Climate geoengineering

Dear EarthTalk: What is so-called green patent sharing and how does it work?

Bill Gilmore

Albuquerque, N.M.


The idea behind so-called green patent sharing is that researchers, inventors and companies can share the rights to make, use or incorporate certain patented technologies that benefit the environment, theoretically expediting the development of energy efficiency, pollution prevention, recycling, water conservation and other advances for the common good.

The concept of patent sharing isn’t new. Back in the 1850s, the four major manufacturers of sewing machines in the U.S. got tired of fighting over patent infringement and joined ranks in a patent-sharing pool. Outside manufacturers would have to pay licensing rights to the pool, but the four partner companies were free to make use of any and all shared patents.

It took another 150 years, though, for green patent sharing to institutionalize. In 2008, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) created the Eco-Patent Commons, an online exchange of green-friendly patents that can be downloaded and used for free. Eleven companies — Bosch, DowDuPont, Fuji, HP, IBM, Nokia, Pitney Bowes, Ricoh, Sony, Taisei and Xerox — have pledged over 100 different patents to the Commons to try to encourage new innovations in sustainability and conservation.

“Companies are increasingly realizing the value of partnering and sharing expertise on sustainability issues,” says Wayne Balta, IBM’s Corporate Environmental Affairs VP. “The Eco-Patent Commons provides an opportunity for business to share intellectual property that can further sustainable development.”

A few examples of patents available in the commons are: a battery-recycling kiosk for consumers to swap out their used batteries for new replacements, a process that eliminates the need for antioxidant metal coatings in the assembly of microchips and circuit boards, a lab-designed organism that lights up to indicate the presence of pollutants in water treatment facilities and environmentally superior refrigerants to replace the ozone-destroying fluorocarbons phased out by the Montreal Protocol and other international agreements. 

These shared patents and dozens more are accessible via WIPO GREEN, an online marketplace for sustainable technology.

The concept of green patent sharing came up recently with the worldwide launch of Al Gore’s new movie, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” The film documents a December 2015 phone call that Gore made to try to convince SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive to be the corporate hero of the Paris climate accord by offering holdout India free use of his company’s photovoltaic patents to ease the costs of, and hasten the country’s transition away from, fossil fuels. Indian negotiators had been complaining that they could not get access to enough credit to pay for the expensive transition to solar on their own.

It isn’t clear by the end of the movie whether Rive extended the offer (he did), nor whether it had any impact on India’s decision to join the rest of the world in eventually signing onto the Paris accord (Indian negotiators say the patent-sharing offer wasn’t a factor). Regardless, there’s been no evidence of any intellectual property transfer to date. But SolarCity “formally invited” Indian officials to visit its headquarters in 2016, so the wheels could be in motion.


Dear EarthTalk: Are there any realistic geoengineering solutions to our climate woes and why haven’t we started employing them yet?

Angel Monroe

Miami, Fla.


Geoengineering our way out of the climate crisis is something so drastic that no one really wants to admit it might be our only hope. But while cutting down on our air miles and switching over to a Prius can’t hurt, at least a few green leaders are starting to get on board with the concept of geoengineering as one weapon in an arsenal including improved energy efficiency and transitioning to renewable energy sources.

In his 2016 book, “A Farewell to Ice,” Peter Wadhams of the University of Cambridge’s Polar Ocean Physics Group lays out several different scenarios where humanity could utilize different geoengineering techniques to stave off cataclysmic climate change.

First and foremost on Wadham’s list is direct air capture of CO2 — “something the whole world should be putting its research money into” — where we literally vacuum the offending pollution out of the air. Wadhams thinks this is the most logical approach, and one we can get started on right away if there is enough political will to get it funded. 

Another potential geoengineering save involves unleashing a fleet of salt-spraying ships around the world’s coastlines that would pipe ocean water hundreds of feet skyward, spraying clouds with salt crystals to reflect more sunlight upwards and away from the Earth’s surface. University of Edinburgh engineers have already designed a prototype fleet of ships to serve as a model for larger efforts.

So-called sparkle blasting balloons represent another tack in the armed battle against global warming. Researchers are proposing sending hot air balloons (or airplanes or even artillery shells) into the sky to shoot or spray sulfuric acid or sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, where it would combine with pre-existing water vapor to form sparkly aerosols. When dispersed by the wind, these aerosols would surround the globe with haze that could reflect an estimated one percent of solar radiation back into space.

Yet another geo-engineering climate hack involves constructing a supersized space mirror (or reflective mesh) that could be launched into Earth’s orbit to protect the planet by reflecting some of the sun’s rays skyward.

And no discussion of climate geoengineering would be complete without mentioning carbon sinks. For instance, we could “fertilize” barren sections of open ocean with iron to stimulate the production of CO2-sucking algal blooms and other photosynthesizing marine life.

“When the algae die, they sink to the bottom of the sea, taking carbon with them,” writes Jennifer Santisi in E – The Environmental Magazine.

Of course, each of these techniques has potential side effects and unintended consequences, not to mention extreme costs. Researchers are proceeding cautiously to try to work some of the kinks out before we actually need to implement them on a widespread scale. 

Meanwhile, environmentalists worry that geoengineering remains a distraction, and that we have to “keep our eye on the ball” regarding trimming our carbon footprints. That said, it’s nice to know that scientists have a few Hail Mary plays up their sleeves if we ever do end up needing them.


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