Carving a pathway to a green future is a modern-day imperative. The 2020 World Intellectual Property Day campaign puts innovation – and the rights that support it – at the heart of the efforts to shape a low-carbon future. Across the world, recognition of the need to act to preserve the environment is growing. People, businesses and governments are starting to take action to tackle climate change.
In Europe, for example, the European Commission has set a goal for the European Union to be carbon neutral by 2050, and some cities and regions want to move even faster: Copenhagen aims to become the world’s first CO2-neutral capital by 2025.
At the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 25) in Madrid, Spain, in December 2019, we learned that Greenland’s ice sheet is melting seven times faster than in the 1990s and that a quarter of the world’s population is at risk of water supply problems. Over the past decade, data from NASA show that the planet has experienced the five warmest years ever recorded since 2010.
As we embark on a new decade, the impact of climate change is being felt across the globe. Almost daily, we hear about extreme climate-related events – storms, floods, drought, wildfires – and the devastation they cause; events that may already be related to climate change and which are expected to become even more frequent and intensive.
Tackling the global climate crisis is a daunting challenge. Each of us shares in the common goal to address it and to build a green future.
Technology is increasingly recognized as part of the solution. This further highlights the need to redouble efforts to establish robust national innovation systems and enable access to effective national intellectual property (IP) systems that support the development and deployment of the technologies, products and services needed to transition to a green future.
Transitioning to a low-carbon future is undoubtedly a complex and multi-faceted endeavor. But we have the collective wisdom, ingenuity and creativity to come up with new, more effective ways to shape a green future and the IP system has a pivotal and enabling role in supporting us on this journey. Let’s see how.
The main purpose of IP rights is to encourage more innovation and creativity by making sure inventors and creators get a fair reward for their work and can earn a living from it and also to protect the goodwill vested in brands.
Different rights protect different types of IP, such as inventions (patents), brands (trademarks and geographical indications), designs (industrial design rights or design patents), and creative works, such as films, television programs, songs or plays about the environment and the need to protect it (copyright and related rights).
IP rights allow those who hold them to stop other people from copying or using their IP without their permission. This creates opportunities for rights holders to generate revenue by charging for the use of their IP. These revenues can help fund follow-on R&D and support business growth and employment. The prospect of an economic reward encourages businesses to invest in developing innovations, creations and branded products and services that we, and the environment, can benefit from.
IP rights are flexible. While they enable companies to get a return on the time, energy and money they put into developing eco-friendly outputs, they also allow them to exploit an innovation on non-commercial terms or open-source-like arrangements if they so choose. If an inventor wants her/his invention to remain in the public domain, secured IP rights can ensure that no third party can exploit the invention commercially without the inventor’s consent.
Most IP rights last for a limited time and are granted only when certain conditions are met. There are also rules that allow for the use – under certain limited circumstances – of different types of IP without first having to obtain the right holder’s permission. These arrangements help maintain a balance between the interests of innovators and creators and those of the public so that everyone can benefit from IP.
Promoting broad understanding that doing what it takes to create a green future makes good business sense is one of the fastest ways to change behavior and mainstream new green technology.
While companies may seek IP rights to get a return on their investment on the time, energy and money they put into developing eco-friendly outputs, they also allow innovators and entrepreneurs to exploit an innovation on non-commercial terms or open-source-like arrangements.
IP rights encourage innovation and creativity in all areas, including the development of eco-friendly technologies, products and services.
The 2020 World Intellectual Property campaign puts innovation – and the IP rights that support it – at the heart of efforts to create a green future. It explores how different IP rights play a vital role in incentivizing and facilitating these developments, in bringing them to the market and in delivering them to consumers.
Our commitment, the choices we make every day, the products we buy, the research we fund, the companies we support, and the policies and laws we develop, will determine how green our future is. But with innovative thinking and strategic use of IP rights, sustainability is within reach.
Tackling climate change will require new inventions and techniques, improvements to existing ways of doing business and measures to reward and recognize sustainability initiatives. Here, patents and trade secrets play a key role.
Undoubtedly, many of the technologies that underpin the carbon-based economy have caused environmental degradation, but technology is also part of the solution. New climate-friendly technology is the key to developing the solutions that support a green future.
A patent is an exclusive right granted for an invention (i.e. a product or a process that, in general, provides a new way of doing something or a new technical solution to a problem).
To acquire a patent, the technology must meet the conditions of patentability (e.g. novelty, inventive step (non-obviousness), industrial applicability (usefulness), etc.) set out in national law. Moreover, the applicant must disclose technical information about the invention in a patent application. Patent applications and/or granted patents are published and publicly accessible.
