Bezos has $10bn to fight climate change - we have some ideas

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Bezos has $10bn to fight climate change - we have some ideas

The billionaire has pledged to create an ‘Earth Fund’ to protect the planet. This is where it could be best used

James Cook
Jeff Bezos's grant is the third-largest charitable gift of all time.
Feeling flush Jeff Bezos's grant is the third-largest charitable gift of all time.
Image: AFP/Sajjad Hussain

Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, already has a lot on his plate. He has Amazon to run, of course, along with his space flight business Blue Origin and The Washington Post. That’s alongside dealing with public attacks from Donald Trump and the fallout of a phone hack allegedly orchestrated by Saudi Arabia.

Now, the 56-year-old has a new project: a $10bn (R150bn) Bezos Earth Fund, which he hopes will combat climate change. His grant is the third-largest charitable gift of all time, behind Warren Buffett’s $36bn donation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Walmart heir Helen Walton’s $16bn donation to her family’s foundation.

The fund has been welcomed by climate change experts, although it has raised eyebrows from Greenpeace and the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group, which point to Amazon’s annual carbon footprint of 44 million tons – the equivalent of the annual emissions of Norway.

The Earth Fund could offset Amazon’s carbon footprint, but Prof Cameron Hepburn, the director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, warned that Bezos will need to pick his investments carefully to identify technologies “where modest changes can have a snowball effect”.

Here are some of contenders:

Electric vehicles

Electric cars may already be on roads about the world, but better batteries, range and charging infrastructure are still needed to drive mass adoption. If they do take off, one study estimates that they could save up to 1,700 million tons of carbon emissions by 2050.

Progress is already being made. Tesla, for instance, claims it has saved 4 million tons of carbon emissions from the 550,000 electric cars it has released since being founded in 2003.

An electric-powered Audi at a charging station in Davos, Switzerland.
Future fill-up An electric-powered Audi at a charging station in Davos, Switzerland.
Image: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann

Alternatively, Bezos could fund activists lobbying cities about the world to legalise electric scooters, which can help reduce pollution and congestion as commuters use them in favour of petrol cars. It is estimated that there are more than 15,000 electric scooters in Paris. With Bezos’s $10bn he could fund similar numbers of scooter fleets in 1,300 cities globally.

Carbon capture and storage

“The electric vehicle revolution is already under way,” says Dan Grech, the chief executive of renewable energy business Global OTEC Resources. “I don’t think that’s going to be exciting or big-picture enough for Jeff Bezos.”

Another option may be giving grants to researchers developing more efficient ways to remove carbon dioxide. This technology could remove up to 5 billion tons of carbon per year by 2050. But costs range between $200 and $600 per ton, companies in the field have said. If Bezos wanted to just spend his entire grant on a series of carbon capture machines, he could save up to 17 million tons of carbon.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology allows businesses to stop large amounts of carbon emissions from reaching the atmosphere, often turning the carbon into stone and burying it deep underground. Research published in 2019 in Nature Communications found that direct air-capture machines, which suck carbon emissions from the air, could dramatically cut the cost of slowing down climate change.

Prof Dave Reay, an executive director at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, says: “Many emerging technologies, like CCS, need a financial shot in the arm to get them scaled up fast.”

Bezos could start by directing his web-hosting division to reduce its work with the oil and gas industry, or by encouraging his customers to adopt CCS.

Smart grids

With $10bn, Bezos could fix energy grids around the world by giving research grants to companies working on “smart grid” technologies. Using a smart grid in the US could save 442 million tons of carbon emissions per year, researchers have estimated.

The US has invested $7bn in the technology, meaning Bezos could easily match its total spend.

Look smart
Image: 123RF/123RF/Vasin Leenanuruksa

Rob Gramlich, the president of energy consulting business Grid Strategies, says developments in this technology could have a key impact on climate change. “A good transmission system is key to expanding the most impactful renewable energy sources we have: wind and solar-powered energy ... grid issues are similar in every continent so smarter grid systems will have spillover benefits across the globe.”

By providing grants to researchers working on more accurate smart meters, better sensors, as well as improved automation, Bezos could help power grids about the world become more efficient.

Ocean thermal energy conversion

Bezos likes ambitious projects, and one tech that is increasingly attractive to climate change experts is ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). One plant could offer 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide sequestration per year per megawatt. A 50MW OTEC plant costs $75m. Bezos can afford to build 133 of them with his entire grant.

The tech involves pumping cold water from the depths of oceans and using the temperature difference with warm water heated by the sun on the top of the ocean to generate energy.

It is estimated that a single offshore OTEC plant could prevent more than 500,000 tons of carbon emissions per year.

Grech, whose business is developing OTEC technology for tropical islands, says “ocean thermal energy conversion is just a few years from commercialisation, but it is not ready at the moment for the same project finance that’s available to things like wind and solar. Once insurers and financiers see the risk profile reduced and mass production starts, the cost of those technologies does tend to fall quite considerably.”

Reforestation

What is more fitting than Amazon’s founder funding an effort to rebuild the Amazon rainforest as part of a global reforestation project?

Many climate change experts advocate a decidedly old-fashion technology: planting trees. A study published in Science in 2019 estimated that regrowing trees in all areas where forests have been cleared could remove 205 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

Reforestation schemes could cost up to $1,000 per hectare, which means Bezos could fund 10 million hectares of reforested land.

Perhaps, however, the single biggest impact Bezos can make with his money is to invest it in lobby efforts to end the world’s reliance on oil.

“Ten billion from a single person is hugely generous,” says Hepburn, “but it is tiny compared to the need to redirect between $1-trillion and $2-trillion a year away from fossil fuels to clean tech.” – Additional reporting by Georgina Quach

– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2020)

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