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Rio+20 conference opens With IP, tech transfer, underlying debate

By for Intellectual Property Watch.

RIO DE JANEIRO — As world leaders, along with thousands of government, private-sector and nonprofit participants, get ready to meet in Rio de Janeiro this week, 20 years after this Brazilian city hosted the historic first Earth Summit, there are fears that there may be no meaningful consensus on how the world can become more liveable and sustainable at the same time. And technology transfer, research and development, intellectual property rights are part of the debate.

Heading into the Rio+20 summit, delegates from 193 countries were still divided over key issues, such as means of implementing the agreements that were reached at the 1992 Earth Summit, or what to do about pollution in the oceans.

Another key development expected at Rio+20 was a set of “sustainable development goals,” though it now seems that the best that can be expected now is an overall agreement that we should have such goals. The exact goals, the timeframe, how they are to be achieved, all these details are likely to be worked out later.

Still another area in which there is no agreement is whether the UN Environment Programme should be strengthened or whether the UN should have a new and more powerful body to deal with the world’s environmental issues.

The fuzziness of green

Solar panels, EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland

“Green economy” is the buzzword phrase at the conference, but there is no consensus on how exactly to interpret these words. A delegate from Mauritius said the Group of 77 developing countries plus China (G77+China) have made it clear that they do not want any “outside interference.”

“If we must go down the green economy path, it has to be a national process, an indigenous development plan fitting local context,” he told Intellectual Property Watch.

On technology transfer, the developing countries are asking for the creation of an international platform for the transfer of technology within the multilateral system, and they will be satisfied if there is an agreement on principle on this, the delegate said.

The modalities for working this out can come later.

Global economic crisis hardening positions

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) is taking place under the shadow of the global economic crisis and this has only hardened the positions of the contending sides.

Hope is being pinned now on a political miracle during the high-level segment of the conference which runs from 20-22 June and is expected to bring over 100 heads of state and government.

After formal negotiations ahead of time reportedly did not make much headway, Brazil – which holds the presidency of the conference – was asked to take over. Over the last 48 hours, Brazil has been holding informal negotiations on the various issues which elude agreement.

On Monday afternoon, Nikhil Seth, head of the Rio+20 Secretariat, told the international media that “Brazil is at the heart of the negotiating process.”

Seth also said that there were large parts of the text of the draft outcome document on which there is now agreement and a final document was expected late Monday night. Now, instead of labouring over textual refinement, the focus was on the “big picture.”

Technology transfer a major point of contention

Windmill, canton Valais, Switzerland

One of the most contested issues in the run-up to the Rio sustainability meeting has been technology transfer.

Everyone agrees that innovation and green technology can play a vital role in shaping a more sustainable world, but the developed and the developing world are divided on the mechanisms needed to make this happen on the ground. Intellectual property rights are a vital piece of this fractious debate.

Industrialized countries, where most of today’s green technologies have been created, say that a strong intellectual property rights regime is key to research and innovation and any attempt to weaken that, and undermine patents, will be a major disincentive to further R&D in such technology. This resonates with the position of the business sector who view the conference as an unique opportunity to showcase their technological solutions for a greener economy.

Carlos Busquets, deputy director of the Department of Policy and Business Practices of the Paris-headquartered International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), told Intellectual Property Watch that “intellectual property rights is the driver of innovation and is fundamental to achieving the green economy.”

The ICC has just released its “Green Economy Road Map” which does not foreground the role of IPR in technology transfer but does allude to ICC’s known position on the link between “effective intellectual property rights protection” and “enhancement of both innovation and technology.”

The view from the developing countries side of the fence

Developing countries have a somewhat different point of view.

“Green economy is a low-carbon economy sensitive to environmental conservation and natural resources. But we believe firmly in the concept of common but differentiated responsibility,” a lead negotiator for LDCs and the G-77 developing countries at Rio+20 told Intellectual Property Watch. “Green economy can work if green technology is transferred to the least developed countries without attaching a huge price tag.”

“There should be a global kitty under the aegis of the UN from where funds are given to developing countries to help them access these technologies,” the negotiator said. “There are proposals to this effect, like the Green Climate Fund. LDCs have many other challenges confronting them – poverty alleviation, health education and so on, and are not willing to pay for green technologies under patent from their own coffers.”

Geneva report shows sticking points

A recent report by the Geneva-based International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) captured some of the key issues and sticking points between countries on technology transfer and innovation in the run-up to Rio+20.

“Many developing countries highlight the importance of examining the role of intellectual property, especially patents, as an incentive for innovation and as a factor impacting access to ESTs [environmentally sound technologies],” it said. “Most of these countries underline the need for balanced approaches that respect intellectual property rights while also acknowledging the flexibilities inherent in the IP system.”

For example, the ICTSD report pointed out, Brazil recognizes international protection of IP rights provided for primarily in the World Trade Organization Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement, but it also recognizes that in some cases intellectual property can create barriers to the dissemination and transfer of clean or socially relevant technologies, such as medicines.

Last week, in an event organized by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and Brazil’s National Institute for Industrial Property (INPI) on the sidelines of Rio+20, INPI President Jorge Avila argued that IP rights make private investments attractive, but for ‘technology diffusion’ to happen, IPRs also have to make transactions reliable and there has to be a solid contractual basis ruling collaborations. For this to happen, he stressed, four things are required: public regulation, public investment, private investment and public-private-partnership coordination.

India, another emerging economic power, has been arguing that most of the green technologies in developed countries are in the private domain and come under the IPR regime which makes the cost prohibitive. India asserts that developing countries need access to cost effective technologies appropriate to their resource endowments and location-specific factors, to enable them to accelerate the transition to sustainable development.

The United States advocates spurring developments in science and innovation through the use of incentive systems; investments in education, the workforce, and basic research; and promoting innovative, open, and competitive markets, supported by strong protection for intellectual property rights and transparent, science-based, regulatory approaches and standards.

Some are pessimistic about the net outcome of the conference. “In the section on technology transfer in the draft declaration, the US, the European Union, Canada and Australia do not even want any reference to technology transfer in the title itself,” Martin Khor, executive director of the Geneva-based South Centre, wrote for the Third World News Network last week.

The US, supported by Canada and Australia, want to delete the word “transfer” and instead change the title to “Technology development, innovation and science,” he said. The EU also wants a new title: Research, innovation and technology development, Khor said.

Khor, who has been following the Rio+20 negotiations closely, said: “The major developed countries also want to delete entire paragraphs that call for a balanced treatment of intellectual property rights.”

These assertions could not be checked by press time.

Questions Remain

Will Rio+20 succeed in changing the current rules of the game of technology transfer? Or will the final outcome document be nice sounding text which changes little? The jury is out on that one.

The business community present in Rio+20 say that many of the emerging economies like India and China who are espousing the cause of the developing world are themselves eager seekers of foreign investment and are unlikely to do anything which will seriously dent the intellectual property rights of companies that offer innovative technologies for green growth.

Despite the despondent mood at Riocentro, the sprawling conference site on the outskirts of Rio, there are some ideas on the table.

For instance, one idea is to take a leaf out of public health and point to proposals like the establishment of “patent pools” (along the lines of the Medicines Patents Pool) to finance the transfer of clean technologies and their development in developing countries.

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