In principle, the patent holder has the legal right to exclude others from making, using, selling and importing an invention for a limited period. The term of protection available is generally 20 years from the filing date of the application.
The patent system supports technological development in a number of ways:
As one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, China is leading the way in investing in technologies such as solar and wind power as well as electric vehicles to improve air quality in its cities. These efforts are already translating into economic and environmental gains. According to research cited by the Financial Times, “electricity generated from solar panels in 11 Chinese provinces now costs less to produce than power from coal-fired plants.”
In Europe, 2019 saw the opening of the Horns Rev 3 offshore wind farm, on Denmark’s west coast. Its 49 turbines have a capacity to produce 407 megawatts, “enough to cover the yearly electricity consumption of around 425,000 Danish homes.”
In Morocco, the Noor (meaning “light” in Arabic) solar power plant, which covers some 1.4 million square meters, near the city of Ouarzazate, is set to generate 580 megawatts (MW) of electricity in 2020, enough to power over a million homes. The plant has already reduced Morocco’s carbon emissions by hundreds of thousands of tonnes, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.
Patents help companies secure the enormous investment required to realize large-scale green energy projects (like those mentioned above) and to bring their new eco-friendly inventions to the market. Patents also support smaller-scale innovation, much of which seeks to benefit resource-poor communities in developing countries.
For example, households in some of the remotest regions of the world are benefitting from patent-protected technologies that offer clean, affordable and safe lighting sources. Take for example, the lanterns produced by social enterprises like Nokero and SaLT, which seek to reduce reliance on kerosene.
Communities are also benefitting from smaller-scale innovations, such as the EcoSan waterless toilet , to improve sanitation (and health) and the environment, particularly in rural areas in developing countries where water and sewer access is not available. Pioneering fog-harvesting technology, such as the CloudFisher®, is also helping to relieve water shortages in arid coastal regions.
Alternatively, companies may choose to rely on trade secrets to protect their new technologies. Trade secrets are widely used by businesses in all economic sectors, including the clean technology sector, to protect their know-how and commercially valuable information.
Small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, rely on trade secrets to protect their innovations and for a variety of reasons. For example, unlike patent protection, trade secret protection:
However, unlike patents, information protected by trade secrets may be used by others if they acquired or developed the information independently by themselves. In addition, trade secret protection may be more difficult to enforce.
While patents and trade secrets protect the functionality of inventions, other IP rights, such as design rights (or design patents) also play a role in the development, commercialization and uptake of clean technology and associated products and services.
Many improvements in the environmental performance of products involve producing designs that reduce energy usage, by, for example, making vehicles or aircraft more aerodynamic, or that optimize the ways we interact with electronic devices thereby making it possible to strip back hardware elements while retaining an attractive look and feel.
The aesthetics of a product (its shape and form) can be protected by design rights (referred to as design patents in some jurisdictions), which may be registered or unregistered depending on the country concerned.
A growing consciousness among product designers about the need to consider the environmental impacts of a product throughout its lifecycle (from cradle to cradle) ensuring zero waste – not to mention growing demand for such goods among millennials – is fostering the development of a growing number of eco-friendly products. Design rights are used by companies to protect their sustainably produced and eco-friendly goods and services, which range from furniture to fashion and from personal electronics to packaging and more.
The Nico Less chair, finalist for the 2018 DesignEuropa Award for Small and Emerging Companies. The chair is made of a felt material, 70 percent of which comes from recycled plastic bottles.
On a mission to tackle the world’s plastic epidemic, the Indonesian start-up Evoware has developed a plant-based alternative (it’s edible and nutritious!) to plastic food packaging made from seaweed.
In the fashion industry – the second most polluting sector in the world – we see growing recognition of the importance of sustainability and green innovation, particularly in terms of reuse and recycling of textiles.
Since 2015, the non-profit H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award has been making grants to “innovators who come up with solutions to spark the shift towards a circular fashion industry, protecting the planet and our living conditions.” For example, Algalife, one of the winners of the 2018 award, uses biotechnology to develop clothing products that use less water, require fewer chemicals and employ processes that lower carbon dioxide emissions.
In 2019, sportswear company Adidas launched FUTURECRAFT.LOOP, a “performance running shoe made to be remade”. Production of this 100 percent recyclable running shoe, the first of its kind, “is aimed at tackling the problem of plastic waste, enabling a ‘closed loop’ or circular manufacturing model, where the raw materials can be repurposed again and again,” the company website notes.
Brands – including trademarks, company names and domain names – are the means by which businesses build their reputation in the market, for example, as champions of the environment, and communicate with consumers.
