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As the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen continues, negotiators face a series of unresolved questions. What emissions targets should be agreed to? How much money should be provided to finance mitigation and adaptation in developing countries, and how should these financial flows be governed? Should intellectual property rights be reformed to facilitate the diffusion of low-carbon technologies?

According to CGD Visiting Fellow Thomas Bollyky, the debate about intellectual property rights need not stand in the way of a global deal at Copenhagen or beyond. Bollyky’s CGD Note Intellectual Property Rights and Climate Change: Principles for Innovation and Access to Low-Carbon Technology asserts that negotiators can harness the potential of intellectual property (IP) by creating “global access principles” for all UNFCCC-affiliated multilateral funds. These principles would transparently state the details of IP access and ownership, providing the incentives, clarity, and predictability necessary for private-sector partners to invest in developing and deploying low-carbon technologies. Rather than being a stumbling block for negotiators, intellectual property could be a tool that increases the deployment of low-carbon technologies.

The likely impact of intellectual property rights on the diffusion of low-carbon technologies remains uncertain. Historically, the enforcement of IP rights has not driven significant amounts of private research investment in low-carbon technologies. If this trend were to continue, intellectual property rights would have a negligible effect on efforts to mitigate carbon dioxide.

However, past may not be prologue. The public and private sectors have been increasing their investments in low-carbon R&D, and the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate recently produced a series of Technology Action Plans to synchronize the international development of low-carbon technologies. International R&D will likely produce low-carbon technologies that are responsive to IP protection; second-generation biofuels are already showing signs of patent sensitivity. Intellectual property rights will have a significant effect on the diffusion of this class of low-carbon technologies.

A well-designed IP framework would help ensure that new low-carbon technologies will be efficiently and effectively deployed. Principles of access for low-carbon intellectual property could help create agreement at Copenhagen today, and foster the deployment of low-carbon technologies tomorrow.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.