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China calls for better access to other countries' clean technologies

Leading climate official says China’s transition to a low carbon economy could be held back five years without affordable access to intellectual property (IP)

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Electric vehicles are one technology where the gap between Chinese and international capabilities remains "quite large", says Jim Watson. (Image by Comrogues)

China’s transition to a low-carbon economy could be set back “five years” without better access to the intellectual property (IP) of clean technologies, one of the country’s leading climate officials has said.

Zou Ji, deputy director general of China’s National Centre for Climate Change, told the NGO Responding To Climate Change that the alternative to buying expensive access to technologies such as electric cells or algorithms – for use in a smart electricity grid, for example – could be five years of intensive research.

That could be critical time if the world’s largest carbon emitter is to effectively cut greenhouse-gas emissions and help stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

In an earlier interview with chinadialogue, Zou argued that the best way for China to cut its emissions was to embrace technological advances in order to increase energy efficiency. He also suggested the rest of the world had underestimated the complexity of China’s environmental challenge.

But are IP rights really as crucial to China’s move towards a low-carbon economy as Zou claims?

Jim Watson, research director at the UK Energy Research Centre, believes Zou has overstated the case by applying a “blanket statement” to an issue that is far more complicated. “The position varies a lot across different low carbon technologies,” he told chinadialogue. “For some, the barrier to getting access to IP isn’t particularly high or expensive.”

He cited offshore wind and solar PV as examples where Chinese manufacturers have been able to catch up rapidly with field leaders, but pointed to electric vehicles and advanced fossil-fuel power plant technologies as cases where the gap between Chinese and international capabilities remain “quite large”.

Watson also said Zou had failed to consider other factors involved in the development of low carbon technologies. “In order to use that IP, you need the capabilities, the trained people and the expertise in an organisation…access to IP is only part of the picture.

"Part of the picture is also what indigenous capabilities you have as part of your company, research institute or country…those really make the difference to how far you can ‘catch up’”. Much of the solution, he said, lies in how China invests in its own innovation systems.

In the eyes of Dennis Pamlin, a senior associate at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China’s inability to access many of these IP rights could turn out to be beneficial, forcing China to take a more “proactive agenda, instead of copying Western solutions” and “triggering transformative thinking”.

IP rights and the technologies themselves only generate “incremental” improvements, and in most cases “have resulted in unsustainable lock in rather than sustainable solutions”, he said.  In other words, a focus on IP distracts people from the structural problems behind our unsustainable lifestyles.

It would be more useful to focus on the removal of domestic obstacles such as “old laws, bad incentives, the lack of collaboration between ministries and old cultural values blocking new smart solutions such as teleworking,” Pamlin told chinadialogue.

China has been working with the United Nations Development Programme to develop a “technology wish list” that could enable it to cut significantly the footprint of its six major emitting sectors – iron, chemicals, transport, steel, cement and buildings.

The UN has also outlined plans for a Climate Technology Centre and Network, to get up and running in 2014.  It is designed to help developing and developed countries work together to grow their renewable energy sectors by sharing information on what technologies are available and who has them.  

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