Use intellectual property in climate change mitigation

What you need to know:

The world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide are China, US and Europe

World leaders have converged in Glasgow, Scotland for COP26 for two weeks to negotiate urgent action needed to avoid a catastrophe of climate change.

Today, the world is faced with unprecedented rise of global temperatures. This poses serious threat to existence of humanity and the environment if nothing is done. Despite the pledges made by several countries to reduce carbon emissions within a target of 1.5 degrees in line with the Kyoto Protocol, there is little progress to scale down emissions. It is also confounding whether developing countries which are still grappling with development challenges can lower their carbon emissions to an acceptable level. Predictions have been made that over the next three decades, developing countries’ carbon dioxide will outpace those from developed countries.

The world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide are China, US and Europe. However, less developed countries are more vulnerable to the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, as they in most cases lack the infrastructure and technologies to adapt to a changing climate.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the COP26 has made commitments to support investment in clean and green technologies by making them affordable, accessible and attractive in developing countries. The premier even launched the ‘Clean Green Initiative’, a major funding package of £3 billion in investments and guarantees to support the rollout of sustainable infrastructure and revolutionary green technology in developing countries, helping to tackle climate change and boost economic growth.

Accessibility and affordability of environmentally sound technologies to help in adaptation and mitigation of climate change is an issue with divided opinions.

There is a section of theorists who espouse that intellectual property is a barrier to accessibility of clean and green technologies. They proffer that flexibilities in the protection of intellectual property should be made available in the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) like non-grant of patent rights to environmentally sound technologies, a similar approach to access of medicine and public health of the Doha Declaration. The other group believes that technology transfer and know-how is a better alternative to diffuse environmentally sound technologies in developing countries. This latter view seems to be shared by a majority and underscores the critical role intellectual property rights can play in adaptation and mitigation of climate change.

However, for technology transfer and know-how to succeed, it requires a well-developed and effective intellectual property system. Protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights have been found to stimulate technology diffusion by providing secure channels for sharing know-how. There is evidence that inadequate IP protection compromises the diffusion of technology. When enforcement of IP rights is perceived to be weak, foreign businesses are generally reluctant to license their technologies, for fear that competitors will use them without authorisation and remuneration. Intellectual property rights constitute a means for the commercialisation of technologies. Companies are able to capture a portion of the added value associated with the introduction of a new technology through licensing agreements.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) is supporting technology transfer and know-how through the WIPO GREEN, an interactive marketplace that promotes innovation and diffusion of green technologies by connecting technology and service providers with those seeking innovative solutions. Technology transfer and know-how supported by an effective and strong intellectual property system provides solutions to climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. Developing countries like Uganda with a well-developed intellectual property legal regime should leverage on their strength to attract investment and trade in environmentally sound technologies. This will go a long way in tackling the seemingly insurmountable challenges of climate change.

Michael Wabugo, Intellectual property legal practitioner