Private property protection limits mitigating climate change in developing countries


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Jun 19, 2023

Private property protection limits mitigating climate change in developing countries

The Paris Agreement remains a much lauded instrument for addressing climate change. But challenges loom large when it comes to applying concepts, such as climate mitigation and climate adaptation, to

The Paris Agreement remains a much lauded instrument for addressing climate change. But challenges loom large when it comes to applying concepts, such as climate mitigation and climate adaptation, to practical outcomes, to places set to face the brunt of the impact of a warming world, especially developing regions. One such idea outlined in the accord is transferring technologies from developed to developing countries. Michael Davies-Venn argues that technology transfers, including renewable energy technologies, will only work when private assets, such as Intellectual Property Rights, are released to allow especially poorer countries to benefit from the technology.

A painful irony concerning climate mitigation is that most of the technologies are available in abundance in countries where they are least needed, whereas countries in dire need of such technologies lack them. A solar lamp in Berlin is presumably of smaller value to a Berliner than to someone in Bamako. So solar photovoltaic, batteries, solar thermal, hydro and windmills, are often available in abundance in developed countries compared to developing countries, such as across Africa. It is critical to address this imbalance because transitioning economies from fossil fuels to low carbon only makes sense if the transition is global. Although the Paris Agreement provides for technology transfers between developing and developed countries, the more than 770 million people living in Sub-Saharan Africa without access to a single light bulb serve as evidence that mitigation technologies are not being transferred and deployed at scale.

But technology transfer should not only be about exporting solar panels and batteries to African and other developing countries. In the short-term, it should also include transfer of private property rights held on mitigation technologies and, in the long-term, technological capacity development in developing countries. Transfer of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) would meet a critical need for speedier energy transitions across Africa and worldwide. Middle income countries that are closer to the problem and with established manufacturing capacities, are suitably positioned to globalize mitigation solutions.

Developmental trajectories of developing countries, notably in Africa, have always been out of sync with those in developed countries. This historic imbalance presents serious challenges to the implementation of the Paris Agreement because the nature of the global environmental crisis requires that countries work alongside each other as opposed to some taking directions from others. Only then will ideas such as climate mitigation lead to change in practice. As such, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries, such as the European Union’s strategy to decarbonize economies, are only useful for addressing climate change, when every country contributes to reducing emissions. In recent decades, the global framework for addressing climate change, have produced a litany of action plans, mechanisms, agreements, and protocols and even formed a UN expert group on technology transfer. And around 100 developing countries have responded by submitting such plans as technology needs assessments. But all this has produced zero consequences given the critical gap between economically wealthier and poorer countries on use of mitigation technologies.

Continuing failures of these efforts have not daunted developing countries who continue to express readiness and willingness to mitigate climate change even as IPRs remain a formidable barrier. Virtually all African countries, “97 percent of African countries prioritize the energy sector” in mitigation plans sent to the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In most, the state of this sector is a metaphor for under-development. Access to energy and energy infrastructures in several countries across the continent have been declining since the end to the colonial era when Africa saw its first independent state, Ghana in 1957. And there is no shortage of such plans and assessments including, National Determined Contributions, Technology Action Plans, and Technology Needs Assessments. All these have a common need that stalls their implementation: access to fair, just and adequate climate finance.

The paradox between these efforts, such as a Finance Mechanism for the Paris Agreement, that do not correlate with desirable outcomes, reveals incoherence on global climate change mitigation. The World Trade Organization is far removed from such efforts, yet the organization is the leading body that effectively protects private property rights held on mitigation technologies. Companies and institutions in Germany, the U.S., Denmark, Japan, France and the U.K., hold among the highest number of IPRs on such technologies. But these relevant IPRs they hold are protected by WTO rules on patents. Though the complexity of such rules cannot be addressed here, it can be said that the onus the organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights puts on governments if their patents are released to the public, does not align the WTO within global climate change frameworks. This is because WTO rules emphasize patent protection, to which its membership must adhere.

The WTO effectively supports the rhetoric positing that protection of IPRs assures technological innovation and that releasing IPs will undermine this as it would give access to competitors. Such rationale may well illustrate sound economic logic but the technological needs for climate mitigation are fundamentally public, as is the problem they will solve. Governments that are signatory to the UNFCCC , in principle, understand and agree, as well as taking “all practicable steps to promote, facilitate and finance, as appropriate, the transfer of, or access to, environmentally sound technologies and know-how to other Parties, particularly developing country Parties,” as provisioned in the UNFCCC.

Developed countries to the Conference of the Parties (COP) should, in cooperation with developing countries, take the lead to foster transfer of IPRs and build infrastructure for renewable energy technologies innovation in developing countries. For climate talks to continue without a focus on IPRs is to ignore a fundamental challenge on climate change solutions that almost render COPs unnecessary if emissions are to be reduced. First, the WTO must be brought deeply into the fold of frameworks for developing policies to address climate change. Second, UNFCCC must organize a forum for IPR holders at the upcoming COP in November 2023 with a clear objective to collect information and create a database of existing public domain IPRs to which rights to technologies developed by public funds must be released, and data on actual transfers of renewable energy equipments added. Third, the UNFCCC should provide practical support to build technology hubs, across Africa where experts from developed countries will now go and work alongside Africans to improve and develop technical and administrative capacities relevant to mitigation technologies. Fourth, developed countries should take the lead to develop public policies to progressively assure transfer of mitigation technologies, particularly IPRs, and through the European Patent Office coordinate such national policies. Fifth, funding decisions on mitigation projects at the Global Environment Facility, which is associated with the UNFCCC, must be socialized and rationalized on the basis of reducing emissions while increasing access to renewable energy, not on returning profit. Finally, if it needs to be said, developing countries have to, henceforth, remove all barriers to facilitate the above recommendations and belatedly move forward in the global mission to combat climate change.

Michael Davies-Venn researches global environmental governance. A policy analyst, he puts emphasis on climate mitigation and climate adaptation measures within the Paris Agreement. A communication professional, his political commentaries address climate change topics, including European decarbonisation, Paris Agreement implementation between developed and developing countries and human rights. He has studied and worked worldwide and is presently a Guest Researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands.