Feb 18 2020

Bezos $10 Billion Earth Fund

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is the richest person in the world, with a net worth of around $115 billion. He recently announced that he is pledging 10 billion of those dollars to the Bezos Earth Fund, the primary objective of which is to fight climate change:

⁣⁣⁣”Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet. 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. This global initiative will fund scientists, activists, NGOs – any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.”

Bezos reports that he will begin dolling out money this summer. Here is the big question – how will he spend this money? And how should he spend it? How would you spend it? This is a complex question. His statement suggests that he wants to primarily fund research, which I think is a good place to start – but research into what? I think this question is answered by simply looking at the sources of human CO2 release:

“87 percent of all human-produced carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil. The remainder results from the clearing of forests and other land use changes (9%), as well as some industrial processes such as cement manufacturing (4%).”

Clearly the largest culprit is the burning of fossil fuels. Land use is also a big chunk, and then 4% make up other industrial processes. Every bit helps, but let focus on these top two, starting with the smaller portion, land use. I think there are three significant efforts that could help reduce CO2 loss from improper land use. The first is to stop cutting and burning forests that represent major carbon sinks. I am not talking about logging for lumber, which can be done sustainably, but mostly the reduction of the Amazon rainforest and other old-growth forests. This will require regulations, but also we need to seek ways to reduce the incentive for farmers to clear forest to grow more crops.

This leads to the second major factor, optimally efficient farming and land management, especially of temperate forests, which are actually (temperate rainforests, at least) the densest biomass and carbon sinks in the world.  The evidence on farming is clear, intensive farming is better than organic farming. This does not mean we should not be using sustainable methods that limit negative effects on the environment, but the biggest negative effect is land use itself. We need to use each parcel of land for its best use, and extract as many calories out of that land as possible. And yes, optimizing meat consumption and minimizing food waste are also important, but these are not magic wands, and we would still need to maximize calorie production from farming.

Realistically, this means leveraging all available farming methods, including genetic engineering. Taking GMOs off the table would be a disaster, and there is no reason for it except irrational and unscientific fearmongering, mostly funded by the organic lobby. Investing, rather, in GMO projects that have greatest potential to increase yield while reducing inputs is therefore valuable to this overall effort. The two research programs that I think have the most potential include improving the efficiency of photosynethesis, and nitrogen fixation. Imagine if most crops could fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere. That would dramatically reduce the need for fertilizer, a lot of which is fossil fuel based.

The third effort in this category is planting trees, something that has had some attention of the last year. The ultimate potential of this effort, often framed as planting a trillion trees, is limited, but it could be one useful component of the overall effort to mitigate climate change.

We should do all of these things to turn our land use into a carbon sink rather than another source of carbon, but here is an important caveat. All of these efforts are just nibbling around the edges of the big problem – emitting CO2 in the first place from burning fossil fuels. In fact, the fossil fuel industry loves this talk of planting trees. Sure, let’s keep burning fossil fuel, and then plant a trillion trees and we’re good, right? They also like to promote carbon capture. Again, this is better than nothing, but the goal for the fossil fuel industry is to focus on everything but reducing fossil fuel use.

So let’s turn to that question, because really this is almost the entire game – how do we reduce fossil fuel use as dramatically and quickly as possible? In fact it should be the goal of the world to eliminate fossil fuel burning entirely, by switching over to an energy infrastructure free of fossil fuels. In order to do this many people might think the first or most important step is to invest in research and development into renewable energy sources, like wind and solar. However, I think this is unnecessary, and I would put none of the Earth Fund into this. Wind and solar are already cost effective and are improving every year. They are not the limiting factor. What we actually need is cost-effective grid storage.

This might mean batteries, and I think if there were one technology that has the greatest potential to mitigate climate change, it’s battery technology. The more cost and carbon efficient batteries are, the longer they last both in duration of a single charge and discharge-recharge cycles, the better. Also, using non-toxic and abundant materials is a plus. There is already lots of research and incremental advances in this area, but accelerating battery research would probably have more of an impact than accelerating photovoltaic research. Right now we don’t really have a good grid storage solution, and if we did a renewable infrastructure suddenly becomes feasible. An electric vehicle infrastructure also becomes more likely with cheaper batteries with better range.

Meanwhile we need to hedge our bets with other technology, because we cannot predict how this is going to play out. Right now that means nuclear. Even if we maximize all other power sources, we won’t be able to get rid of fossil fuel plants without nuclear (not without massive grid storage, which we don’t currently have). As Germany and other countries have discovered, the choice for now is between fossil fuels and nuclear. They tried to go all renewable, and shut down their nuclear plants. They ended up having to build coal-fired plants and increased their net CO2 emissions. Investing some of those billions in Gen IV modular nuclear power plants could be the single most effective method of reducing CO2 emissions in the near term (over the next 30 years or so).

There are also many other research programs that are currently minor players but have potential. Perhaps a hydrogen-based economy will finally be the solution, if we develop methods to cheaply and efficiently produce and store vast quantities of hydrogen.

Perhaps the most important investment by the Earth Fund is in activists and NGOs, because the biggest obstacle to reducing our CO2 emissions is not technology but politics. In this country we have one party that denies climate change and/or wants to do everything but reduce fossil fuel burning. Meanwhile the other party is largely against perhaps the two most powerful tools in our kit – GMOs and nuclear power. No matter which side is in power, our efforts to limit climate change will be gimped.

What we need, rather, is an objective science-based approach that uses all tools available to aggressively reduce CO2 emissions. If we could remove the political obstacles, I think our current research and development is up to the task.

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