A trademark is a word, logo, slogan, symbol, or combination thereof. It identifies the source of the goods and services of one company and distinguishes them from those of another. Trademarks can also cover innovative shapes, colours, logos and styles of packaging. In other words, a trademark lets us know the commercial origin of a particular product or service and helps us decide what to buy when choosing between similar or related products in a crowded marketplace.
Sometimes, the simple addition of a word such as “Eco”, “Green” or “Enviro” can be used to inform customers that a product is environmentally friendly. Take for example, the award-winning Ecover brand from Belgium, which has a range of products such as laundry liquid, washing up detergent and hand wash all using biodegradable materials and recycled packaging.
By making “green” choices with respect to the products we buy, and the brands we favor, we can fuel demand for eco-friendly goods and services and thereby encourage companies to embrace sustainability issues and develop their own pathway to a green future.
Charities such as WaterAid also use trademarks to promote their work, inspire loyalty, build environmental awareness and ensure donors and supporters are not misled.
Certification marks, a specific type of trademark, can also help companies bolster their environmental credentials and support consumers in their purchasing choices.
A certification mark may be used by anyone who can ensure that their products meet the standards established by an independent certifier, which may be related to health, safety or the environment.
WOOLMARK, currently used on more than 5 billion wool products, certifies that the goods on which it is used are made of 100 percent wool.
FAIRTRADE, perhaps one of the world’s most widely recognized ethical certification labels, is used in over 50 countries and is a guarantee that the goods that bear it conform to Fairtrade standards, which inter alia, seek to promote sustainable production.
The Energy Star collective mark is a symbol backed by the US government to promote energy efficiency.
The mark makes it easier for consumers and businesses to buy cost-effective, energy-saving products that protect the environment.
The organizations that control certification marks may need to approve any advertising or sales material that uses their name or logo.
Geographical indications (GIs) are another type of IP right that can support the sustainable production of certain products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation due to that origin. A geographical indication is a sign used to identify products, whose qualities, characteristics or reputation are strongly linked with the location in which they are produced.
As well as offering consumers a guarantee of the authenticity of products and their origin, GIs can play an important role in upholding sustainable production standards. These standards are set by the producers that collectively own the GI.
Take for example, the case of the Scotch Whisky GI. Scotch Whisky producers have been committed to environmental sustainability since 2009, when their Association launched the Scotch Whisky Industry Environmental Strategy. The strategy was refreshed in 2016 and is currently under further review. “A thriving natural environment is vital for Scotch Whisky. We are determined to do more and ensure a sustainable future for Scotch Whisky and our natural environment,” the Association’s website notes.
Similarly, the producers of the GI, Banano de Costa Rica have been committed to environmentally sustainable production for some time. In 1992, banana producers, in partnership with public authorities, voluntarily created the Comisión Ambiental Bananero (CAB), to monitor environmental issues surrounding banana production on farms covered by the GI. Environmental audits undertaken by the Commission have enabled a banana production process that ensures optimal use of water, recycling of plastic materials and the preservation of forests.
Copyright protects original literary and artistic works, including maps, drawings, architectural works, software programs, databases, images, audio-visual works such as films and television programs including documentaries and music.
Under the terms of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (1886), copyright arises automatically and generally does not entail any formal registration process.
Copyright ensures that creators – who can play a key role in creating a vision of the benefits of a green future – are able to earn a living from their work. The teenage Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, for example, will receive royalties (which she will donate to charity) from the sale of a recently published compilation of her speeches – No one is too Small to Make a Difference. Similarly, the copyright system supports the production of spell-binding documentaries, such as the BBC’s Blue Planet and Seven Worlds One Planet series that remind us of what is at stake if we do not act now.
As noted earlier, the IP system as a whole seeks to balance the interests of inventors and creators with those of the general public to ensure the former have an incentive to generate original and new outputs from which we can all benefit. Under certain circumstances, however, in order to maintain this balance, it is necessary to narrow or suspend the rights conferred.
For example, under copyright law those who produce original databases have exclusive rights in their work. This may create a situation in which researchers who need to mine the data in those collections end up infringing copyright in those works. This is why various jurisdictions, including the European Union have formally spelled out circumstances in which researchers may analyze text and data in digital form to generate information on climatic trends, weather patterns and other correlations without risk of copyright infringement.
From the viewpoint of IP law, software programs, including those that support applications built around artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and deep learning, are recognized as literary works and protectable under copyright law.
Many of the technologies that will enable us to successfully transition to a green future will involve sophisticated computer programs to manage demand, analyze behavior and achieve more efficient resource use.
Such technologies will be increasingly present in everything from vehicles to smart meters. Take, for example, the Azuri HomeSmart technology, which is delivering solar products and services for off-grid households across Africa.
