Opinion: how should we rethink laws and policies to make the development of green technology easier, quicker and more attractive?
According to the Climate Change Advisory Council's Annual Review 2017, one key aspect of developing robust responses to climate change is the need to encourage innovation in technologies and techniques. This is expanded upon by the more recent Climate Action Plan (in section 15.3) and should resonate with Irish policy-makers and businesses, particularly in improving energy efficiency and developing new markets.
However, the first call under the Climate Action Fund has focused on supporting infrastructural projects, rather than encouraging truly innovative research and development which could lead to the creation of new enterprises and market opportunities. How should we re-think intellectual property law and innovation policy in order to make the development of green technology easier, quicker and more attractive?
There is no simple formula for this as one size does not fit all. Approaches could include patent pools and exemptions, open-source collaboration and innovation prizes. However, four policy changes could go a long way to making Irish industry more competitive in the new green economy.
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First, and most important, would be the development of a decision-making and standard-setting framework in which there is ample scope for public-private network coordination. This would require the full involvement of accountable and legitimate non-governmental organisations.
It would enable the development of technology that is not only "environmentally sound", but also incorporates human rights norms and standards. It would also enable the "access to justice" envisaged in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration and in the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters and respond fully to concerns regarding climate justice.
Second, a new green innovation ecosystem may also benefit from adjustments to the patenting system, such as a relaxation of the requirement that a patentable invention is not obvious to a person skilled in that area of technology. This could be combined with a shorter period of protection, together with a compulsory licensing program that values technologies by their environmental potential.
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As patent law is not significantly harmonised at European level, Ireland can exercise more freedom here than in other areas of intellectual property law, such as trademarks or copyright. Indeed, the European Union has taken steps in this direction through the LIFE-Environment Initiative and the Eco-Innovation Action Plan. If commercial firms can be encouraged to sacrifice profits from particular inventions, whether through public pressure or tax incentives, the development of patent pools and humanitarian licensing offer further opportunities to open up innovation to as broad a group as possible.
Third, this focus on encouraging innovation, which needs to be carefully targeted on clean energy technology, can lead to a "snowball" effect, in which new ideas build on what has come before in a cumulative manner. This could enable the rapid development of the new inventions that will be needed in order to bridge the emissions gap. It could also be a more efficient and effective intervention than broad carbon taxation.
There is an opportunity for the Irish government to take bold steps to develop innovation in climate change technologies and techniques
It will require significant short-term government support for clean technology through prizes, research grants, and tax credits, which encourage sharing, rather than through patents and other intellectual property rights, which lead to more fragmented innovation. Other tools which could support this would include performance standards, deployment subsidies, procurement preferences, and infrastructure choices.
Finally, the patent system is unlikely to be a sufficient driver of climate technology, because there is not yet sufficient market demand for such inventions. They are a type of public good which the market will not develop. This market failure requires government intervention. In the short term, climate prizes or technology inducement prizes offer a significant opportunity to speed up innovation. They ensure economic (and reputational) rewards for inventors while supporting research that is more valuable to the public as a whole than to private interests. They can augment patent protection while focusing investment on particular problems.
While patents are better at encouraging decentralised research, this drawback of prizes does not apply in the climate change context, where the domains in need of attention, such as renewable energy or electric vehicles, are relatively clear. Of course, the design of such a programme will require careful attention, particularly to ensure that it is collaborative, transparent, and iterative, but not entirely susceptible to revision. It is also important to underline that prizes are only one option in a range of incentives for inventors, and tax credits also offer a potentially useful tool for encouraging development of cleaner, greener technology.
There is, therefore, an opportunity for the Irish government to take bold steps to develop innovation in climate change technologies and techniques. Doing so would have multiple benefits: not only would it help to create businesses and jobs, it would go a long way towards rebuilding the national and international image of Ireland as a "climate laggard". The time to act is now, before other governments move first, making it even more difficult for us to catch up.
RTÉ Brainstorm is one of hundreds of worldwide news outlets taking part in Covering Climate Now, a project headed by the Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation and The Guardian to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on September 23rd.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