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Covax will be needed to address the climate crisis in the world
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Covax will be needed to address the climate crisis in the world

Rich countries won’t escape the consequences if poor ones can’t cut emissions | Representational image | Bloomberg


Rich countries won’t escape the consequences if poor ones can’t cut emissions | Representational image | Bloomberg
Rich countries won’t escape the consequences if poor ones can’t cut emissions | Representational image | Bloomberg

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WAfter he shocked the Glasgow climate conference by pledging India to net-zero emission by 2070, Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi made a critical caveat. Without the “transfer of climate finance and low-cost climate technologies,” he said, developing nations such as India would never be able to achieve their ambitious targets.

That’s not an idle worry. If we have learned anything during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that the developing world cannot count on getting access to life-saving technologies quickly and affordably. With climate change, the consequences could be even more dire: The world will never be able to reach its climate goals if large emerging economies such as Brazil and India can’t decarbonize just as fast as the U.S. and Europe do. These concerns should be addressed immediately by world leaders to prevent another global crisis.

Many of the most important innovations in climate-related technologies such as carbon capture and battery storage, will likely come from Western companies. Patent holders could, theoretically, increase production in low-cost countries or license local manufacturers to make their products affordable on a larger scale. Alternately, wealthy countries could provide enough climate financing to cover the cost for adoption.

But wealthy nations aren’t even meeting their existing financing pledges — let alone the $1 trillion India has demanded by 2030. For fear of losing valuable intellectual properties, some companies will be more protective of their innovations than licensing them.

Suspending IP rights, like South Africa and India have fought to do for Covid-19 vaccines will not help. Without the cooperation of the private sector, decarbonization cannot occur. While taxpayer support will be instrumental in developing new climate technologies, just as it was for mRNA vaccines, adopting, commercializing and integrating those innovations into emerging economies — working batteries into the electric grid, for example — will rely on private enterprise. Without strong IP protections, private investment won’t be directed at the problem at the scale the world desperately needs.

Leaders should learn from the errors they’ve made during the pandemic, especially the failure of institutions such as Covax, the common vaccine pool. Covax was supposed channel vaccines from the rich world to developing countries. Its performance is disappointing, as only 5% of vaccines have been administered to date in the world through the facility.

Other great ideas have received even less attention. Last year, the World Health Organization set up what it called a Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, meant for “developers of COVID-19 therapeutics, diagnostics, vaccines and other health products to share their intellectual property, knowledge and data with quality-assured manufacturers, through public health-driven, voluntary, non-exclusive and transparent licenses.” Companies have roundly ignored the pool — although, in a rare spot of good news, Merck & Co. recently agreed to license its new oral antiviral medicine, molnupiravir, to a C-TAP-aligned body.

The pandemic didn’t exactly give the world a lot of time to design institutions to encourage technology transfer. We don’t have that excuse for the climate crisis. We need to create and place stronger versions C-TAP and Covax before the relevant technological breakthroughs.

A “climate Covax” would focus on ensuring that innovations in climate-sensitive sectors, especially those developed with the help of taxpayer money, could be licensed for use in the emerging world at scale. Covax fell apart partly because it was simply an allocation mechanism without the right to challenge bilateral deals between rich-country and manufacturers.

It is imperative that the successor partner with these governments earlier in the process to ensure that it is involved in research in the early stages. Being a co-developer and co-funder would give the facility leverage to push companies to license the technology they develop — similar to how the U.S. National Institutes of Health is pushing Moderna Inc. on its vaccine patent.

Covax would need to invest in manufacturing if it wants to create a climate that is more stable than relying solely on existing suppliers. Covax’s overdependence on the Serum Institute of India Pvt. Ltd. meant that New Delhi’s vaccine export ban following India’s devastating second wave crippled the program.

Finally, the contracts that rich-country governments need to write for climate technology research must be better. Biden might be interested in helping to get mRNA vaccinations to the world. Officials have complained that they are bound by restrictive contracts from Operation Warp Speed.

If it passes, the administration’s Build Back Better framework will pump hundreds of billions of dollars into climate-related private-sector innovation. This is the time to ensure that everyone benefits equally from this investment as individual companies. –Bloomberg

Also read: Why new pledges at COP26 are key to avoiding climate catastrophe


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