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.

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