Bill Gates forms billionaires' super league against climate change

With the COP21 conference starting today in Paris, wealthy investors including Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg team up to give governments a helping hand.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 24 Mar 2016

When there’s something strange... with climate change, who you gonna call? Bill Gates, apparently. The Microsoft founder and philanthropist par excellence has gathered an elite team of 28 super wealthy individuals to tackle the growing menace of global warming.

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition (they actually called it that) includes such notable and diverse billionaires as Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, Richard Branson, Ratan Tata, George Soros, Mark Zuckerberg, Saudi Prince Alaweed bin Talal and Ray Dalio (see the full list here). They intend to use some of their combined wealth to invest in early stage ‘clean energy’ companies in the hope it will help to wean the world off fossil fuels.

The timing is not a coincidence. Today marks the start of the much anticipated Paris climate change talks, or COP21, where leaders and representatives from 195 countries will attempt to thrash out an agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to prevent man-made global warming exceeding 2C above pre-industrial levels.

Is this a case of wealthy individuals stepping in where the state fails to get it done - Batman and Robin to Gotham City’s inept police force? Not quite. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition was announced in parallel to the equally snazzy Mission Innovation, a group of 20 countries committed to doubling their combined clean energy R&D spend over the next five years.

As these countries (the US, China, India, Brazil, Canada, Norway, Indonesia, Mexico, the UK, the UAE, Denmark, Chile, Australia, Sweden, Japan, Italy, South Korea, France, Germany and, yes, Saudi Arabia) already spend a combined $10bn (£6.7bn) on clean energies every year, it’s going to be tough for billionaires to claim all the glory (if indeed there is any glory – emissions haven’t stopped rising yet).

In fact, the billionaires didn’t specify how much money they’re planning on coughing up, though one wouldn’t exactly expect it to be small. Gates alone already pledged $2bn from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation earlier this year and between them the group has a combined wealth in the hundreds of billions.

Their intention of course is not to compete with governments but to complement them by investing in scaling high risk, innovative energy companies. Such investment won’t happen fast enough through the usual channels, the group believes.

‘Experience indicates that even the most promising ideas face daunting commercialization challenges and a nearly impassable Valley of Death between promising concept and viable product, which neither government funding nor conventional private investment can bridge,’ the group said.

That of course isn’t to say that the super investors are getting on board entirely for philanthropic reasons. They fully expect to make a return, saying their success will ‘provide the economic proof points necessary for the mainstream market-driven clean energy economy required for our planetary future’.

It’s not exactly new to hear billionaires talking about changing the world, but in the context of unprecedented political support for climate change action and rapid technological advances making renewables economically viable, there is every reason to believe the winds may be turning towards clean energy.

And if 28 billionaires can’t convince you that the near future may indeed be green, consider this. Goldman Sachs, the vampire squid itself, also announced a $500m target towards clean energy investment earlier this year. The chances of that being entirely for reasons of altruism or mere public image are slim to nought.

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