European patent office to study green innovation


The European Patent Office (EPO) has embarked on a detailed study to map the growth in eco-innovation since the introduction of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The move comes ahead of the next month’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen and as major industry players line up behind green technology.

Business leaders are pinning their hopes on green innovation as a solution to the twin problems of climate change and the financial crisis. However, hard data in this area is scarce, making it difficult to quantify the true extent of Europe’s eco-innovation sector. 

This will change in April next year when the EPO publishes early results of a major project looking at the growth in new patents for environmentally sound technologies. 

The study will also look at how the green patent landscape has evolved since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and examine how companies have responded to incentives and policy signals. 

An EPO spokesperson said the report was originally planned to coincide with the Copenhagen conference but it is now expected to be unveiled in time for a 2010 conference, hosted by the Spanish EU Presidency, on innovation in the renewable energy sector. 

Raw data from the EPO shows that patent applications for environmental technologies indicate rapid growth. In the ten years from 1998, patent applications for new energy innovations grew by an average of 6% per year. 

Wind power, fuel cells, solar thermal and photovoltaic energy technologies have shown the strongest growth since the late 1990s. 

The US, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands are leading the way with the highest number of innovations in the new energy sector, with companies such as General ElectricSiemens and Nissan having made the most patent applications. 

PPPs could be central to ‘eco-innovation’ 

Greater links between the public and private sector could become a hallmark of Europe’s emerging green industry, according to political and industry leaders who gathered in Brussels for a seminar on eco-innovation, hosted by the Lisbon Council. 

Marcel Haag, head of unit with the strategic objective of solidarity at the secretariat-general of the European Commission, said the public and private sectors will have to work hand-in-hand to bring about innovations. “This cannot be delivered by the public sector alone or by the private sector alone,” he said. 

Haag said climate change and innovation will be key priorities for the new European Commission. He cited the bloc’s emissions trading scheme (EU ETS), which puts a price on carbon, as a potential driver of future innovation. However, Haag sought to temper expectations by adding that the EU can only act where Community intervention adds real value. 

The intellectual property regime is a major bottleneck to encouraging innovation, he said, adding that progress on this perennial problem is a priority for the EU. 

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) will also help drive future green technologies, he said, pointing to the Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) and the European economic recovery plan, which provides for several PPPs in areas like electric transportation. 

“We are currently looking at how we can get more mileage from PPPs through better coordination between stakeholders and simplification of the JTIs. which are very complex,” Haag said. 

However, Tom Barrett, a director at the European Investment Bank (EIB), warned that PPPs are not always the right solution. He said they can be complex instruments and can even become an obstacle to securing public support for major projects. 

Barrett stressed the importance of understanding why some PPPs worked well and why others had proven less successful. 

Industry big guns line up behind greentech 

A-list tech industry giants, including GooglePhilips and IBM, have thrown their weight – and financial muscle – behind the push for greener technologies. 

Harry Verhaar, senior director of climate change and energy at Philips, said energy savings from lighting and improved insulation will help cut Europe’s carbon footprint while generating huge numbers of jobs. 

“Energy technology is the next economic wave,” he said, adding that the US, China and South Korea are already investing heavily in green energy. 

Verhaar said lighting accounts for 19% of global energy consumption and the technology used in this sector is hugely inefficient. 

€120 billion can be saved by using more efficient lighting and this will mean fewer power plants are needed. Further savings can be found by improving Europe’s building stock, as 99% of buildings need to be renovated, according to Verhaar. He said France, for example, would have to renovate 1,000 homes per day until 2050 in order to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets. 

“This is not a sacrifice. It will bring employment, comfort and lower bills,” he said. 

Benjamin Kott, manager of green business Europe at Google, said getting information to the public will help effect changes in behaviour. Google and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are working to visualise climate data on Google Earth ahead of the Copenhagen summit. 

"We need to get information to consumers about their carbon budget, as well as details of how to address their carbon footprint and information on funding schemes in their area," he said. 

Kott added that Google has radically reduced its own footprint and claimed that its data centres are now the most efficient in the world. The company is investing €50 million in next-generation renewables, he said. 

Antonio Pires Santos, managing director of energy and utilities at IBM Europe, said his company had reduced its carbon footprint by 40% compared to 1990 levels, and it hopes for a further 12% reduction. 

"As a corporation, we need to set an example," he said. 

IBM estimates that for every €1 it spends on energy efficiency, it gets €2 in return. Pires Santos said improved technology and greater intelligence means the tools to cut emissions are there, but added that "the battle will be won or lost in the cities". 

IBM is working with several public authorities to bring about eco-efficiencies, including collaborations with the Rotterdam Port Authority and the government of Malta on smarter uses of water. 

He said an eco-economy will emerge from this period of financial turmoil, adding that eco-innovations must add real value in order to effect change. 

David Wortmann, vice-president and director of strategic planning Europe at 
First Solar
, warned that society is "driving into a system conflict" and needs to choose which route to follow. He said policymakers need to help address the uncertainty. 

The 2009 European Year of Creativity and Innovation has coincided with growing political interest in innovation. The European Commission will publish a European Innovation Act by spring 2010 (EURACTIV 24/09/09). 

However, the economic crisis has hit patent applications hard, with the European Patent Office experiencing a decline in the number of new patents, indicating tough times for Europe's innovative industries (EURACTIV 28/10/09). 

In tandem with the heightened interest in innovation, Europe has been steering its economy towards a greener path ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit. The EU's economic recovery plan included a host of measures designed to stimulate the economy. 

Nonetheless, there are concerns that Europe is struggling to compete with heavy investment in green innovation by China, Japan and South Korea (EURACTIV 02/11/09). 

  • By spring 2010: European Commission to publish European Innovation Act.
  • April 2010: EPO to publish early results of a major project looking at the growth in new patents for environmentally sound technologies.

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