Copenhagen Climate Conference and Patents

This week, 34000 people gather in Copenhagen for the UN Climate Conference to meet delegates from every corner of the world and to negotiate pressing climate issues. So what have patents to do with this? The conference builds on the discussions and agreements established in Rio de Janeiro (1992), Kyoto (1997), Hague (2000) and Bali (2007). If previous climate meetings dealt with issues such as setting greenhouse gas emissions targets and avoiding deforestation, this year’s conference focuses even more on how “climate changing technologies” should be managed among others, from a intellectual property and technology transfer point of view. Basically, the delegates are trying to decide who should do what, who owns it and who should pay for it?

The intellectual property (IP) rights system makes no distinction between environmentally friendly and other technologies. IP contributes to the development and diffusion of new technologies for combating climate change much as it does in any other innovative technology field: it encourages innovation by providing the means to generate a commercial return on investment in the development of low carbon technologies (particularly as demand builds when the market is primed by appropriate policies); it gives companies the confidence to license their proprietary technologies for use or further development where they are most needed[1].

One strong argument reiterated and at times simplified by the media is that countries in the developed world have caused most of the world’s climate issues since their industrialization 1850, and therefore should pay for it. The developing countries are not too blame and therefore should be “reimbursed” by the rich polluting nations. Following this line of argumentation is the notion that any technology developed to ease the problems with the changing climate should be freely available to anyone. Supporters of such “zero cost technology licenses” argue that one solution to global warming, pollution and other climate disasters can be achieved by 1) forbidding patents on “climate-friendly technologies, 2) revoking existing patents on “climate-friendly technologies” and 3) establish rules forcing inventors to allow anyone the right to use their patent-protected technologies.

The arguments outlined above are in their simplest form appealing and straight-forward. If the wealthy industrial nations have polluted our world, they should pay the price for their greed.

Next to the debate over public health and access to drugs for AIDS and patents, climate change technologies can easily become the next battle ground for Yes and No sayers blinding the core issues and prevent delegates to agree on common standards. It can be done differently, as is shown by a study published in September 2009 by the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, “Access to Climate Change by developing Countries”. The paper makes specific recommendations for action in five categories related to IP and climate change

  • Management of developing country Intellectual Capital
  • Support for endogenous climate change R&D
  • Climate change technology commercialization
  • Education and Awareness
  • Periodic assessment.

Analysts, negotiators and decision-makers at the Copenhagen conference need to have an understanding of the whole picture. Moreover, before they establish the global climate policy for the next decade they need to agree on some of the basics such as what countries are actually considered developing nations the year 2009? For example, China was a very different nation 1992 than it is today – being one of the financial growth engines of the world.

How is new climate friendly technology most efficiently disseminated for the benefit of the objectives of the conference? How fast can the technology be developed? Who should pay for it, separate nations or a “green fund”? What countries would potentially be eligible for “subsidized” technologies? How would that subsidy fit with other subsidies? How can the developed world actually contribute know-how to the developing world so that the developing world truly benefits long-term?

The issues at stake are not only of global concern, but they are too complex to be narrowed down to one-type issues such as “banning patents” or “a complete waive of intellectual property rights”.

We all agree that we need better and cheaper climate-friendly technologies and we need it now. So let us observe the moves made in Copenhagen in the coming two weeks. One thing is for sure, in order for this climate conference conundrum to be solved smoothly, we need to rely on strong powers – perhaps the weather gods have the answer?

Danielle Lewensohn

Further reading: Technology and IP: problems and solutionsby Ian Harvey in China Dialogue and Bollyky, “Intellectual Property Rights and Climate Change: Principles for Innovation and Access to Low Carbon Technology”

[1] Climate Change – The Technology Challenge, WIPO Magazine, March 2009

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