President Obama's speech may have grabbed most of the headlines on the opening day of the Paris climate talks, but speaking in a press conference that felt more like a Davos flashback, Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and the world's richest man, accompanied by Presidents Obama and François Hollande, signaled that Paris won't be a replay of Copenhagen, which broke down into fractious bickering in 2009. He unveiled an innovative public-private partnership designed to jumpstart global clean energy investment.
He's concerned that the time to prevent the worst effects of climate change is running out. Even though progress has been made reducing the cost and increasing the deployment of renewables, making up almost half of all new power plants in 2014, the International Energy Agency calculated that the world is still stubbornly headed for an increase of 2.7 degrees Celsius - disastrously above the 2-degree threshold.
Nonetheless, despite frequent calls by politicians for a new Apollo Program for energy innovation, over the past few decades, public sector energy research funding has flatlined around the world.
“We can’t wait for the system to change through normal cycles,” Gates wrote in his blog.
For Gates, a long-term climate solution relies on technology breakthroughs created by huge infusions of cash. (he explains his philosophy)
As the ultimate rainmaker, Gates recruited a who's who of tech billionaires, now called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. Some of the deep pockets of this high-powered group include Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, cleantech investor Vinod Khosla, and Mukesh Ambani, chairman of India's Reliance Industries.
Gates' billionaires will build on government investments in basic and applied research with long-term investments in early-stage technologies, pushing them out of the lab and across the dreaded “valley of death” that occurs when there is little funding to back high risk ideas with a indefinite investment timeline. (See Obama speaking about the Gates initiative at a press conference.)
"We need to be exploring many different paths — and that means we also need to invent new approaches," Gates wrote in a recent blog post. "Private companies will ultimately develop these energy breakthroughs, but their work will rely on the kind of basic research that only governments can fund. Both have a role to play."
Advisors to President Obama, described Gates as “the intellectual architect” behind the private sector effort. (Read Gates' white paper.)
The biggest polluters
Under the public sector half of the program, which is known as Mission Innovation, some of the world's biggest polluters make up a 20-nation group. Among the group are Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, and the United States. This group of 20 represents 75 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from electricity, and more than 80 percent of the world’s clean energy R&D investment.
These investments amount to about $10 billion annually, including $5 billion annually by the United States, which is the most spent by any nation in the group. But now each country will commit to a doubling of its research and development funding within the next five years. While this is a major increase, some experts have called for far larger sums to be devoted to such research, given the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas in order to limit global warming.
While doubling these national budgets could yield new energy breakthroughs, it will also send a powerful signal to developing countries that want more aid from industrialized nations that have caused the majority of global warming. Some of the countries involved in Mission Innovation, like India, have energy priorities that are focused on increasing energy access, rather than simply cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and this research partnership is seen as a way to achieve this goal without increasing emissions like carbon dioxide and methane.
“Our climate imperatives, coupled with the world’s need for energy and electricity, mean that we don’t have the luxury of decades to develop and deploy new technologies,” wrote the White House in a statement.
Membership is open to additional countries, with US officials citing a surge in interest in just the past few weeks.
Essentially, Gates has just institutionalized his long history of clean-energy investments. Some of his potential black swans include Sapphire Energy, a California-based company that has built a demonstration project to turn algae into biofuels, and Ambri, a Massachusetts-based startup spun out from MIT that is developing a utility-scale storage battery.
In 2006 Gates also funded TerraPower, a fourth generation nuclear reactor company that will use depleted — rather than enriched uranium — to produce safer and cleaner nuclear power.
Gates, who Forbes estimates to be worth $80 billion, said last summer that he would invest $1 billion over the next five years in clean-energy projects. In Paris, he said his group of investors had committed about $2 billion so far.
Long term motivation
Gate's timely announcement has already bolstered talks at the conference, where more than 120 heads of state are attending and more than 180 countries submitted climate plans before the talks began, far surpassing the lackluster enthusiasm at Copenhagen.