It’s a shame the Copenhagen Conference failed to reach an agreement on global warming. But it’s also unfortunate that no technology transfer deal was reached to free up climate technology patents for the benefit of poor countries. Most of those patents are held by the US, Japan and Germany. It would be better if there were no way to patent useful technologies in the areas of solar and wind energy, CO2 capture and storage (CCS), and (2nd-generation) biofuels, so they could be freed up for everyone to share. After all, the whole world stands to gain from this know-how. It should be borne in mind in this connection that developing countries suffer the vicissitudes of climate change without reaping the benefits of a developed economy.
But industrialised countries refuse to share their know-how. This is why the Bali Action Plan was adopted back in 2007 – long before the Copenhagen Conference –, establishing so-called Ad Hoc Working Groups to propose ways of forcing industrialised countries to transfer their technology. But the EU and the US still don’t seem particularly keen on helping India and China take off. The $100bn earmarked for the world’s poorest countries from 2020 to help them cope with the consequences of climate change should be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism. Without any technology transfers attached, these proposals essentially amount to masked subsidies for our own industries: in a word, we’ll be giving developing countries handouts with which to buy our technology. One could conceivably object to technology transfers on the grounds that there’d be no money to be made on expensive research. But is research really done in the most effective manner possible under the existing system? Moreover, it is sometimes in a company’s interest to hold back on its latest know-how until a prior invention (of inferior quality) has been milked for all it is worth.
One solution worth pursuing would be a climate fund that does not disburse money to developing countries so they can buy wind turbines and photovoltaic cells, but that pays a climate technology bonus to companies around the world. The amount of the bonus would be proportional to the positive impact their technology has on the climate. What is distinctive about this solution is it incorporates incentives to taking a worldwide approach to the climate problem, whilst keeping research remunerative. Sovereign nations tend to put their own interests first, and companies clearly put profits first. Those are important considerations, to be sure. But there is an overriding interest at stake here: the Earth’s climate. And after all, that’s what it’s all about.