Global patent applications for climate change mitigation technologies – a key measure of innovation – are trending down

One of the key measures of innovation in climate change mitigation is showing worrying trends, according to new evidence from the IEA and the OECD.

Drawing upon new extractions from the Worldwide Patent Statistical Database (PATSTAT), researchers at the IEA and OECD have found that while patenting of innovations in climate change mitigation technologies (CCMT) related to power generation, transport, buildings, manufacturing, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) had generally been increasing much faster than other technologies in the period up to 2011-2012, there has been a notable drop-off in the number of these patents since then.

Global patent applications for climate change mitigation technologies, 1990-2015

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What is particularly striking is that there is no evidence of such a drop-off in patenting in general, or in other fields such as health technologies, general engineering, and information and communication technologies (ICT). Interestingly, this drop-off is also not observed to the same extent for environmental technologies such as those which relate to abatement of local and regional air pollutants or wastewater treatment.

Some of this decline could be explained by the increasing “maturity” of climate change mitigation technologies, and thus lower propensity to patent. For example, many of the more recent developments that have brought down costs in solar PV are likely to be related to improved “know how” in exploiting the innovations from previous years. There is some limited support for such a hypothesis with less evidence of a drop for some advanced forms of energy storage, fuel cell and hydrogen applications for transport and non-carbon capture and storage.

Moreover, it is interesting to note that many of the technology fields which have “bucked the trend” fall into one of two categories: i) “enabling” technologies which relate to power system integration such as ICT for climate change mitigation, energy storage, and HVDC transmission systems; and ii) fields in which regulatory efforts at climate change mitigation have become the subject of policy discussions in recent years (maritime and air transport). Tellingly, technologies related to adaptation to climate change have not shown such a precipitous decline in recent years.   

Recent work at the IEA has noted the importance of the digitalisation of the energy sector, and the potential climate mitigation benefits associated with this development. Patent data support the importance of digitalization in energy innovation. As can be seen in the figure below, the rate of penetration of digital technologies in climate change mitigation technologies is extremely high, with almost 40% of such innovation in the energy and building areas characterised as being “digital” in nature. This is markedly higher than in other fields such as health that are often cited as being areas where digitalisation has the potential to yield broad public welfare gains.

Percentage of patent families that also include one class related to ICT, 1978-2018

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Another finding that emerges from this work is the increasing importance of research collaboration between countries of the OECD – and particularly the United States – and emerging economies in the development of climate change mitigation technologies related to energy. In all areas, collaboration between researchers residing in the United States with those in China and India are in the top five of country-pairs, having risen markedly relative to previous years. For other important OECD economies this trend toward increased research collaboration with emerging economies is also evident.

Rank Of Country Pairs In Terms Of Counts Of Joint Applications By Country Of Residence Of Inventors

Note: Patent extractions from the EPO World Patent Statistical Database (PATSTAT) by OECD/ENV and IEA/EDC (2019).

The precipitous decline in patented innovation since 2011-2012 is a stark warning since there can be a long lag between innovation and cost reductions.

We have benefited significantly in recent years from the research efforts that went into wind and solar power in the 1990s and 2000s, with increasingly competitively generation costs. The evidence presented here based on patents raises concerns about developments in future years.

Still, there are some positive developments. Firstly, it is clear that climate change mitigation technologies are converging with other fields. In particular, climate change mitigation is likely to benefit from the very significant research efforts that are going into digitalisation more generally. Secondly, international research collaboration is on the rise, including between country-pairs where cooperation has been strained in other areas.

As a global concern, climate change requires such collaborative efforts. Addressing the pressing challenge of climate change requires looking far (geographically) and wide (technologically).