Less than 1 per cent of all patent applications relating to clean energy technology (CET) have been filed in Africa, according to a new United Nations study, which also highlights the opportunity for the continent to leapfrog existing fossil-fuel energy sources and, in the process, cut greenhouse gas emissions and improve public health.
Africa has a huge untapped potential for generating clean energy, including enough hydroelectric power from its seven major river systems to serve the entire continent’s needs, as well as enormous potential for other energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, according to the study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the European Patent Office (EPO).
Hydropower, the most commonly used renewable energy source, is estimated to be utilized at just 4.3 per cent of the continent’s total capacity – although recent years have seen efforts to ramp up clean energy, with North African nations leading in solar and wind categories, Kenya in geothermal, Ethiopia in hydro and Mauritius in bioenergy.
Patents and Clean Energy Technologies in Africa also points out that intellectual property and patenting in particular have been highlighted as a significant factor limiting the transfer of new clean technologies to developing countries, and identified as a barrier to these countries meeting new emission limits for CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
While the lack of patents filed means CETs can be freely exploited in Africa, the lack of these patents to protect their products means source companies may be reluctant to offer up their know-how to promote technology transfer, according to a news release on the study.
“The development and transfer of technologies are key pillars in both mitigating the causes of climate change and adapting to its effects; patents are a crucial part of this process,” said UNEP spokesperson Nick Nuttall.
“In addition to an accelerated response to climate change, boosting clean energy technologies have multiple green economy benefits including on public health – for example, in sub-Saharan Africa more than half of all deaths from pneumonia in children under the age of five, and chronic lung disease and lung cancer in adults over 30, can be attributed to solid fuel use,” he added.
The study found that of the 1 per cent of identified CET-related patents filed in Africa, the majority came in South Africa – meaning there was very little activity in the rest of the continent.
Also, only 10 per cent of African inventors apply for patent protection in Africa; the majority tend to seek protection in four other regions: the United States (27 per cent), the European Patent Office (24 per cent), Germany (13 per cent) and Canada (10 per cent).
The report adds that there are signs that the situation is changing. Despite low patent application numbers, the overall inventive activity in African countries grew by 5 per cent between 1980 and 2009, compared to 4 per cent at the global level. With a 59 per cent increase, mitigation technologies grew most significantly in that period.
Noting that Africa’s intellectual property system requires further development to better support the transfer of technology that can mitigate climate change, the report makes a number of recommendations, including the development of international policies to promote CET in Africa without having to consider significant issues relating to patent rights.