well in advance. For example, if technology transfer is slow or not forthcoming, individuals in many countries will inevitably be reliant on carbon-based energy supplies for their immediate developmental needs. A human rights sensitive approach to technology will therefore be attentive to the possibility that access to carbon-intensive technologies may be needed more, rather than less, in some poorer countries, at least in the mid-term. It can help in assessing the extent to which help is needed for countries moving towards less carbon-intensive energy paths, and provide guidance on where and how that help can best be targeted. The long-term fulfillment of basic human rights – to food, water, property, health and shelter, and even culture and livelihoods – will depend, in many countries, on a measured, structured and informed passage from carbon to clean fuels. Awareness of these demands provides an appropriate basis for testing and fleshing out promises of future technological progress – which currently remain vague – against hard needs that already exist and will only worsen over time.

In each of the above areas, a human rights optic can bring essential nuance to policy. It can help ensure equitable access to new technologies in recipient countries through sensitivity to the possibility of inequalities of access and participation that mutually reinforce privilege and vulnerability. And it can help determine which of several possible technological solutions should be chosen in a given context, by focusing on the core responsibility to maintain basic threshold levels of rights fulfillment for those who will be harmed by climate change impacts.
Through this project a set of briefing papers will be produced, as well as a full report (available October 2011) into the human rights dimensions of climate technology policy and a short set of recommendations.