Climate Change –The Technology Challenge
This article sets the scene for WIPO Magazine’s new series on the challenge to find technological solutions to climate change. The series will look at examples of climate-friendly innovation, and will explore how intellectual property can contribute to the development of low carbon technologies, and their transfer to developing countries.
Funafuti, Tuvalu. (c) Photojournalist Gary Braasch has documented climate change since 2000.
Tuvalu, South Pacific. A tropical island dream of perfect blue seas, coral reefs and waving coconut palms? Or the beginning of a nightmare? With its highest point just 4.5 meters above sea level, tiny Tuvalu is one of the world's most low-lying countries. And as global sea levels rise, its inhabitants face the grim prospect of their land gradually disappearing beneath the waves. Climate change, caused by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, is already taking its toll on the life of the Tuvalu islanders. The underground rainwater tanks from which they draw their drinking water are contaminated by flooding. And salt water seeping into farmland has destroyed crops, making the islanders dependent on canned imports.
Tip of the iceberg
“Climate change is one of the most complex, multifaceted and serious threats the world faces. The response to this threat is fundamentally linked to pressing concerns of sustainable development and global fairness; of economy, poverty reduction and society; and of the world we want to hand down to our children.” - UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
Tuvalu is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Delivering their latest report in November, the world’s scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared climate change to be “unequivocal.” Few any longer question the reality of global warming, nor the potential consequences if it continues unchecked. Experts forecast melting icecaps, rising sea levels, droughts, floods, hurricanes, leading to crop failures, conflicts, famine, disease. Describing this as “one of the most complex, multifaceted and serious threats the world faces,” UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon has called for a massive mobilization by governments, the private sector and civil society.
To this end, over 11,000 participants gathered in Bali, Indonesia, for the UN Climate Change Conference in December. Government representatives rubbed shoulders with environmentalists, industry groups with development lobbyists, human rights activists with carbon traders. Temperatures rose inside and outside the conference rooms as delegates differed over questions such as targets for reductions in carbon emissions. But all were agreed on one thing: that innovation and new technologies will play a crucial role in meeting the challenge.
Innovation to save the planet
Developed and developing countries are equally anxious to avoid the sort of cut-backs, or restrictive energy policies, which would undermine their industrial growth or competitiveness. What everyone wants are solutions which are not only good for the planet, but also good for business and good for development. Technological innovation is seen as the best hope of delivering this triple whammy.
Technological solutions are needed for the challenges of both mitigation and adaptation, as they are referred to in climate change terminology. Mitigation is about slowing down global warming by reducing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Among the many mitigation technologies already on – or nearing – the market are renewable energy sources, such as biofuels, biomass, wind, solar and hydro power; low carbon building materials; and emerging technologies which aim to capture carbon out of the atmosphere and lock it away.
Adaptation involves dealing with the existing or anticipated effects of climate change, particularly in the developing, least developed and small island countries, which are most severely affected. In addition to “soft” technologies, such as crop rotation, hard technologies for adaptation include improved irrigation techniques to cope with drought, and new plant varieties which are resistant to drought or to salt water.
The uptake of mitigation technologies has accelerated in recent years, encouraged by proactive government policies. Yet it is not enough for environmentally minded consumers in Europe and the US to install solar panels on their homes and trade in their gas-guzzlers for hybrid cars. The impact and effectiveness of technological solutions depend on their being deployed on a global scale. The International Energy Agency estimates that, by 2020, 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions will come from economies in transition and developing countries, underlining that these countries will need to “leapfrog a technological generation or two” if they are to avoid the fossil-fuel trap and move directly to environmentally-sound technologies.
Technology transfer from developed to developing countries, and increasingly between developing countries, will therefore be needed on what the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) describes as an unprecedented scale. A major, ongoing focus of the UN discussions is how best to make this happen. Strategies include funding mechanisms, capacity-building, international collaborative research networks, public-private partnerships, and using multilateral and bilateral trade cooperation agreements to create incentives.
What’s IP got to do with 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. Patent information can also make a valuable contribution. Published patent documents offer a vast, freely accessible source of technological information on which others may build. The development of hydrogen fuel cells as a renewable energy source is just one example of how new innovation grew from research results contained in earlier patent information (WIPO Magazine issue no. 1/2007). Patent “landscaping” can also be used, for example, to chart the pace and direction of innovation in alternative energy technologies and identify future directions.
As efforts are made to accelerate the transfer of affordable climate-friendly technologies to developing countries, there will need to be on-going scrutiny in order to ensure that IP is working effectively to facilitate this process, and to address any problem areas. Such scrutiny is already underway, with groups, such as the Third World Network, expressing concern that patents on the new technologies may be keeping prices too high and restricting access by developing countries. A recent European Parliament report included a proposal to look into the feasibility of amending the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) in order to allow for the compulsory licensing of “environmentally necessary” technologies. Other analyses, however, such as the detailed case studies compiled by the Climate Technology Initiative, the International Energy Agency and the United Nations Environment Programme, conclude that one of the most significant impediments to the successful transfer of climate-friendly technologies is the lack of IP rights protection in some developing countries.
These questions are explored further in this edition of WIPO Magazine in an article by Professor John Barton, which examines the impact of patents in the transfer of renewable energy technologies to Brazil, China and India. We also talk to the inventor of a new environmentally-friendly construction material about his innovation and his IP strategy. Other articles in our series will illustrate how WIPO is helping developing countries to build capacity in technology licensing skills; to foster collaborative research and development; and to create enabling environments for innovation and technology transfer. - Small steps on the steep road to meeting the technology challenge.
By Elizabeth March, WIPO Magazine Editorial Team, Communications and Public Outreach Division.