Innovation and Technology Transfer to Address Climate Change: Lessons from the Global Debate on Intellectual Property and Public Health

52 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2009 Last revised: 9 Feb 2014

See all articles by Frederick M. Abbott

Frederick M. Abbott

Florida State University - College of Law

Date Written: July 13, 2009


This paper examines issues surrounding the development and transfer of technologies for addressing the problem of climate change based on the experience of developing countries in addressing problems of innovation and access in the field of medicines.

It looks at alternative energy resources (AERs) and climate change mitigation technologies (MTs), at the forms of intellectual property rights (IPRs) used to promote and protect innovation, and at the ways these IPRs may have different effects and implications for AERs/MTs as compared with pharmaceutical technologies. It is generally assumed that the originator pharmaceutical sector is highly dependent on strong patent protection, mainly because of the high cost involved in developing novel drug therapies and the low cost of reverse engineering these new drugs. Preliminary research suggests that most AERs/MTs industries may be less dependent on strong patent protection, and/or that patents are less likely to cause significant bottlenecks in the development and transfer of AERs/MTs. While it is premature to come to a definitive conclusion because researchers are only now focusing on the evidence, there is some basis for anticipating that IPRs will present fewer risks for developing countries in the context of climate change than for public health.

Developing country negotiators understood that the GATT Uruguay Round negotiations on trade related aspects of intellectual property rights would affect access to medicines. The resulting WTO TRIPS Agreement did, in fact, present serious risks to public health. These risks were addressed through negotiation of the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health, the Article 31b is amendment and the WHO Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property. The “Doha Declaration process” broadly speaking has resulted in some positive movement.

There are a number of lessons that can be drawn from the public health-related negotiations, at the WTO and other forums that may be useful to developing country negotiators addressing IPRs and climate change. Some of these lessons are relatively straightforward: economic and political power substantially influences the outcome of negotiations; the involvement of NGOs and other stakeholders is essential; it is important to shape public opinion through effective communication. Other lessons may be somewhat less evident.

Public health negotiations suggest that zero-sum bargaining is unlikely to be productive from the standpoint of developing countries, and that appeal to “equity” as the basis for demanding concessions is not enough. The private sector in the developed countries controls most pharmaceutical technology and AERs/MTs. Governments in developed countries are unlikely to “order” that technology be transferred by the private sector. Developing countries therefore might usefully focus on establishing frameworks for mutually beneficial joint venture economic arrangements between developed and developing country enterprises that will stimulate innovation and concrete transfers of technology to address climate change.

To the extent possible, technology transfer commitments resulting from climate change negotiations should be specific and concrete. “Soft” commitments on transfer of technology typically do not bear fruit.

A number of developing countries and NGOs have proposed that a declaration comparable to the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health be adopted with respect to IPRs and Climate Change. Even if current multilateral IPRs rules incorporate flexibilities and exceptions adequate to address most foreseeable obstacles to technology transfer, a declaration may be useful in the progressive development of international law so that it properly balances the rights of innovators and access by the public to the benefi ts arising from new technologies.

Keywords: Climate Change, Intellectual Property, Public Health, Technology Transfer, UNFCCC, Patents, Pharmaceuticals

JEL Classification: I18, K32, K33, L50, O10, O30, O31, O33, O34, O35, Q20, Q42, F00

Suggested Citation

Abbott, Frederick M., Innovation and Technology Transfer to Address Climate Change: Lessons from the Global Debate on Intellectual Property and Public Health (July 13, 2009). ICTSD Programme on IPRs and Sustainable Development, Issue Paper No. 24, FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 383, FSU College of Law, Law, Business & Economics Paper No. 09-18, Available at SSRN: or

Frederick M. Abbott (Contact Author)

Florida State University - College of Law ( email )

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Tallahassee, FL 32306
United States
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