One of the many areas of contention in the climate change debate is whether the patent system helps or hinders the development of clean energy technologies by allowing the rights to these technologies to be privately owned.
Up to now, there has been little hard data with which to argue the case either way.
But this situation has just been improved – even if no simple conclusion to the broad discussion has yet emerged – by the publication of a report about patents on clean energy technologies in Africa prepared by the European Patent Office (EPO) with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
“This is a very critical area from the patent point of view, because developing new technologies to meet the threat of climate change is a global challenge,” Gerald Owens of the EPO, one of the authors of the report, said at a session during the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.
According Owens, analysis of more than 1.5 million patent documents concerning technologies related to climate change revealed that less than one per cent of applications for clean energy technologies during the period 1980 to 2009 had been filed in Africa.
In recent years the situation has been improving. For example, while the global inventive activity during this period – as measured by the patent system – had grown at five per cent a year, in Africa the growth rate was almost twice as high, and for mitigation technologies it has been what the report describes as a “staggering” 59 per cent.
Despite this growth, however, Africa’s share of global inventive activities in climate change and mitigation technologies is still only 0.24 per cent. And of this, says the report, 84 per cent is in South Africa.
Owens pointed out that Africa has vast untapped potential for clean technologies based on energy sources such as hydropower, solar, geothermal, wind and biomass. “For example, it has seven major river systems which could provide enough hydropower for the whole of Africa,” he said.
Harnessing this potential, however, required the development of the appropriate technology.
Mark Radka, head of the energy branch of UNEP, told SciDev.Net that intellectual property issues were “a persistent source of friction” in climate change negotiations because of fears that excessive control over clean technologies was being wielded by patent holders.
“There is a lack of analysis and data, and this is a real barrier to agreement in the technology area,” Radka said. “The lack of progress on intellectual property issues has contributed to the general sclerosis in the negotiations, and the inability of governments to come to an agreement”.
Radka said that this demonstrated the need for a better understanding of the role of patents in promoting clean technologies. The new EPO/UNEP report is intended to contribute to that end.
This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.