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The Tech Billionaires Taking On Climate Change

·4 min read

In recent years we’ve seen several tech billionaires back environmentally friendly innovations in a bid to tackle climate change, but will these famous innovators really be the ones to bring about change? 

Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and other leading entrepreneurs often make the headlines for their ground-breaking technologies, unexpected ventures, and charitable donations, frequently making investments as large as some countries’ GDPs. More recently, it seems these billionaires are eager to lead the fight against climate change and provide the technology and research necessary to make a difference.

This September, Gates announced that he had secured over $1 billion dollars in funding from seven U.S. firms to combat climate change. The funding from Microsoft, BlackRock, General Motors, American Airlines, Boston Consulting Group, Bank of America, and ArcelorMittal will be managed by his organization Breakthrough Energy, which he established in 2016.

Gates hopes to drive a “new industrial revolution” through the organization’s Breakthrough Energy Catalyst project, to help the world avoid a climate disaster through investment in carbon capture, green hydrogen, long-duration energy storage, and sustainable aviation fuel. “Half the technology needed to get to zero emissions either doesn’t exist yet or is too expensive for much of the world to afford,” Gates stated, suggesting “Catalyst is designed to change that and provide an effective way to invest in our clean technology future.”

This has been the focus of 2021, with several other tech billionaires getting involved in the battle. Last year, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos pledged $10 billion to launch his Bezos Earth Fund, which will provide grants to scientists battling climate change. He encouraged other companies to donate to the fund stating that “Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet,” and “I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share.”

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And on the same day Gates announced his new funding, Bezos revealed that his Earth Fund would be contributing $1 billion to conserve and protect vulnerable areas of the world. The announcement included statements of support from world leaders such as UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed; British Prime Minister Boris Johnson; Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez; and U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry. 

At the beginning of 2021, Elon Musk joined the ranks of climate change leaders by offering $100 million to the person or organization that could create the most effective carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Elon Musk’s Tesla has led the EV market for years, but now it appears he is also interested in looking for innovative new ways to tackle climate change beyond his EVs.

These kinds of grand public gestures could provide the impetus that the world needs to act on climate change, following recent reports from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Organisation, which both suggest that an energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable alternatives is imminently necessary and not happening fast enough to prevent a crisis. 

But how meaningful are these efforts and will they receive the backing needed from governments and companies around the world to truly tackle climate change? 

But can billionaires really beat climate change?

Several experts suggest that the recent efforts of some of the world’s richest men may be misplaced. For example, San Francisco-based non-profit Project Drawdown reminds us that twelve of the top 20 climate solutions relate to either agriculture or forests, and while Bezos, Gates, and Musk focus on new technologies, funds may be better placed in reforestation projects and agricultural change. Many leading climate change organizations agreed, suggesting that funds should be spread across both new technologies and nature-based solutions.

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At the same time, it doesn’t help that these tech billionaires are spending far larger amounts on personal projects that seem to run counter to their climate goals. For example, Musk has recently come under fire for his space ambitions regarding his $74 billion Space X program. Meanwhile, Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic adventures received similar criticism, with Bezos’ trip to space being described as “a spectacle of grotesque wealth.”

When the launch of just one rocket produces as much as 300 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which can remain in the earth’s upper atmosphere for years, the hypocrisy of these apparent ‘climate saviors’ engaging in a space race is clear for all to see. Carbon emissions from rockets are currently substantially lower than those that come from the aviation industry, but making space travel commercial could soon change that.

While the efforts of these tech billionaires to make meaningful change in the battle against climate change are commendable, their pet projects appear to be undermining any climate strategies they may be pursuing. As for how they choose to invest that funding, questions remain over whether these billions could be better spent elsewhere.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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