The goal of balancing energy production, the environment and the economy is a major challenge in the United States and nearly every other country on the planet. Some believe this challenge will be met through international treaties and legislation.
But it won’t be legislators, regulators or negotiators who meet this challenge. Rather, risk-taking researchers who employ fresh thinking and new ideas give us our best chance to meet these goals. It is they who will discover the important breakthrough technologies to secure our energy future, so long as legislators, regulators and negotiators make sure to secure the intellectual property protections that will help enable this technological revolution.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently characterized those breakthroughs in energy technologies to the U.S. Senate as crucial, echoing what I’ve said for years about the need for such advancements. This is one area where Republicans and Democrats can agree.
Some developing nations are already demanding free access to these future breakthroughs, arguing that environmental exigencies entitle them to relaxed patent protections. These demands from nations like China and India threaten to unravel international climate negotiations and discourage innovation of vital new energy technologies.
Without key technological advances in areas like clean coal, nuclear power, battery capacity, energy efficiency and electrical grid development, ambitious emissions reduction goals will be outrageously expensive and will fundamentally undermine any hope of an economic recovery.
Before climate negotiations go any further, President Obama should make it clear that the United States will not meet the Third World’s demands to weaken intellectual property protections, nor will U.S. taxpayers cover the costs to upgrade these countries’ energy infrastructure.
Some developing nations, including carbon-spewing China and India, want to create a Multilateral Technology Climate Fund that the developed world would seed through an annual “contribution” of nearly one-half percent of each country’s gross domestic product. For the United States, that adds up to nearly $140 billion a year, more than five times what the United States already doles out in foreign aid.
This fund would be housed in the United Nations, where these same developing countries would have tremendous sway over how it is spent. This U.N. bureaucracy would also have the power to loosen many intellectual property protections. This fund is little more than a massive redistribution of wealth.
Such places as my home state of Wisconsin are already transferring wealth to such countries as China through lost jobs, particularly in manufacturing, which accounts for nearly half of the state’s job losses in the past year. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate of 9.4 percent is higher than the national average, and a study by the Economic Policy Institute reports that the state has lost 2.1 percent of its manufacturing jobs to China since 2001. Undercutting intellectual property protections will only worsen this trend.
This type of international agreement could also undermine a promising alternative energy industry in the United States. With the International Energy Agency forecasting the need for at least $45 trillion in energy investments in order to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, studies show alternative energy has the potential to be a multitrillion-dollar industry in the United States and to produce millions of jobs.
The IEA also said clean energy technology innovations must increase between 100 percent and 1,000 percent if global climate goals are to be met. But why go through the effort if technology is hijacked as soon as it is developed?
Telling companies today that their hard-earned accomplishments may not be protected tomorrow is not how you inspire risk-taking. The private sector already funds between 65 percent and 80 percent of clean energy investments. The United States should protect these investments and the ideas that come from them.
During the 1990s, some in the developing world believed the only way to spread another promising new technology - the Internet - to poor countries was to relax the patents protecting information technology. Global intellectual property protections for information technology have since mostly improved. Still, access to computers continues to rise, and the Internet has reached nearly 20 percent of the world.
Patent protections were a bridge, not a barrier, to the so-called “digital divide,” mainly because the marketplace fostered development of better and cheaper technology that naturally spread throughout the developing world.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk recently offered a strong defense of U.S. intellectual property rights and called for all countries to “step up and acknowledge their stake not only in safeguarding their own intellectual property, but in respecting other nations’ intellectual property as well.”
With our history of innovation, the United States can be a global leader in developing breakthroughs in new energy technologies. Weakening patent protections won’t lead to an energy breakthrough, but it could break apart any hope of a climate agreement between the developed and developing world.
Mr. Obama should assert leadership on a climate change treaty and use the U.N. negotiations in Bonn, Germany this June to draw the line once and for all on intellectual property rights. By pledging unwavering support for our innovative researchers and the patents they’ve earned, Mr. Obama can ensure that the United States will be home to many more breakthroughs in the coming years.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin is the ranking Republican on the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.