Tech billionaires are obsessed with climate change – but some wonder if they’re focusing on the right areas

Combination: Jeff Bezos (L), Elon Musk (C) and Bill Gates (R).

Reuters

Climate change seems to be high on the agenda for tech billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, but some are wondering if they are focusing their efforts on the right areas.

By and large, the top three richest tech billionaires, who are among the top five richest people in the world, are trying to develop new technologies that can reduce the world’s carbon emissions.

Musk is primarily focused on funding carbon capture technologies, Gates is particularly optimistic about nuclear power, and Bezos has set up a special Bezos Earth Fund. They all believe technology plays an important role in combating climate change and they are doing their best to ensure that they push the boundaries of climate technology.

“They are basically thinking the ‘Iron Man’ way, meaning we can develop the technology to turn it into innovation,” Christian Kroll, founder and CEO of search engine Ecosia, told CNBC on a video call, adding that they should focus more on planting trees.

“No technology will ever get there,” he said of trees. “And on top of that, you get so many things for free. You get fertile soil, you do something about the biodiversity crisis and you help the water cycle so that you have fewer droughts and fewer floods.”

Global carbon dioxide emissions have risen sharply over the past 100 years, leading to unprecedented global warming and climate change.

It is well known that trees are some of the most efficient carbon capture machines on earth. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through a chemical reaction known as photosynthesis, in which they convert the gas into energy that they use to grow. Empress trees, for example, can absorb around 103 tons of carbon per acre.

Twelve of the top 20 climate solutions are either agriculture or forest related, according to the San Francisco-based nonprofit Project Drawdown.

Last week, Britain’s Prince William underlined the importance of investing in nature to combat climate change and protect our planet.

“We need to invest in nature through reforestation, sustainable agriculture and supporting healthy oceans as it is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to combat climate change,” he said.

“It removes carbon from the atmosphere, helps build more resilient communities, combats biodiversity loss and protects people’s livelihoods. This is vital if our children and grandchildren are to live sustainably on our precious planet.”

Jack Kelly, the founder of Open Climate Fix and a former researcher at DeepMind’s alphabetical AI laboratory, told CNBC that a mix of approaches is required. “I think we need a wide range of interventions, both technology and reforestation,” he said.

However, trees and reforestation are relatively low on the tech billionaires’ agenda, according to Kroll.

While tech billionaires wouldn’t necessarily be able to “solve” climate change by planting more trees, they could have “massive effects” if they put more capital into the cause, he said.

According to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, Amazon founder Bezos is worth $ 197 billion, Tesla founder Musk is worth $ 181 billion, and Microsoft founder Gates is worth $ 145 billion.

Representatives from Musk and Gates did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment, while a representative from Bezos declined to comment.

Forests or Fusion?

There’s no denying that tech billionaires are increasingly interested in climate change.

In January, Tesla CEO Musk promised to invest $ 100 million in new carbon capture technologies. Carbon capture captures waste carbon dioxide either directly from the air or just before it is released from factories and power plants.

His investment in new carbon capture technologies dwarfs the $ 1 million he spent on trees in 2019 when he made a donation to YouTuber Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson to help a $ 20 million goal for planting to be reached by trees.

However, Musk’s stance on climate change is complicated. While running a relatively green electric vehicle company, he has also been criticized for his love of Bitcoin, which is now one of the largest emitters of CO2 in the world.

Meanwhile, Gates believes nuclear power is the future, and his company TerraPower, founded in 2008, is aiming to build a fully functional advanced nuclear reactor.

In his new book “How to Avoid Climate Catastrophe”, Gates does not seem to be convinced that investing in trees is worthwhile.

“It has an obvious pull for those of us who love trees, but it opens up a very complicated subject … its impact on climate change seems to be exaggerated,” he writes.

Gates argues that the most effective reforestation strategy is to stop cutting down as many trees as we already have, saying that “about 50 acres worth of trees would have to be planted in tropical areas to reduce the emissions of the average American to absorb in their life. “

The Microsoft mogul clarified its stance on trees in a podcast interview with New York Times journalist Kara Swisher in February.

“If you fund 10,000 years to keep replanting it, that’s legitimate compensation,” said Gates. “If you plant just one generation of trees, you don’t get much. You know, I’m not saying it’s a mistake or anything else. But that’s not going to affect this problem much.”

Gates, who is now the largest owner of farmland in the US, added, “The idea that there is a place where trillions of trees can be planted is just wrong.”

Bezos launched the $ 10 billion Bezos Earth Fund last February to fund scientists, non-governmental organizations, activists and the private sector.

To date, the Bezos Earth Fund has made grants to several organizations focused on reforestation, including Eden Reforestation Projects, The Nature Conservancy, and The Natural Resources Defense Council.

However, Amazon has been criticized for increasing pollution on its planes and vans and for using excessive cardboard when packaging its products. According to Amazon, the packaging is 100% renewable and no plastic clamshells or cable ties are used.

Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing company, and Microsoft also operate energy-intensive data centers around the world.

Turn profits into plants

But Kroll believes that tech billionaires are still relatively “obsessed” with devising new technologies to address the problem.

His company Ecosia has made tree planting an integral part of their identity.

Ecosia is headquartered in Berlin and donates 80% of its profits to charities that focus on reforestation. When a person goes to the Ecosia search engine and does a search, almost all of the money the company makes from digital ads goes to planting trees.

The company has partnered with over 60 tree-planting organizations that have planted over 123 million trees, Kroll said, adding that they are mostly located in developing countries in the tropics.

“Planting our trees removes around 1 kg of CO2 from the atmosphere with each search,” said Kroll. “I do dozens of searches every day, so thousands of searches every year. That’s a couple of tons of CO2 that can be removed from the atmosphere by just searching.”

Kroll suggested that people be considered billionaires only if they remove one billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.

“Everyone else is just dollar billionaires,” he said. “It’s boring. We don’t need that anymore in a 21st century.”

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