Patents are the only way to win the global warming race, says Pekka Kosonen, European Union expert. An interview
Are patents a barrier to technology transfer to poorer countries - and hence to urgently needed action to combat climate change? Many developing countries are convinced they are. They see patents as an attempt to conceal technological progress, to deny them the benefit of the industrialised world's achievements and not least to make money from inventions that are needed to save the world. That is why they are so critical of the patent system in global climate negotiations. Many representatives of the industrialised nations for their part see this criticism essentially as a political manoeuvre. Pekka Kosonen, a leading member of the European Union's Technology Expert Group and a counsellor at the Finnish Foreign Ministry, had first-hand experience of the opposing views at the recent climate summit in Cancún. We spoke to him about the clash of ideas, about climate change and about the importance of patents.
Mr Kosonen, the Cancún Climate Summit last December almost failed when Bolivia insisted on condemning intellectual property rights in the final agreement. Are patents really that bad?
No, of course not. But they are an easy target, especially when you are following a political agenda and when you want to obstruct the climate negotiations - as certain countries are doing.
But for many in the so-called Group of 77 (G-77), a loose coalition of developing nations and a vocal voice at the climate talks, patents are actually a barrier to technology transfer.
The opposite is true. Without patents, without intellectual property rights, it would be very difficult for new technologies even to arise - to say nothing of their transfer to developing countries.
What are the benefits of patents, especially in the context of climate change?
When a company invests money, especially in a fast-moving field like green technologies, it expects to get a reward from its investment. Patents can not only safeguard this investment, but also motivate the company to continue researching new technologies and generating new ideas - which in the long run will help the whole climate change problem.
That sounds as if primarily the big companies will benefit from patents. What are the advantages for developing countries?
First of all the G-77 is very disparate, you can't talk about one group. There are 131 very different countries. There are the least-developed countries, there are the small islands, and there are nations like India, Brazil or China. China in particular is not only patenting a lot of technology, it is also purchasing companies. When a Chinese company for example buys a company producing windmills, it also gets the patents. And then it benefits from the same safeguards as other companies.
Not every country in the G-77 is economically that strong. What about the least-developed countries?
They have other problems. Often they don't even have the infrastructure or the capacity to take in high-tech. So patents are not really a big obstacle for them.
Maybe they would be interested in low-tech engineering solutions instead?
Great, because many of these things are off-patent. A lot of the very basic technical solutions like diesel engines or burners for cooking food rather than burning wood have been around for years and years. They can be used without even thinking about patents. So we don't see it as a big barrier in that sense either.
Patents are often seen as a kind of world knowledge base, a big library that shows the current state of technological progress. Can the developing countries also benefit from this repository?
Yes, that is why we decided to establish a technology mechanism within the climate negotiations. In the spotlight of this endeavour will be a Climate Technology Center and Network which is due to be created this year or maybe next. Although the architecture is not fixed yet, there will be a system where all available technology can be accessed. The Center will give advice on what kind of technologies can be used, where they are available and what the best solutions are for each country. You have to bear in mind that you can't generalise technology, making one size fit all; you have to find the right approach for every area and geographical region.
And that approach should facilitate technology transfer to developing countries?
Yes, that is basically the idea. Countries would have one address to which they can direct their questions and a network from which they will get proposals for solutions. So the developing countries could use the Center to get the knowledge and the information they really need at home.
Wouldn't that actually be the job of the patent offices that have all this knowledge in their databases?
It would indeed be a good idea and a good job if finding and accessing relevant patent documents were easier. A lot of work on facilitating this access is already being done at the patent offices, but ultimately it all comes down to a question of resources.
One proposal of the G-77 countries is that green technologies should get priority in the patent process.
The term "green technology" has been around for years, but what exactly is "green"? Say you have a paper mill that is 40 years old and does a lot of polluting, and then a company sells you a new paper mill, one that is very cost-effective, clean and energy-efficient. Is that green technology? Who decides that? And who gives it priority over some other technology?
What are you proposing instead?
The patent offices should treat all applications equally, but they should also try to make the process as fast and as stable as possible. Better co-operation could be a key step in this direction.
Following your reasoning, compulsory licences for green technologies, as requested by the G-77 countries, would also be a bad idea?
Yes, but not only for lack of a proper definition. If we start talking about compulsory licensing or free access to patents, the companies which put a lot of money into their innovations would fear the loss of their work - and they would probably stop investing in green technology at all. One fact that you shouldn't forget is that interested countries can always purchase a licence for a technology that they really need.
But don't the least-developed countries lack the financial means to do that?
That's why we are trying to build a financial system in the climate negotiations and in the agreement. If a country needs a new technology that could be purchased, the necessary money could come from this financial system. In addition, there are a lot of bilateral agreements and development aids which already address climate questions and technology transfer.
So everything comes down to the money for licences?
Of course not. As I said earlier, it is also a question of getting the technology to the country. The country must have a certain level of development so that it can receive a specific type of technology. That is surely something we have to work on in the process of development aid.
And the patent system can stay as it is?
We don't see any need for changes, at least not in the climate talks. The system might not be perfect, but we still have the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization. If anything is completely wrong or is not working at all, we have these two organisations where we can fix it. The climate summit as such is simply not the forum for doing so.