Low-carbon innovation in the UK: evidence from patent data


UK policy makers increasingly see new technologies related to the mitigation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as a potential source of income growth for the UK economy.

In this study, we examine a comprehensive international patent database to determine the position of UK innovators relative to global competitors when it comes to “clean” innovation. We identify relevant patents on the basis of a carefully selected list of categories from the patent classification system. We differentiate between 19 technology types. To ensure that our results are driven by commercially valuable patents we focus on international patents; i.e. patents that are filed in at least two countries. We also have to keep in mind that not all innovation is necessarily associated with a patent, although there is generally a strong correlation.

Our main findings are as follows:

  • Overall, the UK ranks on position 5 in terms of the share of clean patents that are held by UK inventors, behind Japan, Germany, USA and France;
  • The UK position deteriorates if we take into account size differences between countries by looking at the ratio between global patent share and global GDP share. While the UK moves ahead of the US it falls behind countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia and South Korea;
  • The UK position equally deteriorates if only more recent clean patent filings are considered. In terms of the global clean patent share over the 2002 to 2007 period the UK falls behind South Korea. However, this is not because patenting activity is not growing in clean areas in the UK but because it is growing even faster in emerging economies such as South Korea;
  • While the UK cannot be considered a leader in clean technologies overall there are important differences between technology types in terms of the shares in global patenting that are due to UK inventors, as well as regarding changes in these shares over time.
  • The UK has a very strong position in marine energy generation. Looking at inventions developed recently (between 2002 and 2007), the UK appears as the world leader in this technology in terms of the share of inventions worldwide in this area. However, the UK is lagging behind a number of smaller countries when this figure is set in relation to the share of the UK in world GDP;
  • Other technologies where the UK has both a comparatively high global share, as well as a higher rank, include waste-to-energy and wind power technologies;
  • The UK share has been improving strongest in Waste, Solar CSP, Geothermal, Cement and Solar PV (comparing 2003-2007 with 1980-1996);
  • On the other hand, there are a range of sectors where the UK share is declining. The strongest declines are recorded in Batteries, Electric & Hybrid vehicles, Fuel Injection, Lighting and Fuel Cells;
  • Looking at patenting activity over time suggest that the decline in global shares of the UK is, in most cases, driven by a faster increase elsewhere, rather than a decline in patenting in the UK;
  • We also examine if UK inventors are among the dominant players in specific technology fields by looking at company-level patenting at the European Patent Office.

While we identify a number of technologies where UK inventors are among the top ten globally in terms of number patents held (in Cement, Nuclear energy, Fuel Injection and Insulation), there is no technology field where a UK company is leading.

This is particularly surprising in relation to the dominant position of the UK in marine energy technologies. It seems that the UK has a larger number of smaller inventors in this area compared to other countries.

Antoine Dechezleprêtre and Ralf Martin