Yes, climate change is an existential threat—one that keeps me up at night. But talking of fire and brimstone only inflames those who either (rightly) feel helpless in the face of this reality or those who have a vested interest in big oil or coal. So rather than preaching to the converted, what if we look to the billionaire luminaries who have taken up the climate cause as smart business?
All business ventures start with a challenge. World energy consumption is on the rise, as are global temperatures. Meanwhile, our planet only has so much oil and natural gas left for extraction, which will ultimately re-center the future economy on alternative fuels. To power the population’s energy needs, we must focus our attention — and capital—on affordable clean energy solutions, which have the added benefit of ensuring the future health of our planet.
Last year, Bill Gates announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, an international partnership driven by 30 entrepreneurs, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Alibaba chief Jack Ma, committed to investing in an emission-free future. Yesterday, the Coalition announced the launch of the Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV). The venture fund will invest over $1 billion on the next generation of clean energy innovations that provide the world with “reliable and affordable energy, foods, goods, and services without emitting greenhouse gases.”
Recognizing that innovation takes time—particularly when developing reliable and efficient energy technologies that can successfully compete in a complex marketplace—the BEV has committed to investing over 20 years. BEV backer and natural gas trader John Arnold notes, "If we fund a technology that gets large enough traction to have impact on emissions, financial success will be a byproduct."
In the meantime, the private sector has increased demand for already existing renewable energies. Fortune 500 companies like Apple, Goldman Sachs, and Walmart have pledged to source 100 percent of their electricity from renewable energy by 2020. Their commitment hinges on the ready availability of alternative energies like wind and solar, which are fast becoming cheaper to produce and use. While the fate of the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions, hangs in the balance, the states that house these companies must power their clean energy demands.
But the private sector can’t do all the heavy lifting when it comes to paving the way to a green future. Government cooperation is essential, especially to fund exploratory research that may or may not result in a marketable end product. As Gates notes in his blog: “Government funding gives scientists the freedom to come up with bold new ideas and try to prove they will work.”
To that end, BEV has partnered with Mission Innovation, a coalition of 22 countries and the European Union launched during the UN Climate Change Conference 2015. Each country, including the United States, has committed to doubling their spending on clean energy research and development by 2020. Government involvement also secures the nation’s stake in a future where green energy is no longer an alternative.
However, given the choice of Environmental Protection Agency antagonist to head the EPA, a big oil CEO nominated to run the State Department, and a man who vowed to abolish the Department of Energy set to head the DOE, the role the United States government will play in this coalition remains to be seen. Already, China is leading the market in renewable energy, so as clean energy demands continue to rise, America’s economy risks falling behind as an energy leader.
While the climate cause has lost an ally in the White House, business has ensured that the clean technology revolution is here to stay. Accepting climate change as reality is simply good business. We can only hope that our new Businessman in Chief recognizes the future of the energy economy is green.