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Tech needed to halt climate change still underdeveloped

Many of the technologies needed to stop climate change are still in early stages of development, a study of green tech patents has revealed. Greater action is required to bring them to market in time.

A wind turbine in Massachusetts, USA

A study of patents in green energy technology has revealed that innovation in that sector is slowing down

Global climate targets can only be reached with a major acceleration in clean-energy innovation, as many of the technologies required to bring down CO2 emissions are currently only at the prototype or demonstration phase. This is the conclusion of a joint report released Tuesday from the European Patent Office (EPO) and the International Energy Agency (IEA).

"Around half the emissions reductions to get to net zero by 2050 may need to come from technologies that are not yet on the market," said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol in a press release.

The report "Patents and the energy transition: global trends in clean energy technology innovation" looks at trends in low-carbon energy innovation between 2000 and 2019 in terms of international patent families (IPFs). An IPF represents a unique, high-value invention for which a patent application was filed at two or more patent offices around the globe. Patent applications can be considered an early indicator of future technological trends as they are filed months or years before the products go to market.

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Growth slowing

The report found that the number of patents for inventions related to low-carbon energy technologies has gone up over the past two decades. However, the average annual growth rate of low-carbon energy patents in recent years is only a quarter of what it was a decade ago. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of patents for inventions related to low-carbon energy technologies around the world grew by an average rate of 3.3% per year. The average growth rate from 2000 to 2013, by contrast, was 12.5%.

Of the technologies that had been patented, some were already being used on an industrial scale while others were still in the early stages of development, the report said.

Since 2000, over 420,000 IPFs have been filed worldwide in the area of low-carbon energy. The study revealed that focus in the field was moving away from inventions that addressed renewable energy supply. Today, patents related to end-use and cross-cutting-enabling technologies dominate.

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Focus shifts from energy supply

For the past five years, end-use technologies — those that support the use of energy or fuel switching in end-use applications such as transport, buildings or industrial production — have accounted for the majority (60%) of all low-carbon energy inventions.

Cross-cutting enabling technologies, meanwhile, increased from 27% of all low-carbon energy IPFs in 2000 to 34% in 2019 and  have had the strongest growth of the three sectors since 2017. Enabling technologies play a role in both the supply and end-use sector, and also help existing infrastructures to improve their reliance on clean energy. Patents in this area include technology for batteries, hydrogen and smart grids as well as carbon capture and utilization. Such technologies are of increasing importance because of their ability to connect a variety of clean energy sources. This creates the opportunity for more flexible energy solutions.

Infographic: where the most patent's for green energy technology come from

Patents for energy supply technologies, including renewables, have fallen since 2012. This, the study concludes, is due to the market maturity of some renewable technologies, like solar PV, and a lack of improvements to others, such as biofuels and ocean energy. Energy supply technologies accounted for only 17% of all low-carbon inventions in 2019.

Electric car trend pushes innovation

Electric vehicles have been a key driver of clean-energy innovation over the past decade. In the report's global ranking of patent applicants, automotive companies and their main battery suppliers accounted for 12 of the top 15 patent applicants over the past 20 years.

In terms of geography, European companies and research institutes currently boast the largest number of low-carbon energy inventions, accounting for 28% of patents between 2010 and 2019. Of this, Germany alone registered 12%.

Infographic: Top 10 companies applying for green energy technology patents between 2000 to 2019

Japanese companies, however, are leading in electric vehicle technology, batteries and hydrogen, while the US is leader in aviation, biofuel and carbon capture technologies.

"This report is a clear call for action to step up research and innovation into new low-carbon energy technologies and improve existing ones," said EPO President Antonio Campinos. "While it reveals some encouraging trends across countries and industry sectors, including in key cross-cutting technologies, it also highlights the need to further accelerate innovation in clean-energy technologies, some of which are still only emerging."

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