Climate change and the WTO intellectual property (TRIPS) agreement

Intellectual property rights — how they are granted, regulated and exercised — are relevant to how technologies related to climate change are developed and transferred to developing countries. So, more specifically, is the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). International policy debate on climate change has touched on several issues concerning intellectual property in general, and the TRIPS Agreement in particular. WTO members have discussed this in TRIPS Council meetings.


The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has provisions for controlling reducing or preventing greenhouse gas emissions, and on environmentally sound technologies.

For example, the objective (Article 2 of the Convention) is: “… to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

The Convention also says (Article 4.5 of the Convention) developed countries: “… shall take all practicable steps to promote, facilitate and finance, as appropriate, the transfer of, or access to, environmentally sound technologies and know-how to other Parties, particularly developing country Parties, to enable them to implement the provisions of the Convention. In this process, the developed country Parties shall support the development and enhancement of endogenous capacities and technologies of developing country Parties. Other Parties and organizations in a position to do so may also assist in facilitating the transfer of such technologies.”

The importance of this is underscored in an observation by the UNFCCC Secretariat, that “promoting the effective development and transfer of environmentally sound technologies is critical in enabling developing countries to pursue their objectives for sustainable development in a climate-friendly manner.”

The challenge of developing green technologies, and of disseminating them to where they are needed, brings intellectual property into the frame. Incentives are needed for companies and institutions to invest in research and development in the relevant technologies; a framework is needed to support the diffusion and transfer of technologies. The TRIPS Agreement is part of the global intellectual property system that aims to contribute to promoting technological innovation and its transfer and dissemination.

For example, industry widely believes that private investment into projects for developing green technology will only be forthcoming if certain conditions are met: that policies and regulations are clear and predictable, including on intellectual property. It points to the role of intellectual property in helping to create technology partnerships and to enable complex green technologies from different sources to be combined.

Some developing country delegations negotiating climate change issues argue that the “flexibilities” in the TRIPS Agreement are significant for access to green technology. These flexibilities are in various provisions that allow governments to relax some basic obligations of intellectual property protection, such as patent rights, under certain conditions. (One of the most widely debated flexibilities is “compulsory licensing” for pharmaceuticals, which is explained here, but there are a number of other possibilities.)


Information on TRIPS and climate change



Discussions in the TRIPS Council

Ecuador first brought this subject to the TRIPS Council under “Other Business” in March 2013, when it submitted a document entitled “Contribution of IP to Facilitating the Transfer of Environmentally Rational Technology” (IP/C/W/585, 5 March 2013). Since then this issue has been discussed in a number of TRIPS Council meetings.

Full reports of the discussions on climate change in the minutes of TRIPS Council meetings. These are extracts on items dealing explicitly with intellectual property and climate change:

Click here to see the full TRIPS Council minutes, and look for the relevant paragraphs in the table of contents.


Technical assistance and training

Climate change is covered in some technical assistance programmes on TRIPS organized by the Secretariat. Contributors include outside experts representing different viewpoints from industry and from nongovernmental organizations, and more recently — since the matter has been raised in the TRIPS Council — national delegates, who provide insights into the different positions taken in the council’s discussions.

Specialised symposiums for capacity building and on policy have been convened to deal with TRIPS and IP dimensions of climate issues, including: