Speakers Discuss Climate Change, IPR, Future of Kyoto at WTO Annual Public Forum

On September 19-21, 2011, the World Trade Organization (WTO) held this year’s Public Forum, Seeking Answers to Global Trade Challenges.  The annual meeting, launched in 2001, provides a mechanism for the WTO to interact with the public and civil society.  Major topics addressed during the three-day meeting included trade in natural resources, and the relationship between trade and climate change.

On September 21st, the WTO held the session, Strategies for Promoting Green Innovation and Disseminating Environmentally Technologies – What Role for Intellectual Property?  During the session, five speakers explored the question of how intellectual property rights fit into the broader global effort to encourage the research and development of cutting-edge, “green” technologies.

In his remarks, the first speaker – José Romero of the Switzerland Federal Office of Environment – summarized the efforts of the international community to combat climate change since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed in 1992.  Romero highlighted the need for the negotiation of a new treaty on climate change since the first round of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol comes to a close in 2012.  Romero says the U.S. is prepared to discuss a legally binding agreement, but is particularly concerned about transparency:  it insists on knowing what other countries, notably China, are doing with regards to their own emissions levels.  Romero also suggests that any future agreement ought to reflect the changes in global economic conditions since 1992.  While developing countries have taken major steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the developed countries would like to find a way to make these efforts part of any future agreement.  Developing countries prefer instead to make voluntary commitments.

Romero concluded by asking the WTO to consider what steps it could take to facilitate the mitigation and adaptation of climate change, and to promote the dissemination of green technologies throughout the world.

Anthony Taubman, Director of the WTO Intellectual Property Division, spoke about the relationship between climate change and the WTO agreement on intellectual property, called Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). According to Taubman, the debate about the role of TRIPS in environmental concerns centers on the task of developing better ways to promote the use of green technologies.  Taubman points out that a major obstacle in the discussion of the relationship between intellectual property and climate change is the lack of information.  Questions include which low-carbon technologies are needed in which countries, whether those technologies are patented, and how the patent owners exercise their rights.

While Taubman does not participate in WTO negotiations, he is able to develop a sense of the major points of view prevailing among members.  Following is Taubman’s description of three broad perspectives:

  1. The intellectual property component of the international trade regime functions well in its current form.  Improvements could be made, but a major overhaul is unnecessary.
  2. The current rules are not up to the task of allowing for the appropriate dissemination of green technologies.  Climate change is similar to the issue of health and access to medicines, and WTO members should create mechanisms to increase access to low-carbon technology.
  3. The WTO intellectual property rules will not result in a satisfactory outcome, and specific carve-outs [the exclusion of certain technologies from the WTO intellectual property regime] are necessary.

Taubman concludes that controversy is to be expected with such varied points of view.

Other speakers at the session included Martin Khor, Executive Director of the South Centre; Dyebo Shabalala, Assistant Professor at Maastricht University; and Thaddeus Burns, Senior Counsel at General Electric.

Sources: WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy’s opening speech, http://www.wto.org/english/news_e/sppl_e/sppl206_e.htm; WTO Public Forum 2011: Seeking Answers to Global Trade Challenges [Factsheet] http://www.wto.org/english/forums_e/public_forum11_e/factsheet_e.doc.  Specific information on the session, Strategies for Promoting Green Innovation and Disseminating Environmentally Friendly Technologies – What Role for Intellectual Property?, including an audio recording of the entire session and  presentations from three of the five speakers, is available at http://www.wto.org/english/forums_e/public_forum11_e/programme_e.htm#session38.

Written By:  Cherie Tremaine, GIELR Staff