Beyond all the discussions about emissions reductions and capping and trading at the COP15 climate change meetings this December, expect to hear a persistent sub-theme about tech transfer between developed countries and lesser developed ones.

And the topic of cleantech intellectual property rights (IPR)—and who should own them—is only going to become more of a focus as clean technologies are asked to scale, particularly in the developing world.

In the five international run-up meetings this year going into Copenhagen’s COP15 climate change talks in December, there have been recurring calls by developing countries for more technology support, specifically in the way of technology transfer (for details, read the Cleantech Group’s Why COP15 Doesn’t Matter, a report for clients.)

But who, exactly, is supposed to give what away? How likely is it? And how quickly should doing so have an effect?

If you follow the patents in clean technology, you find most are owned by a relatively small number of companies, and some may arguably not be very motivated to see them commercialized.

For instance, powerful, high carbon industries control some of the key patents to date in technologies that have the best chances of reducing greenhouse gases meaningfully. For instance, many carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are owned by petrochemical and fertilizer industrial giants, found researchers from Chatham House in a recent report (see Who owns our low carbon future?). And seven out of the top 20 owners of clean coal patents are owned by companies in the steel sector, the researchers found.

(No, there may not be such a thing as clean coal—as the anti clean coal lobby has successfully convinced many—but there are indisputable commercial opportunities in making coal fired power plants cleaner. Dirty as they are, coal plants are not going away anytime soon.)

Having tech transfer is one thing. Commercializing it is another. Chatham House analyzed patents in the six cleantech sectors of wind, solar photovoltaic, concentrated solar power, biomass-to-electricity, cleaner coal and CCS, and found the 30 most cited patents took between 19 and 30 years to reach mass market diffusion, with an average of approximately 24 years.

Sticking to what we know, and business-as-usual practices, will clearly not bring new technologies to markets fast enough to address climate change and resource scarcity concerns.

Another worrying development is a recent increase in patent-related litigation in fast-maturing technologies like cleantech. While it’s understandable that patent owners seek to protect their inventions and markets, lawsuits are slowing the diffusion of key clean technologies—the exact opposite of what the planet, and investors putting money to work in cleantech, need.

More effective sharing of IP is required to effect change globally in a meaningful timeframe. Open sourcing of key clean technologies is called for by some, or designation of so-called “copyleft” (i.e. public domain, the opposite of copyright) for the sake of wider sharing, especially with developing nations, and expediency. Others call for a pooling of IP from public research.

Better international cooperation is needed to increase technology diffusion. Today, cooperation on innovation is essentially a national, not an international, practice. Across the six sectors Chatham House investigated, only 1.5 percent of total patents listed more than one company or institution as co-owners, and 87 percent of those were the result of collaboration between companies and/or institutions within a single country.

Meaningful change cannot be achieved by a single country’s domestic action alone. Cross-border trade and investment in low carbon and energy-efficient goods, services and technologies need to be encouraged and scaled.

The key question is how to identify the assets in high-carbon industries and harness them for low carbon technologies, in developing and developed countries alike.

Interested in clean technology patents? Members of the Cleantech Group’s Cleantech Network have free access to a searchable database of hundreds of thousands of clean technology patents worldwide. More information here »

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