The technology uses machine learning to adapt the energy output of solar systems to reflect the average power usage of individual customers and take account of climate conditions. The rapid development of AI, machine learning and deep learning offers huge scope for tracking and optimizing resource use and improving environmental performance in a host of areas.
AI applications are already being used to control traffic, reduce commute times and generate fuel savings; to promote public safety; to minimize food waste; and to optimize manufacturing processes and agricultural food systems (e.g. autonomous agricultural robots, crop and soil monitoring and predictive systems to anticipate environmental impacts of weather on crop yields, etc.).
The rapid evolution of these technologies raises important questions and international debate about how the IP system encourages the development and application of AI in support of human progress, including the transition to a green future.
Given the importance of addressing issues such as the management of natural and genetic resources, traditional knowledge has a key role to play in tackling climate change.
As UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa said: “Indigenous people must be part of the solution to climate change. This is because you have the traditional knowledge of your ancestors. The important value of that knowledge simply cannot—and must not—be understated. You are also essential in finding solutions today and in the future. The Paris Climate Change Agreement recognizes this. It recognizes your role in building a world that is resilient in the face of climate impacts.”
Indeed, indigenous peoples and local communities have, over thousands of years, developed strategies to mitigate climate change and to adapt to its adverse effects. For example, the Moken People from the Pacific Islands have embedded warning systems into their folklore to facilitate survival in the event of a tsunami. Communities in Bangladesh have come up with floating gardens as a way to respond to extreme floods which are becoming ever more frequent. And aboriginal people in Australia set small-scale fires to clear the land, as a technique to prevent more intense bushfires.
When community members innovate within the framework of traditional knowledge and cultural expressions, they may use the IP system to protect their innovations. However, traditional knowledge, as such – knowledge that has ancient roots and is often informal and oral – is not efficiently protected by conventional IP rights.
This has prompted some countries to develop their own special (sui generis) systems for protecting traditional knowledge and cultural expressions. It has also prompted international negotiations towards developing international legal instruments that address IP and genetic resources, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.
These negotiations are taking place within the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC). The Committee’s mandate was renewed by WIPO member states in 2019, indicating that countries continue to believe that these issues require multilateral resolution.
In addition to the IGC, WIPO’s Traditional Knowledge Division also provides complementary capacity-building and technical assistance to different stakeholders.
Established by WIPO in 2013, WIPO GREEN is an online platform that seeks to connect providers and seekers of environmentally friendly technologies. Its aim is to incentivize innovation in this field and spread it more broadly, and to contribute to the efforts of developing countries in addressing the global challenges of climate change, food security and the environment.
It currently has more than 3,500 listed technologies, needs and experts, with over 100 partners ranging from SMEs to Fortune 500 companies. There are more than 1,400 users worldwide and so far more than 640 connections – leading to potential collaborations – have been made. WIPO GREEN is guided by a strategic plan that focuses on helping to accelerate the transition to a greener global economy.
The WIPO GREEN database offers technologies from prototype to marketable products, available for license, for collaboration, joint ventures and sale. It also contains a list of needs defined by companies, institutions, and non-governmental organizations looking for technologies to address specific environmental or climate change problems.
WIPO GREEN runs a number of so-called Acceleration Projects, which focus on a particular geographical area or technological domain. These projects allow providers and seekers to make crucial connections that can lead to green technology transfer or deployment. For example, an on-going project in Latin America is focusing on exploring local challenges, identifying potential green opportunities and building connections in the area of climate smart agriculture.
WIPO GREEN publishes an annual review of activities and achievements. It has also hosted exhibitions of green inventions, such as one showcasing Africa-focused technologies held at COP22 in Marrakesh in November 2016. More recently, at COP 25, WIPO GREEN drew attention to the role of innovation and technology transfer in helping to disseminate climate-smart agricultural technologies in Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
A number of IP offices offer accelerated examination for qualifying patents for green technologies, with the aim of helping these technologies to reach the market more quickly and promoting further R&D.
In the UK, for example, the Green Channel (introduced in 2009) allows applicants to request accelerated processing if the invention has an environmental benefit. The application must show how the application is environmentally friendly and which actions they wish to accelerate (search, examination and/or publication). Requests that are clearly unfounded will be refused. So far, more than 2,200 published patents have used the Green Channel and applications take around 11 months from filing to grant.
The USPTO Green Technology Pilot Program, launched in 2009, finished after 3,500 qualifying applications were received. However, patent applicants can still use the Prioritized Examination (Track I) Program or the accelerated examination program, which advance examination and set a target of reaching final disposition within 12 months of advancement being initiated.