By David Keith and John Dykema | May 3, 2018

We broadly oppose commercial development solar geoengineering. In our view, a central objective of solar geoengineering research is to develop credible assessments of its risks and efficacy. Credibility depends, in part, on confidence that the risks of solar geoengineering are not concealed, that its effectiveness is not exaggerated. Such credibility can, in our view, be best generated by a transparent multipolar research effort. Where, “transparent,” means open access to the full research process, including raw data, dead ends, and experimental failures. Where “multipolar” means the research is conducted by a diversity of independent entities including research by groups that focus on finding the ways that it will fail.

Such transparency cannot reasonably be achieved in a commercial setting that depends on the ability to protect and monetize intellectual property. We therefore disapprove of patenting of technologies that are core to the deployment or monitoring of solar geoengineering. This is not an injunction against any commercial involvement. Any research, or eventual deployment, will—of course—depend on a web of firms suppling components and services. Our concern is with the core technologies specific to solar geoengineering.

Our recent publication, Production of Sulfates Onboard an Aircraft: Implications for the Cost and Feasibility of Stratospheric Solar Geoengineering, serves as a useful example to discuss our concerns with patenting.

Unlike most of our work, this paper describes a possible improvement to technologies for solar geoengineering. It provides a chemical engineering analysis of a system to convert sulfur to SO2 or SO3, and could be used aboard aircraft to produce sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere for solar geoengineering. Such a system could reduce the cost and environmental impact per unit of sulfur delivered. And it could facilitate use of SO3 to make accumulation mode H2SO4 particles that allow for better control of the distribution of particle sizes.

In any case, this is an example of a technology that would very likely have been patentable. However, because we oppose patenting we elected not to patent this technology. In so doing we follow the practice that we have for all solar geoengineering related research. We have never filed a patent related to solar geoengineering and have worked to find ways to block or discourage others from doing so. In 2012 for example, one of us (Keith) participated in organizing a workshop run by Granger Morgan at Carnegie Mellon University. It explored options for promoting transparency, leading to a suggestion that:

“In order to lessen the incentive for private commercial interests to influence the direction of the pursuit of SRM, it would be desirable to restrict the assertion of such private intellectual property rights to technical fields other than SRM. Federal agencies already have statutory authority to take prescribed action to restrict or partially restrict the patent rights of awardees.”

More recently, Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program was established with a policy discouraging patenting.

Our publication of the above finding contributes to transparency because it partially blocks anyone else from patenting something similar. Here’s a very rough summary of relevant patent law: Europe, and many other jurisdictions, have a so-called First To File policy with no grace period after public disclosure. This means that anyone can, in principle, file a patent whether they were the inventor or not, so long as they are the first person to file. However, once the work is publicly disclosed, it is unpatentable. The U.S. has a recently revised First Inventor To File system that includes a limited one-year grace period. The grace period means that, under new restrictions, the original authors can file a patent within one year of publication. No one else can, since the publication is prior art and other inventors are not authors of it. Note that this is a mere sketch of the issues—patent law is absurdly complicated.

In publishing this work we made it unpatentable by anyone (including us) in Europe and similar jurisdictions, and we complicated its patenting in the US. In practice, there are a lot of ways where it is likely possible for someone to patent something that treads on some of the same ground, but they would be restricted by our public disclosure of the original idea as “prior art”.

Returning to the big questions. We have mixed feelings about this paper. We are interested in improving knowledge of the risks of solar geoengineering or finding ways to reduce those risks. We have generally avoided finding ways to reduce its cost. For this publication, we chose to make an exception. To start, because low cost is potentially problematic, we thought a method that could meaningfully reduce cost without introducing significant technical complexity would be an important finding to publish. Furthermore, although this method could in principle reduce cost, its practical realization would require significant engineering and capital expenditure well beyond what is represented by our publication. Additionally, we did this work because we thought that, in this case, for sulfate aerosols, the most generic and well-studied potential method of solar geoengineering, it was worthwhile to present this idea in written form since it has already been discussed. (It was mentioned obliquely in the footnotes of a prior paper.) On balance, we felt it was better to describe the process in a technical publication. Moreover, we judged that if solar geoengineering ever moved towards deployment, a well-funded engineering effort would far surpass our effort in inventing innovative ways to reduce costs.

It might be argued that in forgoing commercial development of solar geoengineering we lose the chance to harness commercial innovation to reduce costs for core solar geoengineering technologies. But, cost is already so low that it’s more of a bug than a feature. Low costs enable unilateral action. Solar geoengineering is not a consumer product. It’s a set of technologies that might allow humanity to alter the climate over decades to centuries. As much as possible, it needs to be owned and controlled by transparent democratic institutions. It requires global governance.

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