Tech Transfer and the Environment

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Makes my day to see something like this in Reuters:

Rich nations are dodging their moral obligation to provide clean energy technology to developing countries, even though collapsed talks on the issue have restarted, a top Chinese negotiator said on Thursday.

Yu Qingtai, China’s climate change ambassador, told Reuters the key topic was back on the agenda at UN-led talks on fighting global warming because of fears that abandoning it would send a negative message to ordinary people following the meeting.

Asked if he was optimistic that a second attempt might produce some progress, Yu said developed nations’ reluctance to share costly but clean technologies was a major stumbling block.

Why does this make me happy? Not necessarily the opinion expressed above, just the fact that there is an article written about it at all. I do a lot of technology licensing work (it’s getting to be a specialty of mine), so I welcome any opportunity to discuss a subject about which I actually know something. This is opposed to all the other things I write about with which, at most, I only have a very shaky grasp of the facts.

So what’s the argument here? Climate ambassador Yu wants companies in the EU and U.S. to license in more environmental tech. Sounds good for everyone, yes? China desperately needs this technology to clean up its act, and foreign tech firms want to get paid royalties for this stuff.

Couple of problems, and remember that Yu is saying this in the first place because a lot of cutting-edge stuff is not being transferred over here. Why not? First, this clean tech is quite expensive, and these companies know it. They want to be adequately compensated for their know-how or intellectual property and have had some trouble finding satisfactory deals.

Second, speaking of that IP, these enterprises are quite nervous about licensing this stuff in and then seeing their know-how shared, their patents infringed upon, etc. They don’t want to bring in world-class tech and then get ripped off.

These are real problems, and I don’t agree with this attempt to persuade nations that they have some sort of moral obligation to make sure that this clean tech eventually finds its way to China. These stumbling blocks are commercial problems and should be solved through commercial solutions. Some of these could come from the public sector, some from private industry, but no solution is going to magically appear because an appeal to morality has been made.

Not to be alarmist, but there is another issue here that is worrisome. The climate change/global warming topic is huge right now, and very soon I think we will see governments talk about this in terms of public emergency or crisis.

If one of the ways to help out with this public emergency is to make sure that certain technologies are being used in China, I wonder whether the government at some point may exercise its rights under WTO and China law to issue compulsory licenses for some patented clean tech? I seriously doubt this would ever happen, but the rhetoric I quoted above forces me to consider it.

Right now, the most accepted grounds for issuing a compulsory license for "public emergencies" is in the area of health crises, the classic example now is the AIDS epidemic and the need for certain pharmaceuticals. Will environmental crises rise to that level at some point?

2 responses on “Tech Transfer and the Environment

  1. Falen

    I think the choice is either license the tech at cut rate or wait 30 years for China or India or Africa to feed their population, educate them, put them through university and then develop their own clean-tech. Making someone somewhere in the West filthy rich for their IP is sorta not on the table. Bottom line: Poor people are not interested in paying through the nose at every turn for every single tech.

  2. Stan Post author

    The other choice is the one we have right now: no use of the tech at all. I think that the government should get involved a little more and subsidize this stuff – it’s worth the investment.