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



11 July 2019

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 (Photograph: Shutterstock)

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.

	CCMT Buildings	CCMT CCS	CCMT Energy	CCMT Manufacturing	CCMT Transport	Health technologies	Information and communications technologies	All technologies
1990	100	100	100	100	100	100	100	100
1991	106.0741	101.9688	102.7634	101.6162	105.2074	99.70896	103.4501	97.9548
1992	112.2963	89.08942	107.4553	102.0826	113.3774	103.4828	106.6385	98.19109
1993	121.5892	82.19852	111.5128	104.4145	115.7681	109.7624	111.3656	100.9074
1994	131.1515	86.13618	115.5452	109.5035	120.8558	118.6638	122.1135	107.1484
1995	147.4747	112.7153	119.7417	120.4779	128.9827	132.4866	139.2233	117.2104
1996	158.4646	145.201	127.2778	132.5034	145.1648	151.3783	162.8601	130.8031
1997	176.8081	174.4873	140.8109	144.2025	164.8072	172.3236	186.6086	144.1966
1998	194.8283	223.2158	163.3801	160.0452	188.8626	196.3049	215.9094	159.2775
1999	221.9124	256.1936	191.7321	183.5887	217.0149	227.8081	257.628	178.1203
2000	249.872	293.1091	223.5265	209.7367	245.0714	256.3104	295.6714	194.4955
2001	273.6566	282.0345	248.1605	223.2852	268.7199	279.5759	323.0481	205.8297
2002	301.5757	264.315	277.0301	229.332	288.7061	294.9033	339.5482	212.6788
2003	338.1818	236.0131	311.1288	230.7832	314.2738	311.014	369.4804	224.3308
2004	391.8519	275.6358	370.2649	242.7639	344.0103	331.2377	407.9844	238.6384
2005	438.6397	340.6071	445.4433	262.2724	391.1264	347.3521	440.6159	251.1891
2006	500.2559	469.4012	559.6237	288.2392	442.0609	353.1834	455.4694	258.2183
2007	569.7643	569.7703	706.4026	312.9748	474.5184	345.3471	450.23	255.9144
2008	670.6128	699.8769	888.4346	340.1891	497.808	332.9037	436.7924	250.5124
2009	778.2087	747.2928	1079.226	371.5122	549.0153	328.5248	436.7588	251.3805
2010	872.2155	801.9688	1221.895	400.7946	624.5579	331.8089	453.1024	261.7731
2011	918.0606	797.621	1256.171	415.6877	695.9197	336.3347	480.398	276.0162
2012	887.8115	791.7145	1166.873	413.4035	736.095	348.9091	500.4709	287.9738
2013	828.4984	741.0173	1019.219	397.6505	740.1872	355.3979	511.4706	294.1838
2014	728.6196	659.557	861.4376	366.2958	690.6406	366.1024	516.9001	298.9693
2015	616.9608	570.7865	704.4186	319.0179	582.1661	367.6541	519.6118	300.3517
2016	475.9343	493.0764	532.7278	259.1422	444.7865	374.4385	526.0244	304.1136
2017	356.1696	461.6662	367.9539	201.6805	321.3272	378.7882	533.3611	307.3055
2018	297.5405	460.1917	284.8755	172.5877	258.5659	380.9588	537.0078	308.8979
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Note:  Index of 3-year moving average of patent families (1990=100). Only “claimed priorities” (i.e. patent family size > 1) included. Patent extractions from the EPO World Patent Statistical Database (PATSTAT) by OECD/ENV and IEA/EDC (2019). Dotted observations for 2016-2018 are “nowcasted” values based on ARIMA estimation and using previous versions of the PATSTAT database.

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.

