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Are debates on the role of IP in disseminating green technology about to heat up again?

Emma Barraclough

The green technology issue was back on the agenda at this week’s meeting of the TRIPs Council in Geneva, when Ecuador suggested it could update its year-old proposal on easing patent terms and strengthening TRIPs flexibilities for environmentally sound technologies.

This was partly because the proposal related to the December 2013 Bali Ministerial Conference, with a call for a declaration highlighting the flexibilities available in the TRIPs Agreement (along the lines of the 2001 Doha Ministerial Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health). The delegate from Ecuador also proposed reducing patent terms for green technologies.

Sources at the WTO say that Ecuador won support from Cuba, El Salvador, India, China, South Africa, Brazil and Benin. Unsurprisingly IP-rich members (the EU, Japan, Switzerland, the US and Australia, along with Chile) argued that IP protection does not obstruct technology transfer. Factors such as regulatory regimes, proper infrastructure and low patent fees are also important for technology transfer.

There are plenty of practical problems raised by issues to do green technology, not least agreeing what it is. Does an innovation that allows coal-fired power stations to produce 5% less CO2 than a conventional power station, for example, constitute environmentally-sound technology?

But working out some answers to those kinds of questions, and gathering some data that demonstrates the role (positive or negative) of IP in the transfer of climate change-mitigating technology should surely be near the top of policy makers’ to-do lists.

When Ecuador first submitted its proposal last year, Saudi Arabia said that climate change should be discussed in organisations such as the UN Environment Programme, and by the WTO’s Trade and Environment Committee, but not the TRIPs Council. That kind of forum shifting has served to prevent much meaningful progress on issues to do with IP and traditional knowledge. Surely climate change is too important an issue for TRIPs Council members to bat off elsewhere?


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