“Do you really want to save the planet, Mr. Bezos?” Scientists and eco-activists on how to better tackle climate change

    06 Oct 2021

    Not long ago, the world’s second richest man, Jeff Bezos, announced that he was leaving his post as head of Amazon to focus on projects such as The Washington Post, which he bought in 2013, and the rocket company Blue Origin, as well as to rescue our rapidly a crumbling planet. The American billionaire established the Bezos Earth Fund to support scientists, activists, and non-governmental organizations working to solve environmental problems. Wired science journalist Matt Simon spoke to experts and collected tips that could help Bezos make the fight against climate change more effective.


    The spokesman for the agency representing the interests of Bezos Earth Fund did not make any official statements, and the fund itself does not have a website or a page on social networks (Bezos announced the launch of his fund in one of the posts on Instagram). But we can get a rough idea of ​​its activities based on how funds have been distributed so far.

    Back in November, Bezos named the first recipients of that funding. Included among the groups are the Environmental Defense Fund ($100 million), the ClimateWorks Foundation ($50 million), and the Nature Conservancy ($100 million). 

    Most of the grants were awarded for specific projects, although some organizations were eligible to fund other non-profit organizations.

    But who knows exactly how Bezos should spend his money are environmentalists. The main problem from which all the others flow is, of course, climate change. And the main reason for climate change is the reluctance of humanity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    If we do not change course, we will face even more severe consequences: rising sea levels, extreme weather events such as hurricanes and heatwaves, and massive loss of species. (In the past, Bezos was often criticized for his environmental friendliness, as Amazon’s trucking involves vast carbon dioxide emissions. protest.)

    According to experts, the main task of humanity is to reduce emissions, and for this it is necessary to start massively introducing green energy as soon as possible. Otherwise, it will be impossible to achieve the main goal of the Paris Agreement – to keep the rise in global average temperature within two degrees, or even better – one and a half degrees.

    First and foremost, we need better tools to identify the sources of greenhouse gases, says Zeke Hausfather, climatologist at the Breakthrough Institute (not funded by the Bezos Foundation). For example, as practice shows, it is very difficult to detect the leakage of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

    At the same time, scientists have already developed effective ways to calculate carbon dioxide emissions.

    The Vulcan system can measure greenhouse gas emissions for each Los Angeles neighborhood separately. The developer of this system has also demonstrated that most American cities underestimate emissions by an average of 20%. This means that local authorities do not know enough about the sources of air pollution in their cities.

    On the one hand, thanks to the sharp decline in the cost of solar and wind energy, reducing emissions is cheaper than ever. On the other hand, the United States has an infrastructure problem, since the country’s power grid is not designed to transfer electricity from one coast to another. There are many solar power plants in the southwestern United States, and wind farms in the east. But when the sun goes down, the west cannot receive energy from the wind from the east, and when there is no wind, the east cannot receive energy from the sun from the west.

    “The variable nature of these energy sources means that they need additional resources to realize their potential,” says Hausfather, “namely, large batteries to store excess energy.”

    There is a great temptation to bet on the latest technologies, primarily on technologies with negative emissions. One of the most promising of these technologies is the direct capture of carbon from the air: huge machines suck in the air, remove carbon dioxide from it, and send the carbon underground for eternal storage.

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that such technologies must be used if we want to achieve the goal of keeping the temperature rise within one and a half degrees. But capturing carbon from the air is not a panacea; first of all, you need to reduce emissions as soon as possible and as much as possible.

    Bezos also needs to think about which organizations and movements need to be supported.

    “Implementing equitable climate solutions must be held accountable by those who are most acutely affected by the impacts of climate change and structural inequality, says Elizabeth Savin, director of the Climate Interactive think tank (which also received no money from the Bezos Foundation).

    To date, Bezos Earth Fund has given out $ 151 million to various environmental justice groups. These include the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund and Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice.

    Minority people and low-income Americans are much more likely to live on urban heat islands. Poor urban areas tend to have less green space than suburbs. When the sun’s energy reaches concrete and asphalt surfaces, buildings and roads absorb heat and then release it at night. The greenery in the suburbs, on the other hand, cools the air.

    Another important aspect, according to Savin, is the use of universal methods that can solve several problems at the same time. For example, by engaging city dwellers in greening areas, we give them money and at the same time we can prepare for the heat wave. Savin argues that fund managers should also ask themselves:

    “Do strategies to reduce emissions contribute to job creation, air purification, water conservation and lower utility bills for low-income citizens?”

    In the meantime, eco-activists are urging the fund’s management to tackle the trucking issue that helped Bezos build his empire and which is making a significant contribution to climate change.

    Janice Searles Jones, CEO of the Ocean Conservancy Group (also received no money from the Bezos Foundation):

    “If the sphere of cargo transportation were a country, it would be in sixth place in the world in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, that is, it would be on a par with countries from the “Big Seven”. At the current rate, by 2050, freight will account for 18% of all emissions. We cannot afford to ignore this source of pollution.”

    Decarbonizing the industry, though, will not be easy. Like airliners, cargo ships can’t run on existing solar technology. But a stopgap measure may be to make them carbon-neutral. Scientists are working on ways to turn the carbon captured from DAC machines into fuel, which could then power large vessels, allowing them to re-burn carbon that was already in the atmosphere.

    And the shipping industry is not alone in its carbon-spewing. “Combined, the industrial sector and the agricultural sector are much bigger than either transport or power generation in terms of their emissions, but they’re also much harder to decarbonize,” says Hausfather, of the Breakthrough Institute. Livestock alone contribute 14.5 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. (Fun fact for your next cocktail party: It’s actually cow burps, not farts, that produce so much methane.)

    So one idea would be to invest in companies developing meat alternatives, like the Impossible Burger, as well as meat grown from animal cells in the lab. However, when it comes to lab-grown meat, we don’t yet have a good idea how much better it’ll end up being for the environment, since the industry is still in its infancy. We need more research on how much energy it’ll take to run the culturing facilities, for example.

    Bezos’ fund could also continue to tackle the biodiversity crisis. “I think the one fundamental piece that people keep skipping over is that climate change is having impacts on us through the living denizens of the planet,” says Shannon Bennett, chief of science at the California Academy of Sciences. (Her organization also hasn’t received money from the fund.) Take coastlines, for instance. Mangroves, kelp forests, and beds of seagrass all work to dampen storm surges, which are growing more intense thanks to climate change. But we’re losing these ecosystems en masse to development and pollution. Shore these up (sorry), and you’ll both preserve species diversity and make human coastal populations more resilient to rising seas.

    And Team Bezos, if you’re still reading, check out some cutting edge green energy ideas WIRED floated last year when the fund was announced, including space-based solar power, boosting geothermal energy, making hydrogen production more sustainable, and investing in smaller nuclear power facilities.

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