Published by the Breakthrough Generation.

US China

Of all the reports that emerged from the UNFCC climate change negotiations that concluded in Bonn last week, one particular report has stuck in my mind. In the last days of the negotiations the Associated Press reported that ‘China wants the United States to deliver top of the line technology as part of a new global warming agreement.’ It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that technology transfer between the two nations is a complex issue.

The AP quote Jonathan Pershing, the US Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change, commenting on bilateral negotiations with China:

“They want from us technology, and we want from them action,” Pershing said on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks. “There’s room for agreement there.”

But the Chinese “don’t want any technology. They want some of the advanced technologies which are part of our own intellectual capital.”

Pershing’s comments draw our attention to the need for an agreement on intellectual property rights (IPR)—a potential sticking point for achieving global action on climate change and energy.

While intellectual property rights don’t come to mind when we think about climate change, this seemingly irrelevant and barely mentioned issue has implications for American innovation and rapid technology transfer to developing nations like China. Given that the US is the world’s finest innovation engine, and China the world’s manufacturing powerhouse, the benefits of cooperation loom large. But this mutually beneficial situation is impossible while IP theft and inferior imitations are tolerated.

Resolving IPR is central to dealing with our changing climate. Yet why are we hearing about it so late in the game? Well, it has a lot to do with the framing of climate change as a pollution problem. This framing increases the salience of emissions limits and carbon-pricing measures because of the perception that they deal directly with the problem of carbon pollution.

The pollution frame places emphasis what we shouldn’t do—pollute—rather than what we must do—ensure rapid and widespread deployment of clean energy technology, and therefore doesn’t consider indirect barriers like IPR. In contrast, framing climate change as an energy challenge would consider the barriers to clean energy deployment. If this frame was in wide use, it’s quite possible that the IPR problem would be solved already.

With any luck the discourse of climate change will shift in time to ensure that sticking points receive adequate attention. Our climate will continue to change until we do so.