Climate Change

Extending the Earth’s Life to Make It Off-World: Will Intellectual Property Law Allow Climate Change to Go Unchecked?

Daniel Green, MJLST Staffer

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently discovered seven Earth-like planets. Three of these planets are even located the specific distance from the star, Trappist-1, in order to be considered in the proposed “Goldilocks zone” necessary to sustain life, thereby bringing about the conversation of whether a great migration for humanity is in order such as seen in movies of the last ten years such as Passengers, The Martian, Interstellar, even Wall-E. Even Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have made statements that the human race needs to leave earth before the next extinction level event occurs. The possibility that these planets may be inhabitable presents some hope for a future to inhabit other planets.

Sadly, these planets are forty light years away (or 235 trillion miles). Although relatively near to Earth in astronomical terms, this fact means that there exists no possibility of reaching such a planet in a reasonable time with present technology despite the fact that NASA is increasing funding and creating institutes for such off worldly possibilities. As such, humankind needs to look inward to extend the life of our own planet in order to survive long enough to even consider such an exodus.

Admittedly, humanity faces many obstacles in its quest to survive long enough to reach other planets. One of the largest and direst is that of climate change. Specifically, the rise in the temperature of the Earth needs to be kept in check to keep it within bounds of the two-degree Celsius goal before 2100 C.E. Fortunately, technologies are well on the way of development to combat this threat. One of the most promising of these new technologies is that of solar climate engineering.

Solar climate engineering, also known as solar radiation management, is, essentially, a way to make the planet more reflective in order to block sunlight and thereby deter the increase in temperature caused by greenhouse gases. Though promising, Reynolds, Contreras, & Sarnoff predict that this new technology may be greatly hindered by intellectual property law in Solar Climate Engineering and Intellectual Property: Toward a Research Commons.

Since solar climate engineering is a relatively new scientific advancement, it can be greatly improved by the sharing of ideas. However, the intellectual property laws run directly contrary to this, begging the question as to why would anyone want to hinder technology so vital to the Earth’s survival. Well the answer lies in numerous reasons including the following three:

  • Patent “thickets” and the development of an “anti-commons”: This problem occurs when too many items in the same technological field are patented. This makes patents and innovations extremely difficult to patent around. As such, it causes scientific advancement to halt since patented technologies cannot be built upon or improved.
  • Relationship to trade secrets: Private entities that have financial interests in funding research may refuse to share advancements in order to protect the edge it gives them in the market.
  • Technological lock in: Broad patents at the beginning of research may force others to rely on technologies within the scope of the patent when working on future research and development. Such actions may ingrain a certain technology into society even though a better alternative may be available but not adopted.

There is no need to despair yet though since several steps can be taken to combat barriers to the advancement of solar climate engineering and promote communal technological advancement such as:

  • State interventions: Government can step in so as to ensure that intellectual property law does not hinder needed advancements for the good of humanity. They can do this in numerous action such as legislative and administrative actions, march-in rights, compulsory licensing, and asserting a control over funding.
  • Patent pools and pledges: Patent pools allow others to use one’s patents in development with the creation of an agreement to split the proceeds. Similarly, patent pledges, similarly, limit the enforcement of a patent holder by a promise in the form of a legally binding commitment. Though patent pools have more limitations legally, both of these incentivize the concept of sharing technology and furthering advancement.
  • Data commons: Government procurement and research funding can promote systematic data sharing in order to develop a broadly accessibly repository as a commons. Such methods ideally promote rapid scientific advancement by broadening the use and accessibility of each advancement through the discouragement of patents.

Providing that intellectual property laws do not stand in the way, humanity may very well have taken its first steps in extending its time to develop further technologies to, someday, live under the alien rays of Trappist-1.


Solar Climate Engineering and Intellectual Property

Jesse L. Reynolds 

Postdoctoral researcher, and Research funding coordinator, sustainability and climate
Department of European and International Public Law, Tilburg Law School

Climate change has been the focus of much legal and policy activity in the last year: the Paris Agreement, the Urgenda ruling in the Netherlands, aggressive climate targets in China’s latest five year plan, the release of the final US Clean Power Plan, and the legal challenge to it. Not surprisingly, these each concern controlling greenhouse gas emissions, the approach that has long dominated efforts to reduce climate change risks.

Yet last week, an alternative approach received a major—but little noticed—boost. For the first time, a federal budget bill included an allocation specifically for so-called “solar climate engineering.” This set of radical proposed technologies would address climate change by reducing the amount of incoming solar radiation. These would globally cool the planet, counteracting global warming. For example, humans might be able to mimic the well-known cooling caused by large volcanos via injecting a reflective aerosol into the upper atmosphere. Research thus far – which has been limited to modeling – indicates that solar climate engineering (SCE) would be effective at reducing climate change, rapidly felt, reversible in its direct climatic effects, and remarkably inexpensive. It would also pose risks that are both environmental – such as difficult-to-predict changes to rainfall patterns – and social – such as the potential for international disagreement regarding its implementation.

The potential role of private actors in SCE is unclear. On the one hand, decisions regarding whether and how to intentionally alter the planet’s climate should be made through legitimate state-based processes. On the other hand, the private sector has long been the site of great innovation, which SCE technology development requires. Such private innovation is both stimulated and governed through governmental intellectual property (IP) policies. Notably, SCE is not a typical emerging technology and might warrant novel IP policies. For example, some observers have argued that SCE should be a patent-free endeavor.

In order to clarify the potential role of IP in SCE (focusing on patents, trade secrets, and research data), Jorge Contreras of the University of Utah, Joshua Sarnoff of DePaul University, and I wrote an article that was recently accepted and scheduled for publication by the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology. The article explains the need for coordinated and open licensing and data sharing policies in the SCE technology space.

SCE research today is occurring primarily at universities and other traditional research institutions, largely through public funding. However, we predict that private actors are likely to play a growing role in developing products and services to serve large scale SCE research and implementation, most likely through public procurement arrangements. The prospect of such future innovation should be not stifled through restrictive IP policies. At the same time, we identify several potential challenges for SCE technology research, development, and deployment that are related to rights in IP and data for such technologies. Some of these challenges have been seen in regard to other emerging technologies, such as the risk that excessive early patenting would lead to a patent thicket with attendant anti-commons effects. Others are more particular to SCE, such as oft-expressed concerns that holders of valuable patents might unduly attempt to influence public policy regarding SCE implementation. Fortunately, a review of existing patents, policies, and practices reveals a current opportunity that may soon be lost. There are presently only a handful of SCE-specific patents; research is being undertaken transparently and at traditional institutions; and SCE researchers are generally sharing their data.

After reviewing various options and proposals, we make tentative suggestions to manage SCE IP and data. First, an open technical framework for SCE data sharing should be established. Second, SCE researchers and their institutions should develop and join an IP pledge community. They would pledge, among other things, to not assert SCE patents to block legitimate SCE research and development activities, to share their data, to publish in peer reviewed scientific journals, and to not retain valuable technical information as trade secrets. Third, an international panel—ideally with representatives from relevant national and regional patent offices—should monitor and assess SCE patenting activity and make policy recommendations. We believe that such policies could head off potential problems regarding SCE IP rights and data sharing, yet could feasibly be implemented within a relatively short time span.

Our article, “Solar Climate Engineering and Intellectual Property: Toward a Research Commons,” is available online as a preliminary version. We welcome comments, especially in the next couple months as we revise it for publication later this year.