Patents Stymie India’s Push to bring Solar Electricity to Rural Areas

In August this year, the World Trade Organization ruled in favor of the United States after the Obama administration successfully challenged India on its domestic content requirements in solar panels, saying intellectual property rights protection means India must pay for the technology.

That is posing enormous problems for India, which is seeking to bring electricity to the country’s 311 million rural dwellers who lack it by seeking to leapfrog conventional technology, which requires either fossil-fueled or nuclear plants and, as in the west, a vast grid system of electrical cable to reach the country’s far-flung rural areas, where in many cases there aren’t even roads.

A story published in the New Delhi-based newspaper LiveMint observed that “The ruling in the solar dispute between the US and India goes against the spirit of an agreement signed early this year. In the agreement, the two sides agreed to promote clean energy and expand solar energy initiatives.” While the WTO ruling will not affect India’s ambitious solar power program, the call for intellectual property rights-free technology – material not under patent – of green technologies is gaining ground.

The draft agreement text of the climate conference in Paris has seen India making a submission that developing countries must be provided with climate-friendly technologies, with the costs of intellectual property rights protection be borne by financing from the Green Climate Fund, launched by the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change to pay for mechanisms to assist developing companies in adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Technological Cooperation Needed to end Deadlock

India has the world’s largest number of households without electricity. Of these, the poorest form the majority who lack energy access. The herculean task of providing electricity to its people has led India to exploit energy from cheap and abundant coal reserves in the region, adding materially to the problems of carbon in the atmosphere. At present, coal amounts for almost half of India’s total energy needs even as the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has pledged fossil-fuel cuts and to hike renewable energy targets.

India has pledged 33 to 35 percent reductions in emission intensity by 2030 in its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution or INDC. However, some climate policy experts believe that India could reduce its carbon emissions intensity by around 40 percent by 2030.

To keep up with its ambitious solar power program, India has already signed agreements on climate change with countries including the US, China and the UK in 2015. India’s Environment Minister, Prakash Javadekar, has stated that if technology is provided free of the strictures of intellectual property rights, India is willing to walk an extra mile. At the global front, India has pledged a low-carbon-growth philosophy whereby sustainable consumption is central to development. A lot of smaller developing countries are looking up at this model of development. This also reflects in their INDCs and submissions at the pre-COP negotiations in Bonn. IPR-free technology can contribute immensely to the long term goal in mitigating climate change by 2050.

India’s submission for IPR-free technology is in line with a long-standing request from developing nations to ease intellectual property costs from the UN Conference and Development negotiations in 1992. During the Warsaw climate conference in 2013, the European Union had opposed the demand to transfer IPR-protected technology from developed to developing countries.

Reviewing Commitments on Technology Transfer

Objectives on technology transfer already exist under the UN’s framework on climate change and the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to extend the UN’s convention, but they have failed at the implementation level. To fill this loophole in the final agreement, India has made another submission on the review of gaps in implementation of developed countries. The review is to be based on their mitigation commitments and support provided for technology transfer, finance and capacity building to developing countries.

The opposition from the western countries to loosen patent costs is only natural because the majority of patents in climate-related technologies are collectively held by companies based in North America, Western Europe or Japan. Consequently, developing countries like India, China and Brazil have no companies in the top 10 positions despite having fast growing markets for green technology innovation.

The dialogue on technology transfer needs to come to a logical conclusion where the developing countries do not suffer for using green technologies borrowed from the West. To ensure climate justice in the agreement, it is important that the final text reflects greater responsibility on the developed nations to help the developing nations with capacity building and technology transfer.

Pari Trivedi is a member of the Climate-Tracker framework readying for the Conference of Parties talks on climate change in Paris in December.