by Leah Garden
Way back in January 2021, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden signed Executive Order (EO) 14008. If you missed it, don’t worry. Most news was covering the events from earlier in the month, and this act of executive power went through with relatively little fanfare — despite its far-reaching implications for the climate tech community.
Essentially, EO 14008 placed the effort to mitigate climate change back onto the priority list of the federal government. One way in which this has manifested is with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) June announcement of an exciting new program, the Climate Change Mitigation Pilot Program (the USPTO is not famous for its witty way with words). Henceforth, this program will be known as CCMPP for brevity’s sake.
The CCMPP was designed to “positively impact the climate by accelerating examination of patent applications for innovations that reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the official announcement. While the pilot is intended to scale up production and distribution of climate tech, to potential funders, acquiring a U.S. patent increases the viability of the tech, protecting the value of the intellectual property and mollifying investors about their stakes.
Patents provide the holder exclusive intellectual property rights to the invention. In a capitalist system, the idea and practicality of a patent make sense. Profits made directly from the use of that invention go exclusively to the holder. Even President Abraham Lincoln himself once said, “The Patent System added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”
So, assuming a given technology meets CCMPP’s required criteria, it will bypass the average 18-month wait for patent application approval. Additionally, the application fees are waived.
But what if this pilot does just as much – or more – harm than good?
Lincoln did not foresee climate change
When an invention, such as a hypothetical GHG emission mitigating technology, serves a public benefit and could potentially affect the current path of the climate crisis, the implications of sole ownership become potentially insidious, given the literal life-or-death stakes.
Aidan Hollis, professor of economics at the University of Calgary, expressed the negative impact of climate tech patent holding well in a recent Grist op-ed. Citing a new technology that can smelt aluminum without emitting carbon dioxide, Hollis describes the boon the mechanism will bring to wealthy aluminum producers and countries that can afford to license the machine. However, Hollis continues, less affluent countries and producers will have to wait 20 years for the patent to expire and the tech to enter public domain, “but the world can’t wait that long to access breakthroughs that could help to save our planet.”