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IP and Climate Change Negotiations: From Bali to Copenhagen, Via Poznań

March 2009

Tracking the global response to the challenge of climate change requires a virtual world tour. It begins in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992, with the conclusion of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC or the ‘Framework Convention’). This Convention still provides the overarching objectives and the institutional basis for international efforts dealing with climate change.

The climate change conference held in Kyoto in 1997 saw the conclusion of the Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force in 2005 and provides for commitments until 2012. The international community is now working towards a global agreement that would succeed the Kyoto Protocol. The current round of negotiations began with a conference in Bali, in December 2007, which adopted a comprehensive set of decisions, set out in the Bali Road Map. This included the Bali Plan of Action, an ambitious program of multilateral work to tackle the challenges of climate change. It triggered an intensive series of negotiations leading up to the conference to take place in Copenhagen in December this year.

December 2008 marked the midway point in the journey from Bali to Copenhagen, with the convening of the Climate Change Conference in Poznań, Poland, which to reviewed progress to date.

Photos: Omar Torres/AFP, Patrick Rowe/NSF, Photos.com, Liz Roll/FEMA

Increased focus on technology and IP

The Poznań meeting saw increasing attention paid to the role of technology, and debate over the potential role and impact of the intellectual property (IP) system in promoting the development of new technologies, and in leveraging access to technology. Technology is the principal source of the climate change caused by human activity – anthropogenic climate change, as the jargon puts it – ranging from the coal-fired industries of the industrial revolution to today’s overwhelming dependence on hydrocarbon fuels for travel. Equally, however, the international community now looks to technology as a vital source of potential solutions to climate change – both technologies that could mitigate, or reduce, emissions of greenhouse gases, and those that would enable communities to adapt to the altered environment wrought by climate change. While not offering a stand-alone solution, the availability of new technologies clearly will be key to an effective global response to climate change. An international understanding on development and transfer of technology is likely to be an important component of any multilateral deal.

The issue of transfer of climate-friendly technology has in fact been on the table since the Rio Conference, and the 1992 Framework Convention highlights the key role of technology transfer and the development of endogenous technologies. More recently, the Bali Plan of Action called for “enhanced action on technology development and transfer to support action on mitigation and adaptation.” Such action would include:

  • removing obstacles and creating incentives to promote access to affordable, environmentally-sound technologies;
  • accelerating deployment, diffusion and transfer of such technologies;
  • cooperation on research and development of current, new and innovative technologies;
  • and reviewing the effectiveness of mechanisms and tools for technology cooperation.

An extensive discussion is under way as to how to give effect to these objectives – including what new ways of using the IP system, or what reforms to it, may be required to ensure effective development and dissemination of needed technologies. This policy debate is complemented by several practical initiatives aimed at promoting innovation and leveraging technology transfer for environmental benefit (see Sharing Technology to Meet a Common Challenge).

The debate over technology transfer and the role of IP continued at the Poznań Conference. Some called for reforms or other interventions to ensure that the IP system promotes transfer of environmentally-friendly technology and does not present barriers. Others urged that the current IP system is essential for the development and effective dissemination of the new technologies that will be needed to address climate change. Although these questions, which continue to spark debate, were left unresolved, the Conference welcomed the conclusion of the Poznań Strategic Program on Technology Transfer. This initiative builds on the existing technology transfer activities of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) which, among other roles, is the designated financial mechanism for the implementation of the Framework Convention – in other words, the central mechanism for funding the transfer of environmentally friendly technology under the Convention. The GEF has funded many significant technology transfer programs.

Side event highlights practical aspects

An account of this work was given at Poznań at a side-event on the subject of technology transfer, the IP system and climate change – challenges and options. Participants included the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and WIPO. The side-event illustrated the importance of ongoing practical work to advance the transfer and diffusion of environmentally-friendly technologies; discussed concerns about the effective use of IP and the role of regulators in ensuring the public interest; and highlighted the need and opportunities for more effective use of patent information to shed light on and monitor environmentally-friendly innovation. The need for greater empirical input to the debate was also emphasized. Clarifying the technology needs of developing countries was deemed critically important to focusing debate and practical initiatives. The GEF already supports the needs assessment process in many countries.

WIPO’s presentation focused on the use of patent information, particularly the PATENTSCOPE® portal, as a tool for policymakers in the climate change field. It also introduced a paper setting out the key issues linking climate change to the IP system, as a background resource for policymakers and negotiators. The paper explains that the essential logic of the patent system is often portrayed as a ‘balance’ on a host of issues, including ‘pre-grant questions’ (what kind of technologies patent offices should grant patents for, and what claimed inventions should be denied protection) and ‘post grant questions’ (what forms of licensing and other access to technology should be encouraged; what steps should be taken to monitor and regulate the actual use of patent rights in the marketplace; and what forms of intervention may be required).

The presentation underscored that a vast spread of technologies was potentially relevant to climate change mitigation and adaptation. It noted that it would be difficult to resolve post-grant issues – whether these issues concern legal, policy-related, practical aspects or the development of needs assessments – without stronger understanding of the state of play: including the scope of patenting of relevant technologies and current and emergent trends in the development and diffusion of key technologies. Patent information, as a policy tool, can contribute greatly to that understanding. It discloses historic, current and emerging trends in relevant technologies, including the breakdown of public vs. private sector activity; emerging trends in developing country innovation; the relative contributions of established players and new actors; the changing research profiles of energy giants; and the extent to which innovators and investors are responding to policy signals regarding the emerging low-carbon economy.

Patent information systems offer a means of tracking those markets that are actively being pursued. Because these systems publish new technologies soon after their inception, they can also function as a kind of early warning system that disclose to the public new, potentially disruptive technologies at an early stage in their development.

By Antony Taubman, WIPO, Global Intellectual Property Issues Division

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