Patents as a tool: X-ray of the fight against climate change

Exploring Technological Innovation in the Fight Against Climate Change: An Analysis Through Patents

Global warming undeniably stands as one of the most critical and complex challenges in human history. Unfortunately, the efforts made so far are far of being considered sufficient, reflected in the clear delay in addressing this issue, as highlighted in the continuous rise in temperatures worldwide.

Having an understanding of the development of technologies related to the global response to this phenomenon can be useful in facing the problem more effectively and immediately. In this article, we aim to provide an overview of emerging technological trends in climate change mitigation by analysing the production of the related intellectual property1. In this context, patents2, serving as indicators of investment and technological development, play a crucial role in understanding how innovation evolves, offering a clear yet global perspective on economic investment in specific technical fields on a geographical level.

Overview of the current sector state

Evolución de las patentes relacionadas con el cambio climático
Figure 1. Temporal evolution of the climate change patent production.

Figure 1 represents the total evolution of patent production over the last two decades, totalling more than 5.5 million patents. In the year 2000, the number of patent families was around 64.527, and from that point, a steady growth year after year is observed. As the graph progress through time, the significant increase in global technological innovation becomes evident. Particularly noteworthy is the substantial jump in 2022 and 2023 (year that can still witness more applications), with a considerably higher number of patents. This might suggest a more intensive focus on innovation and investment in technologies related to climate change.

Geographical Distribution of Patents for Combating Climate Change

Distribución geográfica de las patentes contra el cambio climático
Figure 2. Global distribution of patents’ families.

The analysis of geographical distribution plays a crucial role in understanding global technological trends. This section provides an insight into how different regions contribute to innovation, revealing the areas of focus in technologies considered important in this context.

As we can be seen from the map in Figure 2, the top 5 countries holding the most patents in this field are: China, with over 3.8 million patents’ families, followed by Japan, with more than 1.05 million patents’ families, the United States, with nearly 700,000 patents’ families, and finally, Germany and South Korea, each with around 400,000 patents’ families.

Evolución temporal de extensión de patentes
Figure 3. Temporal evolution of local patent.

There is further data that can help us understand the investment strategies of these countries in this field, that is, the evolution of patent production in each of the most important countries.

Figure 3 illustrates how the global commitment to research and development of technologies addressing climate change has evolved in the five key countries during the early decades of the third millennium. What is particularly evident is China’s outstanding surge in production, leading the way with exceptional growth, especially from 2015 onwards, culminating in a notable peak of over 1.3 million patents in 2023. In contrast, other countries seem to have made little or no progress in their involvement in the issue of global warming when compared to the leading country. Japan, the second most significant country, has maintained a steady production of patents in this field, with a peak of around 60,000 patents in 2013. The United States and South Korea, on the other hand, show a continuous increase in patent production over the years, reaching approximately 65,000 and 40,000 patents in 2023, respectively. Finally, Germany, the sole European representative in the top 5 of this list, has maintained a constant production of patents, reaching approximately 17,000 in 2023, but reaching much lower numbers than all the other countries.

The noticeable difference of the most significant European state, Germany, with the rest of the key countries, highlights the technological lag of European countries compared to their competitors.

It’s important to specify that patents filed in a country do not always originate directly from companies headquartered in that country. In some cases, the patent assignee may be an entity seeking to protect its invention in strategic markets outside the country where the technology was developed. However, even in these scenarios, the fact that patent holders choose to extend their protection to China underscores the fundamental role that this country plays in these technology areas, reflecting its growing importance as a key centre for innovation.

However, for a more comprehensive analysis, the population and gross domestic product (GDP) of each country should be taken into account because it is evident that a wealthier country has more resources for investment. Therefore, in order to understand and clarify the level of investment and involvement of each country, we weighed patent production against the GDP of each country.

Evolución temporal de patentes relacionadas con el PIB
Figure 4. Temporal evolution of local patent filings relative to each country’s GDP. The y axe represents the number of patents per GDP billion dollar.

Figure 4 shows the number of patents per billion dollars (US dollars) of GDP. The difference in trends is immediately noticeable, with China remaining the leader of the group, maintaining its trajectory, although the difference with South Korea is much less pronounced when compared to the raw data in Figure 3. Conversely, while having a steady production, the United States ranks last, demonstrating the lowest number of patents each year in relation to its GDP.

