Last week Jeff Bezos, founder, president and CEO of Amazon — and the world’s richest person — announced in an Instagram post that he would commit $10 billion toward fighting climate change.
“Today, I’m thrilled to announce I am launching the Bezos Earth Fund. 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. We can save Earth. It’s going to take collective action from big companies, small companies, nation states, global organizations, and individuals.
I’m committing $10 billion to start and will begin issuing grants this summer. Earth is the one thing we all have in common — let’s protect it, together.”
Bezos gives some general idea of where that money will be spent, but the details are important. $10 billion is certainly a lot of money. It’s bound to attract many grifters and rent-seekers. So it’s important to consider where Bezos could get the most impact for the money he spends.
But first, even though $10 billion is a lot of money, for perspective the world spends that much on oil every two days. There is a tremendous amount of money fueling CO2 emissions, and it’s going to take a lot to combat that.
So the first thing Bezos should do is leverage this money to the greatest extent possible. In my estimation, it’s going to take many trillions of dollars and a multi-pronged approach to address the issue. He should (and probably will) get other wealthy people and organizations to match some of his contribution, and he should require those seeking funds to put up some matching funds.
But then where should he direct this money for maximum benefit?
It may be helpful to distinguish between two major categories of CO2 emissions. The increase in atmospheric CO2 since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has primarily come from developed nations. The U.S. is responsible for the largest share of CO2 in the atmosphere among all countries (although China is on track to surpass us).
But current and future emissions are being driven by developing countries. Currently the Asia Pacific region — home to more than 60% of the world’s population — emits about double the combined CO2 of the U.S. and the EU.
Thus, there are two big targets here: Reducing ongoing emissions, and removing CO2 that is already in the atmosphere. The latter is a huge challenge that I will discuss here.
Because CO2 exists at a low concentration in the atmosphere — about 410 parts per million (PPM) — a lot of air has to be processed to remove the CO2.
Sometimes I use the following analogy to illustrate the challenge. There are an estimated 25 billion ounces of gold dissolved in the ocean, which is about 10 times the total amount of gold that has been mined throughout history. At current prices, that gold is worth many trillions of dollars. That gold is there for the taking.
But the gold exists at a dilute concentration, so a lot of water has to be processed to access the small amount of gold in each gallon. And while people have been running scams related to the ocean’s dissolved gold for over 100 years, the cost of extracting and separating it has always been greater than the value of the gold. So there still isn’t a commercially viable process for extracting the ocean’s gold.
The same is true for many schemes that would remove CO2 from the atmosphere. At face value, they may seem to do so, but a full accounting may reveal that they have huge energy costs, which could result in more net CO2 emissions.
The best process nature created for removing CO2 is plant growth. This process takes atmospheric CO2 and converts it through photosynthesis into biomass. But it’s a slow process, and it doesn’t permanently sequester the CO2. Eventually most of the biomass once again becomes CO2.
Enter artificial photosynthesis. Many researchers are working on processes to mimic photosynthesis to convert CO2 and solar energy into useful products.
Harvard University chemistry professor Daniel Nocera has been one of the pioneers in this field, most recently using artificial synthesis to convert CO2 and solar energy into fuels.
There are others working in this field, but commercialization isn’t yet within reach. However, the prize is large, and I would certainly direct some of Bezos’ funding into this area.
But, since there is already a process capable of doing this naturally, I would also direct funds into reforesting certain areas. The Trillion Tree Campaign is likely one of the lowest cost initiatives that could remove CO2 from the atmosphere and at least bind it up for decades. It’s not a permanent solution, but it buys time.
There are a number of other technically viable schemes for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, but most have little chance of commercial viability — or they may even actually make the problem worse when a full energy accounting is done.
So I think photosynthesis — both natural and artificial — is the lowest-hanging fruit when it comes to the current CO2 inventory in the atmosphere.
But what about ongoing CO2 emissions? That requires different solutions, and will be the subject of Part II of this article.