A hundred countries are meeting in Accra this week in negotiations for a new climate change agreement after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Understandably, developing countries refuse to sacrifice economic growth in order to cut emissions, so they want new low-carbon technology.
India, China and a variety of pressure groups are campaigning for "compulsory licenses" on low-carbon and renewable-energy technology, saying the developed countries are to blame for climate change and should underwrite the alleged solutions.
"The developed countries should get off the backs of India and China. Instead, they should help India and China move towards a low carbon economy with technology and finance," said Rajendra Pachauri, the (Indian) head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in July this year.
Shri Raja, the Indian Environment Minister, wants an agreement "paralleling" what he calls "the successful agreement on compulsory licensing of pharmaceuticals," which has undermined supply, quality and trade.
This will destroy any incentive to develop new inventions. Developing countries should instead remove the tariffs and other barriers that they impose on their own people and that increase prices dramatically.
Some even claim patents confer a monopoly that reduces competition and stops downward pressure on prices. But patents are not a monopoly on a market, they are an exclusive right over a specific product. Patents on existing products do not in any way prevent the development of other inventions.
Without the property rights that patents confer, many inventions that cost millions of dollars to develop can be copied. So without patents there are no incentives for investors and innovators to spend time and money researching and developing new technology. This is especially counter-productive as low-carbon technology is still in its infancy and requires high investment for the next level of innovation.
The low-carbon or "renewable" inventions that would be undermined by removing patent rights include wind turbines, clean coal, solar panels and fluorescent lamps.
A 2007 United Nations Development Program study found compulsory licensing of low-carbon technologies would directly reduce investment. Similarly, a World Bank report from the same year found that weak Intellectual Property regimes act as a barrier to the transfer of low-carbon technology, meaning that patent owners are reluctant to transfer their technology to countries that do not respect patents and other property rights.
Attacking patents is a distraction when there are policies that require greater attention. For example, the top 15 greenhouse-gas-emitting developing countries impose hefty tariffs and other trade barriers that can drastically increase prices on "green" technology they claim is essential.
Zambia and Egypt have tariffs on solar panels at 30% and 32% respectively. In Nigeria, barriers against "clean coal" technology add 160% to the final product cost. In Egypt, the extra cost on fluorescent lamps is 87%, in the Philippines 93%, in Brazil 96% and a staggering 102% in India.
The egregious extent of tariffs and other barriers on low-carbon technologies has prompted the United States and the European Union to propose an Environmental Goods and Services Agreement in the World Trade Organization, to encourage the transfer of technology. But since the collapse of the Doha Round last month that seems unlikely.
By ignoring these self-imposed barriers, the anti-patent campaign is gaining traction because it is always more attractive to blame someone else. That spells bad news for the poor. Companies that invest in low-carbon technology are dependent on capital to develop new products. If patents are waived investors will not see returns and the funding for new technology will dry up.
Forget patents: Governments in poor countries can make newer, cheaper and more efficient low-carbon technology available now by dropping their self-harming trade barriers.