The analysis of the two previous graphs offers an enlightening view of China’s prominent role in technologies related to global warming, highlighting its leadership in this area and its substantial market share. This becomes even more significant when considering patent production in relation to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), revealing exceptional growth in recent years. In contrast, other countries show limited, and in some cases, non-existent or negative evolution in their level of involvement in the fight against this concern compared to the leading country.

The Key Players in the Development of Patents to Fight Climate Change

Protagonistas más prolíficos de patentes
Figure 5. Most prolific patent assignees.

Once we have identified the most prominent states in terms of patent production, we delve into the business landscape to identify key players leading this innovative dynamic. Let’s analyse who the main protagonists are in the business sphere, contributing significantly to the landscape of intellectual property and innovation on a global scale.

In Figure 5 we can observe the holders with the most patents classified in these technologies. Interestingly, Japanese companies dominate this area. Toyota Motor Corp. heads the list with a total of 35,445 patent families, suggesting a significant focus on innovation and the development of technologies related to global warming. Hitachi Ltd. and Toshiba Corp. closely follow Toyota in terms of patent families, with 27,031 and 20,621 patents, respectively. Matsushita Electric IND Co. Ltd. and Robert Bosch GmbH complete the list of the top five patent holders. Although the latter two companies have fewer patent families compared to the first three, their presence on this list indicates that they are playing a significant role in the innovation and development of technologies in this framework.

Overall, this list reflects the importance of the automotive and electronics sectors, with a mention of Japanese companies, even though China is the country where the highest number of patents is extended. This might be due to Chinese production being more distributed among patent holders meaning more Chinese holders with fewer patents each, compared to the Japanese. Another interpretation could be that the market for technologies classified as related to global warming (in terms of both production and manufacturing, as well as sales and usage) has a more significant interest in China. For this reason, patent holders may prefer to extend patents in this country, considering the size of the global Chinese market, population, and flourishing industries in China. Finally, we cannot exclude that this trend could be given by the mere fact that China is one of the main centres of fabrication for the production and the assembly of the automotive and electronic sectors, attracting thus the applications for protections of new inventions.

Our opinion is that the behaviour of each country, is most likely due to a multitude of contributing factors, and to understand the contribution of each, one would need to conduct a type of analysis that goes beyond the scope of this study.

Technological Trends in the Battle Against Climate Change

Distribución Tecnológica Cambio Climático
Figure 6. Patent distribution in technological areas. The shades of blue indicate an absence or low production, while, as the tones shift towards darker browns, they represent a higher density of patents.

In this section, we continue the discussion by analysing the technological distribution of the found patents, which not only provides a comprehensive view of innovative advancements but also reveals emerging trends in various fields. By exploring technological distribution, we can elucidate the underlying patterns that define the direction of research and development in the landscape of intellectual property. Next, we will examine in detail how this distribution manifests in our analysis, identifying predominant technologies and sectors leading the landscape.

The heatmap in Figure 6 shows the distribution of patents in the top ten technological areas. What is immediately noticeable is that combustion and battery technologies have witnessed the most substantial advancements to date. Surprisingly, the technologies we typically associate with sustainable technologies have relatively low representation. For example, wind power production is the least prominent area on the map, and photovoltaic is not even among the ten most relevant trends. This could be a clue that, up to this point, the direction of the investigation has been more focused on optimizing existing systems and devices rather than a genuine search for a novel and revolutionary solution. An alternative interpretation, not mutually exclusive with the previous one, is that the predominant share of technologies is linked to the economic world of the last century, such as engines, and at the same time it is intrinsically connected to mitigation of global warming as a secondary effect1.

To better clarify this last point, we need to observe the temporal evolution of the main technologies to understand the trends and likely future projections.

Evolución temporal de las áreas tecnológicas
Figure 7. Temporal evolution of the three most important technological areas.

Next, we will refer to the most relevant technologies classified by a classification system called Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC), specifically Y02E (referred to as technologies for mitigating climate change in energy generation, transmission, or distribution), Y02P (referred to as technologies for mitigating climate change in the production or transformation of goods), and Y02A (referred to as technologies for adapting to climate change).

