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IP and Technology: The Twin Engines of Innovative Sustainability | JS Held

IP and Technology: The Twin Engines of Innovative Sustainability | JS Held


[authors: Noor Al-Banna and Andrea Korney]

In the pursuit of a sustainable future, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent a set of lofty but important goalposts for countries to strive for. These 17 interconnected goals address pressing global challenges, from climate change to income and gender inequality. But achieving these goals will require more than lofty aspirations; it will also require concrete action from both governments and businesses.

Image courtesy of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Disability.

Unfortunately, the former is time-consuming, ineffective, and subject to changing political conditions – the recent narrowing of scope, litigation, and eventual suspension of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's (SEC) climate change disclosure rules is a prime example of this problem.

In March 2024, the SEC took a significant step by adopting rules that had been under discussion for several years to strengthen and standardize climate-related disclosures for public companies. The rules required registrants to disclose climate-related risks, the material impacts of those risks on their operations, mitigation efforts, and the role of their boards of directors in assessing and managing such risks. However, within days of adopting the rules, nine lawsuits were filed by companies, states, and NGOs challenging the rules. This led to the voluntary suspension of the rules just one month later, on April 4, 2024.

This is where IP comes in. IP acts as a catalyst for innovation, and sustainable innovation is no exception. Patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets motivate inventors, creators, and companies, large and small, to develop novel solutions to pressing problems. We all know that IP drives innovation, whether it's renewable energy technologies, sustainable farming methods, or life-saving medicines. Innovation can therefore accelerate progress towards the SDGs, especially where governments are lagging behind. Technology fills the gaps created by slow or no government response.

In a post I wrote in 2022 about the SEC's pending rule and how it will impact the intellectual property landscape, I discussed a LexisNexis analysis (last updated as of July 2023) that mapped patenting trends to the SDGs (patents are often used as a proxy for technology investment and development). The analysis showed significant patenting activity in SDGs related to clean energy, health and wellness, infrastructure, etc.

Most Sustainable Innovations for SDGs (2023)

Image by LexisNexis PatentSight:

According to the LexisNexis study shown below, there has been a strong upward trend in both the number and overall share of SDG-related patents over the past two decades.

Growth in quantity (left) and share (right) of SDG-related patents

Image by LexisNexis PatentSight:

IP not only encourages innovation, but also fosters collaboration by bringing together like-minded actors with complementary skill sets through licenses and joint ventures. Thus, leveraging the collaborative nature of IP to achieve sustainability goals is a logical fit. This point is also true for the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), whose WIPO GREEN database serves as a free global innovation catalogue aimed at connecting climate needs with tangible (intangible?) solutions. Through the WIPO GREEN platform, innovators can post their technologies and pair them with respective needs, either by manually finding them using the search feature or automatically matching them using the AI-assisted auto-matching feature.

Despite the ongoing challenges to the SEC’s climate rule, many other laws around the world are effectively driving change toward environmental sustainability. Governments are increasingly mandating transparency, traceability, and enhanced reporting for companies to gain a clear picture of the environmental impact of their operations. For example, the EU’s Non-Financial Reporting Directive and the upcoming Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive mandate detailed disclosure of sustainability practices and impacts, encouraging better corporate behavior. In this context, intellectual property (IP) plays a key role by stimulating innovation in technologies that help companies meet these demands. IP enables the development and proliferation of advanced technologies that facilitate accurate environmental reporting, supply chain monitoring, and compliance with strict environmental standards. These technologies not only help track and report carbon emissions and resource usage, but also support the adoption of sustainable practices by making them more accessible and economically viable for businesses around the world.

After all, intellectual property and technology are the twin engines propelling us towards innovative ways to address the SDGs. Governments may weaken, but innovators, entrepreneurs and technology pioneers can fill the void. By fostering intellectual property creation, embracing technological solutions and demanding transparency from governments and the private sector, perhaps each World Intellectual Property Day will be brighter than the last.


We would like to thank Noor Al-Banna and Andrea Korney for their insights and expertise that contributed greatly to this study.




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