The recent Rio+20 summit has raised a number of difficult questions about law and technology:
What is the relationship between intellectual property and the environment?
What role does intellectual property play in sustainable development?
Who will own and control the Green Economy?
What is the best way to encourage the transfer of environmentally sound technologies?
Should intellectual property provide incentives for fossil fuels?
What are the respective roles of the public sector and the private sector in green innovation?
How should biodiversity, traditional knowledge and Indigenous intellectual property be protected?
The Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 resulted in a number of landmark agreements. The 1992 texts include the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Forest Principles. These agreements considered the relationship between intellectual property, sustainable development, and the environment.
The Rio+20 conference has focused on two central themes: “a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” and the “institutional framework for sustainable development”.
Chinese diplomat Sha Zukang, secretary-general for Rio+20, observed: “A critical issue is Intellectual Property Rights, for which I have always stressed the key is affordability. If technologies are not affordable, then all this pledge to international cooperation is just empty talk.”
There was much debate over intellectual property, development, and the Green Economy at the summit.
Intellectual property, technology transfer, and the Green Economy
1992Ã¢â¬â¢s Agenda 21 said “consideration must be given to the role of patent protection and intellectual property rights along with an examination of their impact on the access to and transfer of environmentally sound technology, in particular to developing countries”. Agenda 21 promoted technology transfer, and envisaged “a collaborative network of Ã¢â¬Â¦ international research centres on environmentally sound technology.”
Twenty years later, at Rio+20, there has been further debate over intellectual property, technology transfer and the environment.
One observer, IP Watch, noted: “Ã¢â¬Â¦ the developed and the developing world are divided on the mechanisms needed to make [innovation and green technology] happen on the ground Ã¢â¬Â¦ Intellectual property rights are a vital piece of this fractious debate.”
The World Intellectual Property OrganizationÃ¢â¬â¢s Rio+20 submission said: “The Intellectual Property system, and in particular patents, are fundamental in that they provide a stimulus for investment in innovation and contribute to a rapid Ã¢â¬â and global Ã¢â¬â diffusion of new technologies.”
China and the G77 called for “an International Mechanism” to facilitate “transfer of technology in sustainable development.” The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) proposed a Global Green Innovation and Technology Partnership.
The early June draft of the Rio+20 text noted “that consideration must be given to the role of patent protection and intellectual property rights along with an examination of their impact on the access to and transfer of environmentally sound technology, in particular to developing countries”.
The United States, the European Union, Japan, Canada, Australia and Switzerland wanted to delete this paragraph. Such nations favoured strong protection of intellectual property rights in order to encourage private investment in the research and development of environmental technologies.
Martin Khor of the Third World Network noted that developed countries were hostile to obligations on technology transfer: “Wherever the words Ã¢â¬Ëtechnology transferÃ¢â¬â¢ appear, there is an attempt to change it to voluntary transfer on mutually agreed terms and conditions”.
The United States, Canada, and Japan also opposed the establishment of a Technology Mechanism at Rio+20.
Intellectual property is a cipher in Rio+20 Ã¢â¬â a topic of “importance”, but not worthy of further textual elaboration.
The final Rio+20 text Ã¢â¬â entitled the Future We Want Ã¢â¬â merely affirms “the importance of technology transfer to developing countries” and recalls “the provisions on technology transfer, finance, access to information, and intellectual property rights as agreed in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation”. The minimalist text on intellectual property in Rio+20 is terse compared to Agenda 21Ã¢â¬â¢s much more extensive provisions.
Rio+20 creates no new Technology Mechanism, like the UNFCCC Climate Technology Centre. It merely asks for countries to “strengthen international cooperation”. It invites governments “to create enabling frameworks that foster environmentally sound technology.”
It also recognises that “the private sector can contribute to the achievement of sustainable development, including through the important tool of public-private partnerships”.
There was a significant push to end subsidies for fossil fuels at Rio+20. However, intellectual property law continues to play a double role Ã¢â¬â providing incentives alike for clean, renewable energy; as well as dirty, polluting technologies in coal, oil, and gas.
Our common vision?
The Rio+20 text The Future We Want speaks of “our common vision” for sustainable development and the Green Economy. However, the topic of intellectual property and the environment at Rio+20 was the subject of division, confrontation, and ultimately a lack of consensus.
The minimalist, weak text on intellectual property, technology transfer, and the Green Economy retreats from the Earth SummitÃ¢â¬â¢s texts two decades ago. Instead, there is hortatory language about encouragement, acknowledgement, and reaffirmation.
There has been concern that such important issues have been glossed over at the summit. Perversely, the Future We Text subtracts from international law on intellectual property, the environment, and sustainable development. Little wonder some critics have dubbed the summit Rio-20.
Reflecting on the lack of real progress at Rio+20, Norwegian international leader and advocate of sustainable development Gro Harlem Brundtland observed that there were “complex reasons” why governments had failed to take the “common vision” further Ã¢â¬â including the power of corporations: “In our political system, corporations, businesses and people who have economic power influence political decision-makers Ã¢â¬â thatÃ¢â¬â¢s a fact, and so itÃ¢â¬â¢s part of the analysis.”
Future international summits on the environment, biodiversity, and climate change have been left to reconcile such tensions over intellectual property and the global commons.
ThisÃÂ post isÃÂ adapted from an article previouslyÃÂ publishedÃÂ on The Conversation and re-published here with the kindÃÂ permission of Matthew Rimmer.
* is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, working on Intellectual Property and Climate Change.ÃÂ He is an associate professor at the ANU College of Law, an associate director of the Australian Centre for Intellectual Property in Agriculture (ACIPA), and a director of the Australian Digital Alliance.