	All Technologies	All CCM Technologies	CCMT Buildings	CCMT Energy	CCMT Manufacturing	CCMT Transport	Health Technologies
1978	14.6664	6.4399	4.6092	15.9237	4.615	1.5304	3.9036
1979	14.832	6.5672	5.0263	16.0417	5.3272	1.1305	3.7129
1980	15.2581	6.7756	4.8429	17.4848	6.3392	1.2012	3.4933
1981	15.8607	7.0657	6.6962	18.4866	6.8698	1.0408	3.3952
1982	16.4554	7.4696	7.9158	19.9591	7.7782	1.188	3.4998
1983	17.3583	8.1672	9.0551	21.1925	7.8579	1.06	3.7502
1984	18.1379	8.6669	9.1371	22.7758	9.145	1.2104	3.9196
1985	18.8345	8.6387	9.9261	22.907	8.4144	1.2527	4.0137
1986	19.2042	8.2836	10.2941	20.5033	8.401	1.3657	4.1996
1987	19.4299	7.888	11.1609	17.4372	6.9392	1.527	4.0408
1988	20.1293	7.7753	10.929	16.2523	7.1126	1.4876	3.8811
1989	21.3887	8.4266	12.6736	16.7191	8.2678	1.593	3.8224
1990	22.9835	9.3268	14.1414	18.7677	10.0308	1.5794	3.7655
1991	24.2729	10.0447	14.4744	20.1479	10.761	1.6377	3.7868
1992	24.9608	10.3274	14.6798	20.8531	10.6275	1.7477	3.6288
1993	25.3656	10.8583	13.292	20.6633	10.2458	1.5628	3.7559
1994	26.1936	11.6223	13.2471	21.0983	11.814	1.8296	3.705
1995	27.3	12.434	13.8082	20.7632	12.5067	1.8257	3.6343
1996	28.6163	12.9622	15.8083	21.1343	14.1983	1.8595	3.8015
1997	29.7436	13.6617	18.3729	21.4807	14.554	1.6902	4.4323
1998	31.1554	15.0284	19.7843	24.2263	16.6775	1.9919	4.7823
1999	33.2427	16.5031	21.0475	25.7123	18.8535	2.3422	5.2906
2000	34.9395	17.9709	21.1502	26.0999	20.675	2.906	5.6359
2001	36.0725	19.1258	21.3593	25.4603	21.6104	3.58	6.1886
2002	36.6939	20.2932	22.508	25.0633	21.8478	4.307	6.6186
2003	37.8546	21.7601	25.2091	25.3602	22.9463	5.647	7.1302
2004	39.2934	23.0667	26.905	25.3865	24.038	7.0121	7.7345
2005	40.3159	24.0809	27.8117	26.6353	24.4946	8.4068	8.2416
2006	40.5405	24.9512	29.006	27.481	24.3379	10.1275	8.5091
2007	40.4349	26.6209	30.2423	30.9867	25.6125	11.205	8.7211
2008	40.074	28.594	32.599	34.2137	27.9817	11.9095	8.8313
2009	39.9325	29.8712	33.5329	36.6059	29.7044	11.3453	9.0855
2010	39.7821	29.7693	33.9983	36.6651	29.183	10.5616	9.2535
2011	40.0021	29.0038	32.1715	34.96	27.4811	9.1856	9.7232
2012	39.9432	27.856	29.3538	33.1922	26.1216	7.7265	10.2275
2013	39.9593	26.817	26.2273	30.8137	25.2591	6.2929	10.8276
2014	39.7372	25.8365	24.3993	29.783	24.3949	5.3916	10.8838
2015	39.7618	25.1835	24.8155	29.3094	22.6973	4.4485	10.5248
2016	39.7545	24.5344	27.5702	31.0618	20.6933	3.8174	9.763
2017	39.8903	23.9337	32.861	34.0823	18.7248	3.8374	9.0848
2018	39.956	23.4796	37.3871	37.0727	17.7925	4.3519	8.7579
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Note: 3-year moving average of % of patent families in different fields that also include an ICT co-class. Only “claimed priorities” (i.e. patent family size > 1) included. Patent extractions from the EPO World Patent Statistical Database (PATSTAT) by OECD/ENV and IEA/EDC (2019).This figure exploits the fact that patent applications often cite multiple classes. The vertical axis measures the percentage of patent families which include both the fields in question, as well as at least one class related to information and communication technologies.

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).