Kyoto pact members see spurt in climate-related inventions

BERN, Switzerland -- The Kyoto Protocol has spurred a great deal of innovation in climate change technology. The United States has benefited less from this trend than other industrial nations that have ratified the Protocol, though it remains a leading inventor country in this field.

These are the main findings of a new study, "Invention and Transfer of Climate Change Mitigation Technologies on a Global Scale: A Study Drawing on Patent Data," presented yesterday at the start of a conference on international aspects of climate policies at the University of Bern.

The report was prepared by a team of European researchers who analyzed how climate mitigation inventions have been geographically distributed between 1978 and 2003.

The authors used the European Patent Office/Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Worldwide Patent Statistical Database, a worldwide patent data bank that has recently been made available to researchers. It includes patents from 81 national and international patent offices.

"Though patent data is not a perfect tool, it is the only quantitative indicator available today for assessing innovation on a global scale; moreover, it covers both emerging and mature technologies," explained Antoine Dechezleprêtre, one of the authors, adding, "it's a good proxy for innovation."

The researchers claim that their study is the first to use patent data to quantitatively describe worldwide geographical and historical trends in the innovation and diffusion of climate-mitigation technologies.

They have identified 13 different categories of technologies with significant global greenhouse gas emissions abatement potential, and have analyzed inventive activities and their international transfer from 1978 onwards.

Six renewable-energy technologies have come under consideration (wind, solar, geothermal, ocean energy, biomass and hydropower); seven additional technologies complete the portrait (waste use and recovery, methane destruction, climate-friendly cement, energy conservation in buildings, motor-vehicle fuel injection, energy-efficient lighting and carbon capture and storage).

The authors do warn that, due to constraints on available data, key technology categories such as clean coal technologies and electric vehicles have not been included in their work.

'A clear acceleration'

The study finds that the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in December 1997, has caused a greater amount of innovation in the fight against global warming. While innovation in climate-change technologies and innovation in all technologies grew at the same pace up until the mid-1990s, climate change mitigation technology is now developing much faster, having grown at an average annual rate of 9 percent between 1998 and 2003.

The authors say this shows significant influence from climate change policies since the Kyoto protocol was signed in 1997. They add that in specific areas such as renewable energies, changing oil prices also seem to have exerted a significant influence.

"Our data show a clear acceleration [in innovation] a couple of years after the adoption of the protocol," says Dechezleprêtre. Some participants at the Bern conference remain skeptical, however, asking how the protocol could have affected innovation so rapidly, when it was ratified as recently as 2002 by the European Union and its member states, and in 2004 by Russia.

Dechezleprêtre had this answer: "The literature shows that innovators do react swiftly to regulation changes -- Kyoto's adoption sent signals to the private sector that there was money to be made there." Michael Rauscher, from the University of Rostock, added, "Many countries took action, passing laws and adopting regulations as if Kyoto were already ratified, well before it actually was, and this most notably in Germany."

Dechezleprêtre said that innovation has grown, with particular strength in the categories of lighting, waste, wind, biomass and methane, but it has been weak in the ocean, solar, hydro and geothermal categories. The report states that these results were to be expected with regard to mature technologies such as hydro and geothermal, but are more surprising in the solar and ocean categories. It adds, "Interestingly, the growth of innovation in fuel injection systems is also lower than that of the motor vehicle sector as a whole."

The study states that increased innovation in climate mitigation technologies between 1998 and 2003 occurred in countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but that the increase was smaller in Australia and in the United States, which haven't ratified the treaty. Nevertheless, the United States remains one of the leading inventor countries in this sector.

Japan leads in 12 out of 13 fields

The report reveals that innovation in climate change technologies is concentrated in three countries -- Japan, Germany and the United States -- and that innovations in those countries account for two-thirds of all innovations in the 13 technologies. The authors salute Japan's performance as particularly impressive, as it ranks first in 12 out of 13 technology fields. On average, Japan accounts for 40 percent of worldwide innovation, the authors said.

Japan dominates all fields except biomass, in which it ranks second. Japan holds the distinction of accounting for 50 percent of the world's innovations in methane, waste and lighting. The researchers feel that this is consistent with available evidence in research and development.

The report states that, although no detailed data are available on private R&D, available figures on public R&D for low-carbon technologies confirm Japan's strong leadership. It adds that, with $220 million spent in 2004, Japan alone surpasses both the United States and the European Union in public R&D spending. (The United States spent $70 million and the European Union $50 million on R&D in 2004.)

Emerging economies' performance in innovation came as a surprise to the study's authors: It is far from negligible. The authors list China, South Korea and Russia as fourth-, fifth- and sixth-largest innovators, respectively. In 2003, emerging countries accounted for 16.3 percent of patented climate-friendly innovations.

These countries seem to perform strongly in particular fields, namely geothermal and cement (China and Russia), biomass (South Korea) and carbon capture and storage (Russia).

The report says the case of the former USSR and the transition economies is of particular interest, as prior to 1990, the Soviet Union and its satellite countries had been steadily catching up with developed countries. After the Soviet Union's collapse, their innovative output then fell dramatically.

Authors see large international trade potential

According to the study, the export rate of innovations in climate change technologies -- measured by the share of inventions patented in at least two countries -- stands at about 25 percent. The authors stated that although 25 percent seems small, it is only a few percentage points below the rate for all technologies.

International transfers mostly occur between developed countries (75 percent of exported inventions), the authors said. The report goes on to say that exports from developed countries to emerging economies remain limited (18 percent) but are growing rapidly, implying a huge potential for development of north-south transfers.

After discovering a near-total absence of flow among emerging economies (although China, Russia and South Korea are major innovators), the researchers also said they believe that a huge international trade potential exists for less-developed nations, particularly since these countries may have developed technologies better tailored to the needs of developing countries.

Unlike the case for innovations, the report adds, the Kyoto Protocol has had no visible effect on technology transfer: "International technology flows have been increasing in the recent period, but the growth rate is the same as the average."

Click here to view the patent data study.