Bill Gates' green investments to shift from tackling climate change to mitigating impacts
Refocuses on adaption technologies while oil industry continues to receive billions in government subsidies
Mouthpieces for an investment fund co-founded by Bill Gates say their teams have decided to refocus strategy on adapting to climate change.
Speaking at the Breakthrough Energy Summit in Seattle last week, Eric Toone, of the Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures investing committee, said it would take too long to shift the global economy away from carbon-based energy. Instead of moving that stubborn needle, the focus will be on mitigating climate change, which they see as the only sensible investment strategy.
"While BEV's principal focus will continue to be mitigation, we will now work on adaptation as part of our portfolio – adaptation to some of the most severe consequences of elevated levels of greenhouse gases and global warming," he told attendees.
"It's time to start accepting the reality that we're not going to be able to do this fast enough, the ship is too big, it's too hard to steer," said the chemistry professor who started working with the Gates-founded fund in 2017.
"It takes a while for the planet to cool down," Carmichael Roberts, the other half of BEV's investing committee, told CNBC. "It's not like a light switch that you turn and flip off... That's the harsh reality and the motivation – that we are running out of time."
Roberts said that even if it were possible to replace fossil fuels in the short term, it would still leave the problem of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.
And so the investment fund – which aims to jump-start green tech innovators – has moved to include technologies for adaption in its portfolio with global shipping ports and desalination in its sights.
"We build companies that scale, both in volume and distribution, through commerce... Our focus will continue to be on mitigation, but where there are opportunities to be impactful on the adaptation side, we will invest," Toone said.
While others agree it may be too late to avoid some influence of climate change, it is far from an admission of defeat.
The US-backed climate.gov reckons that if all human emissions of greenhouse gases were to stop today, Earth's temperature would continue to rise for a few decades by as much as 0.5°C because of "hidden heat" in the oceans. With no further human influence, natural processes would begin to slowly remove the excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and global temperatures would gradually decline.
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"It's true that without dramatic action in the next couple of decades, we are unlikely to keep global warming in this century below 2.7° Fahrenheit (1.5°C) compared to pre-industrial temperatures – a threshold that experts say offers a lower risk of serious negative impacts. But the more we overshoot that threshold, the more serious and widespread the negative impacts will be, which means that it is never 'too late' to take action," the organization said.
BEV, which includes Jeff Bezos among its founders, offers venture capital to green tech startups. It runs a Catalyst fund that aims to invest $15bn in clean tech.
To put this in context, the largest single petroleum project in 2021 was a $15 billion power plant and liquefied petroleum gas facility. The second largest is the $13.6 billion second-phase refinery and petrochemicals complex in China.
In 2022, the global upstream oil industry is projected to generate its highest ever free cash flow of $1.4 trillion, based on an oil price of $106 per barrel.
At the same time, fossil fuel industries are massively subsidized by taxpayers around the world. Estimates from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggest global public subsidies for fossil fuels almost doubled to $700 billion in 2021.
Public funding represents a "roadblock" to tackling the climate crisis, the OECD said.
While BEV might be right in its assessment that a certain amount of climate change cannot be avoided, and that adaption is a sensible strategy, it might also be helpful to point out some of the reasons why we're "not going to be able to do this fast enough." ®