Aladdin Diakun Gives Public Lecture On Geoengineering And IP Law

On Thursday 16 May, GCRI hosted an online lecture by Aladdin Diakun entitled ‘Towards the Effective Governance of Geoengineering: What Role for Intellectual Property?’ Aladdin is an MA Candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs who is researching how IP law can serve as a form of de facto governance of geoengineering.

The UK Royal Society defines geoengineering as “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change.” With the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere recently having reached 400ppm—higher than any point in at least 800,000 years—and international climate change governance having shown scant progress, geoengineering is increasingly discussed as a climate change strategy. 

One branch of geoengineering is carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which includes technologies like carbon capture and storage, afforestation, and ocean fertilization, the latter of which was controversially tested when an American entrepreneur dumped 100 tons of iron sulphate into the coastal waters of British Columbia in 2012. The other branch of geoengineering is solar radiation management (SRM), which, rather than removing CO2 from the atmosphere, lowers the planet’s temperature by reflecting sunlight via techniques like cloud seeding, landscape modification (e.g. painting all roofs white), and stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI).

These forms of geoengineering could help combat the effects of climate change, but they also pose a global catastrophic risk (GCR). For example, pretend that the United States decides to artificially lower Earth’s temperature using SAI. As described in a recent paper by Seth Baum, Tim Maher, and Jacob Haqq-Misra, if a pandemic, nuclear war, or some other global catastrophe interferes with our ability to continue using SAI, then global temperatures would rapidly increase to their natural levels, potentially resulting in a second global catastrophe. SAI also neglects other negative effects of runaway greenhouse gas emissions, like ocean acidification.

While no countries propose that we deploy the more exotic forms of geoengineering right now, there is a growing call to research geoengineering and develop international norms so that we make smart decisions down the road.

So what do patents have to do with all of this?

Many people’s experience with patents primarily consists of watching Samsung and Apple trade punches in court over whether Apple invented rounded black rectangles or square app icons. But under the radar, geoengineering patents are already flying off the shelves, most of which are for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and direct sequestration technologies, although there are also patents for ocean fertilization, stratospheric aerosol injection, and other geoengineering technologies.

Aladdin argued that IP law is a de facto form of governance when there is no other meaningful legal regime, as is the case for geoengineering [1]. Currently, geoengineering patents are too broad (e.g. issued for a geoengineering technique rather than a very specific technology) and could quickly become gobbled up by a small group of private actors, which weakens innovation. And not all geoengineering research is made public, meaning that private entities could be releasing positive geoengineering research while withholding negative research. However, a sui generis patent system, meaning one that is customized for the unique concerns of geoengineering, could provide a flexible framework to oversee patents, spur innovation, consider international interests, and make sure that research is transparent and publicly available. Aladdin pointed out that while such reform is necessary, it is far from sufficient to address all of the complex challenges posed by geoengineering activities.

During the online lecture, we also discussed the analogues between geoengineering and other GCRs, such as pandemics. For example, research into bioengineering and pharmaceuticals is relatively unregulated, and negative research findings can be concealed or falsified, which may weaken our ability to combat a pandemic. One participant commented that a possible model to oversee research comes from ‘Cambia,’ a nonprofit based in Australia that allows private researchers to share information without releasing it to the public, which protects the integrity of the patent process. Another overarching issue we discussed was social justice: the costs and benefits of GCRs are uneven, and society should consider the impact our actions have on more vulnerable communities.

Here is the full abstract of the talk:

This presentation makes the case that, owing to the prominence of private sector activity, the absence of a comprehensive regulatory framework, and the theoretical importance of informal governance mechanisms, IP regimes are a crucial yet understudied component in the emerging architecture of geoengineering governance. It further argues that, given geoengineering’s complex challenges, IP reform is a necessary but insufficient condition for effective governance innovation. In particular, path dependence implies that if we wish to address the significant normative and socio-economic challenges associated with geoengineering, we must quickly move to address IP’s de facto governance of the field.

The presentation was hosted online via Skype, with the presentation hosted on Prezi. There were six people in the audience, including Catherine Rhodes, a Research Fellow in Science Ethics at the University of Manchester, and Simon Driscoll, a geoengineering expert in the PhD program at Oxford’s Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics sub-department. Other attendees were GCRI’s Kaitlin Buter, Mark P. Fusco, Tony Barrett, Grant Wilson, and Seth Baum.

[1] Some international instruments, like the London Convention and Protocol and the Convention on Biological Diversity, touch on geoengineering. See Bracmort, K., & Lattanzio, R. (2013). ‘Geoengineering: Governance and Technology Policy,’ Congressional Research Service.

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