WIPO Conference Reflects Contrasting Views on Climate Change, Innovation, IP

13 July 2011

The possibility of leveraging innovation and intellectual property to address the climate change challenge was the key focus of this week's World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) conference. However, the 11-12 July gathering saw developed and developing countries express contrasting views on the role of intellectual property in the diffusion of climate friendly technologies.

Intellectual property has been a notoriously divisive issue in negotiations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Parties at the 2010 Cancun Conference agreed to the creation of a new Technology Mechanism to enhance the transfer of climate friendly technologies to developing countries, but did not succeed in reaching common ground on the issue of intellectual property (IP). The final Cancun Agreements did not include a mention of IP.

Wanna Tanunchaiwatana, of the UNFCCC Secretariat, indicated that the Technology Mechanism is expected to be operational by 2012. She pointed to the disagreements on the role of intellectual property rights (IPRs) in the discussions on technology transfer, and highlighted the need for a better understanding of this complex issue.

On his part, WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry emphasised in his opening remarks that "if we are to overcome the challenge of human induced climate change, intellectual property is by definition a way to address it in order to encourage innovation and provide a framework for which solutions can be achieved."

The role of IPRs in climate friendly technologies

Discussions at the Innovation & Climate Change Conference were structured around a number of key themes, such as Innovation and Partnership Models, Real World Experiences of Technology Transfer, and Facilitating Finance to Accelerate Diffusion. These themes were first addressed in plenary and then during breakout sessions.

One of the most salient issues during the conference was how to enable a framework that fosters innovation in climate change and the role intellectual property rights play within that framework.

Carl Horton, Chief Intellectual Property Counsel of General Electric, and Matthew Bateson from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development both stressed the importance of IPRs in fostering a safe enabling environment for private investors in innovative technologies. Bateson argued that IPRs "enable businesses to mitigate risks," while preventing the establishment of a price barrier for developing countries.

Both speakers stressed that climate change technology's relationship to the patent system is vastly different from that of the pharmaceutical industry. "People tend to conflate the two," said Bateson, "but the costs of a patent for climate change technologies is not a significant proportion of the total costs as opposed to the pharmaceutical industry."

"No single patent can block an entire technology," Horton added.

ICTSD Senior Fellow Pedro Roffe presented key findings of a joint project of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the European Patent Office (EPO), and ICTSD on trends in patent ownership and licensing of clean energy technologies.

Roffe indicated that it was "difficult to isolate IP issues from macroeconomic factors such as market size and local capabilities and other general framework conditions to enhance innovation and facilitate technology transfer." However, Roffe also stressed the importance of ensuring that intellectual property is balanced and effectively achieves its intended objectives of both incentivising innovation and contributing to technology diffusion.

Ambassador Chandrashekhar Dasgupta from the Energy and Resources Institute (TER) in New Delhi emphasised that, in the absence of strong commitments by developed countries to ambitious reductions in green house gas emissions, there would be no boost in clean energy research and development and innovation.

He highlighted that IPRs "must be respected fully but permissible flexibilities such as compulsory licensing maybe be invoked as appropriate." He added that these should be fully utilised to reduce manufacturing costs and to address anti-competitive practices.

Paolo Yu from the South Centre remarked that the subject of whether or not intellectual property is a barrier to transfer of climate friendly technologies should be examined. However, he noted that it is likely to be a barrier in the future, in light of the steep increase in patenting of climate change technologies.

Scaling up financing to facilitate transfer of clean energy technologies

The role of climate financing in facilitating the diffusion of climate change technologies was also featured at the conference.

Ari Huhtala, Senior Environmental Specialist at the World Bank, asserted that financing must be provided through multiple streams, and that "governments cannot be the sole funders of climate change technologies."

Speakers from both the private and public sectors emphasised the importance of private investments in financing the diffusion of green technologies. The major question then became how to identify and best utilise these financial streams.

WIPO signals readiness to step up engagement in climate change matters

Several speakers from industrialised countries pointed to the usefulness of a greater role for WIPO in addressing the interface of IP and climate change matters.  "WIPO has an important role to play in this context and should be more involved in UNFCCC negotiations," remarked José Romero, Head of the Rio-Conventions Section of the Swiss government. This sentiment was echoed by Ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba, Mexican Special Representative for Climate Change.

In this regard, Johannes Christian Wichard, WIPO Deputy Director General for Global Issues, brought the conference to a close by underlining that the event was a sign of solidarity with the UNFCCC climate negotiation process, and that WIPO would be ready to scale up its engagement in this area if it can make a useful contribution. "We are available," he concluded.

ICTSD reporting.

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