Over the past few weeks, important developments have shown what needs to happen to tackle the dual climate and COVID-19 crisis. The Biden administration declared support for waiving patents for COVID-19 vaccines from the US, the implacable bulwark of intellectual property rights. Then there was a call for no new coal, oil, and gas development from the formerly relentless fossil fuel partisan IEA, followed by the G7 announcement to end funding for overseas coal.
These developments, beyond being simply astounding, are also connected.
Activists for social justice have been working against restrictive IPs in vaccines and critical medicines for many years. Case in point is the AIDS crisis when pharmaceutical companies agreed on some very limited compromises on pricing only after countries desperately struggling with the crisis in the Global South had to charge ahead with using generic alternatives. Pharmaceutical multinationals and their agencies did everything in their power to keep their IPs even when that meant putting critical medicines out of reach for millions in the Global South. Then came COVID-19 and the realization that there is no individual path to getting out of this pandemic. This is the reason that the idea of a potential temporary IP waiver for COVID-19 vaccines was mainstreamed in the most striking way. However, we haven’t really grasped the enormity of what the precedent of a potential IP waiver could mean for climate justice.
The climate crisis, which will not only compound the effects of pandemics like the current COVID-19 crisis, but will also bring much more drastic challenges of its own necessitates societies everywhere to switch from carbon-dependent economies to renewable energy technologies. This has to happen fast, it has to be at scale, and it has to be globally coordinated.
The good news is that recent advances in technology and innovation mean that wind and solar power alone can meet the entire global energy demand and then some (up to a hundred times the current demand to be specific). Advancements in energy storage capacities mean that we are quite likely to be able to store much of that energy produced from RES. The bad news is that these are costly changes.
In the Global North, rotating finance and public initiatives can allow the transition to be completed with minimal net cost and even savings. That is not the case for much of the Global South. Let’s just remember that more than one billion people in the world have no access to electricity. The COVID-19 crisis has reversed the energy access progress in the Global South, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa where more than half a billion people live in the dark. To connect the poorest households in rural communities, off-grid solutions, including solar lighting, solar home systems, and increasingly mini grids, will be crucial.
Renewable Energy Systems can meet this demand. In fact they are much better suited to fix this issue than heavily polluting fossil fuels. But rollout of RES at scale requires finance, planning and implementation capacity, and access to technologies. It’s bound to be an incredible and complex operation. And one of the barriers to rollout in the Global South is transfer of technology and know-how. Without working to make RES and other climate technologies rollout in the Global South easier and less expensive it’s disingenuous to talk about phasing out fossil fuels in those places. We have to accept that fossil fuels have the advantage of path dependency built over 200+ years of domination. Breaking that dependency while simultaneously dealing with energy poverty requires us to go beyond conventions.
And intellectual property and other barriers to such technology transfers are in this case just such conventions, especially considering innovations over the next decade will be crucial in terms of building up carbon free energy systems globally. Patenting all those innovations runs the risk of putting these technologies out of reach for a large part of the world, leaving them stuck between energy poverty and fossil fuels. Complex technology development’s foundational work is often publicly funded, yet it is the companies protecting IPs, at times creating patent thickets and smothering innovation.
What we need is a coordinated transition at a global scale. Waiving patents or temporarily suspending them for this cause is as justified as it is for pandemic response.