Less than one per cent of all patent applications relating to Clean Energy Technology (CET) have been filed in Africa, highlighting an opportunity for the continent to leapfrog existing fossil-fuel energy sources and thus cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions and bring major health benefits.
A new study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the European Patent Office (EPO)—Patents and Clean Energy Technologies in Africa—found that Africa has a huge untapped potential for generating clean energy, including enough hydroelectric power from its sevenmajor river systems to serve the whole of the continent’s needs, as well as enormous potential for solar energy, windenergy, geothermal energy etc.
For example, hydropower, the most commonly used renewable energy source, is estimated to be utilized at just 4.3 per cent of the continent’s total capacity—although recent years have seen efforts to ramp up clean energy, with North African nations leading in solar and wind, Kenya in Geothermal, Ethiopia in hydro and Mauritius in bioenergy.
However, intellectual property and patenting in particular have been highlighted as a significant factor limiting the transfer of new clean technologies to developing countries, and identified as a barrier to these countries meeting new emission limits for CO2 and other Greenhouse Gases.
While the lack of patents filed means CETs can be freely exploited in Africa, the lack of these patents to protect their products means source companies may be reluctant to offer up their know-how to promote technology transfer.
“The development and transfer of technologies are key pillars in both mitigating the causes of climate change and adapting to its effects; patents are a crucial part of this process,” said Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson.
“In addition to an accelerated response to climate change, boosting clean energy technologies have multiple green economy benefits including on public health—for example, in sub-Saharan Africa more than half of all deaths from pneumonia in children under the age of five, and chronic lung disease and lung cancer in adults over 30, can be attributed to solid fuel use,” he added.
“The joint EPO-UNEP study is the first-ever representative stock taking of clean energy technology patents in African countries,” said EPO chief economist Nikolaus Thumm. “Its main purpose is to facilitate an evidence-based informed debate on the role of patents in the dissemination of clean energy technologies in Africa, and to promote identification of existing technology solutions in the field for technology transfer to the continent.”
The report found that of the one per cent of identified CET-related patents filed in Africa, the majority came in South Africa, meaning there has been very little activity in the remaining African states.
Also, only 10 per cent of African inventors apply for patent protection in Africa; the majority tend to seek protection in four other regions: the United States (27 per cent), the EPO (24 per cent), Germany (13 per cent) and Canada (10 per cent).
However, there are signs that the situation is changing. Despite low patent application numbers, the overallinventive activity in African countries grew by 5 per cent between 1980 and 2009, compared to 4 per cent at the global level. With a59 per cent increase, mitigation technologies grew most significantly in that period.
Most African nations are fairly well integrated into the international patent system and an increasing number are putting in place specific patenting policies and strategies, which place significant importance on technology transfer, as part of their development framework.
As a consequence, African inventors – individualsand domestic companies active in the field of CETs – are also putting greater emphasis on patents aspart of their business strategies, using the international,regional and national filing systems forpatent applications in Africa and elsewhere.
The report found that Africa’s Intellectual Property system requires further development to better support the transfer of technology that can mitigate climate change, and issued the following findings and recommendations:
• In the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Technology Mechanism, the vast majority of CETs are not patented and can be freely exploited. Therefore, international policies may be developed to promoteCET in Africa without having to consider significant issues relating to patent rights.
• The main factors impeding technology transfer are access to the know-how from the source companies, access to suitably skilled staff, scientific infrastructure, and favourable market conditions. The patent system provides a legal framework to support technology transfer through licensing agreements; without patents to protect their products and processes, source companies may be reluctant to engage in technology transfer and associated investments.
• A growing proportion of CET-related applications are expected to be filed in African states in the future. It will then be important to ensure the granting of only high-quality patents in Africa, ensuring that exclusive rights in CET and similar technologies are only granted for valid inventions, and the undeserving ones refused.
• Increasing international cooperation and establishing and maintaining high-quality patent systems will foster innovation and growth.
• While all countries have, or will soon have, IP policies and strategies, their development towards a sustainable patent system must be accelerated in order to create anenabling environment for patent protection of CETs and to broaden access to these technologies.