In Figure 7 we can observe that the temporal evolution of the three major technologies follows a similar pattern until around the year 2021. From that point onwards, the two technologies that were previously less common (Y02P and Y02A) experience a rapid increase in their growth rate, even surpassing the leading technology in one case, to the point that the Y02P technology surpasses the previous leading technology (Y02E).

Here are the detailed evolutions of these technological categories:

  • Y02E: In 2000, it experienced 21,830 patents, and by 2023, the number had surged to 329,745 patents. This expansion reflects an important and growing interest and focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in power generation.
  • Y02P: Starting with 14,674 patents in 2000, this subfield has sustained a steady increase over the years, and the most significant growth in the last three years, reaching 408,308 patents by 2023. The recent development potentially indicates an interesting direction for the near future.
  • Y02A: In 2000, this classification counted 8,260 patents, and since then, it has grown similarly to the other two categories, accelerating its growth rate in recent years, reaching 281,115 patents by 2023. This latest interest in the field, consisting of technology developed to adapt to climate change, may indicate a focus on short-term benefits and damage limitation rather than addressing the root of the problem.

Technological Innovation in the Era of Climate Change

In a world facing the urgent challenge of global warming, patent analysis emerges as a valuable “X-ray” of technological trends dealing with it. Patent production has become an essential tool for assessing and understanding how technological innovation is addressing this global challenge. Our study has revealed that the growing investment in technologies related to greenhouse gas emissions reduction is particularly focused on power generation, transmission, and distribution. Surprisingly, renewable technologies like wind and photovoltaics, which seem to be in vogue in current economic development, still play only a marginal role compared to combustion technologies. This offers an interesting perspective on the state of the energy transition today.

When considering the major players, while China has clearly taken a significant commitment in developing technologies related to this context, this raises interesting questions and challenges for the rest of the global community in terms of their contribution to the reduction of the emission of the greenhouse-effect gas and to the transition towards a more sustainable future.

Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that this article does not delve into comprehensive qualitative and scientific analysis, but its primary aim is to provide an overview of the state of investment in the fight against climate change through patent analysis. This approach is taken consciously, recognizing that the full scientific rigour would require a deeper, interdisciplinary research. Nevertheless, we hope to have contributed to shedding light on a portion of this complex puzzle or, rather, to provide a potential framework that can assist future research in shaping and completing the overall picture of this conundrum faced by humanity.

Notes and References

1The definition of technology that can mitigate global warming is a highly complex topic. There are many types of technologies that can directly or indirectly contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions or their absorption. Examples include technologies designed to generate renewable energy, such as wind or photovoltaic energy, as well as those that focus on the use, conservation, or elimination of industrial waste. To address this diversity, we have chosen to use the CPC (Cooperative Patent Classification) classification, which assigns codes to each patent application to help organize and categorize them by their technical field.

Under CPC code Y02, intellectual property authorities have grouped “technologies or applications for mitigating climate change or adaptation to it”. In this context, we have chosen to limit our search to code Y02 to specifically focus on technologies related to climate change mitigation. Finally, publications were considered up to October 2023. On the other hand, the International Patent Classification (IPC) does not provide a clear and defined classification of these technologies.

For further information about the CPC patent classification, please visit the official CPC website at the following link.

2In quantitative research related to patents, nomenclature can be confusing due to the diversity of documents related to a single invention. These documents can include the initial patent application, granted patents, requests for protection extension to other countries, divisional applications and more. Collectively, all the documents related to a single invention make up what is known as a “patent family”. In this study, priority has been given to inventions rather than mere document publications, as they provide a more accurate representation of the state of the art. However, for the sake of simplicity, we maty also use the term “patent” to refer to a complete family of patent documents related to a single invention. This allows for a more coherent and meaningful perspective within the quantitative context of our analysis

For further information about patent families, please visit the European Patent Office (EPO) website at the following link. To learn more about the patent application procedure, please visit the following link.

Author

Umberto Matera

Umberto Matera

Patent Technician
Degree in Physics
Specialization in Materials and Nanotechnology

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