Combination: Jeff Bezos (L), Elon Musk (C) and Bill Gates (R).
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’re focusing their efforts in the right areas.
Broadly speaking, the three richest tech billionaires – who are in the top five richest people in the world – are all trying to develop new technologies that can reduce the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Musk is largely focused on funding carbon capture technologies, Gates is especially bullish on nuclear power, and Bezos has created a special “Bezos Earth Fund”. They all believe that technology plays an important role in tackling climate change and they are doing their utmost to ensure that they push the boundaries when it comes to climate technology.
“They essentially think in the ‘Iron Man way,’ which is that we can build the technology to innovate ourselves with, ” Christian Kroll, the founder and CEO of search engine Ecosia, told CNBC during a video call, adding that she should focus more on planting trees.
“No technology will ever get there,” he said of trees. “And besides, you get so many things for free. You get fertile land, you do something against the biodiversity crisis and you help the water cycle so that you have fewer droughts and fewer floods.”
Global carbon dioxide emissions have skyrocketed over the past 100 years, leading to unprecedented global warming and climate change.
It is well known that trees are among the most efficient carbon capture machines on the planet. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through a chemical reaction known as photosynthesis, converting the gas into energy that they use to grow. For example, empress trees can absorb about 103 tons of carbon per year per hectare.
Twelve of the top 20 climate solutions relate to agriculture or forests, according to Project Drawdown, a San Francisco-based nonprofit climate organization.
Last week, Britain’s Prince William underlined the importance of investing in nature to tackle climate change and protect our planet.
“We need to invest in nature through reforestation, sustainable agriculture and supporting healthy oceans because that’s one of the most cost-effective and impactful ways to tackle climate change,” he said.
“It removes carbon from the atmosphere, helps build more resilient communities, tackles biodiversity loss and protects people’s livelihoods. This is crucial if our children and grandchildren are to live sustainable lives on our precious planet.”
Jack Kelly, the founder of Open Climate Fix and a former researcher at Alphabet’s AI lab DeepMind, told CNBC that a mix of approaches is required. “I think we need a wide variety of interventions, both technology and reforestation,” he said.
However, according to Kroll, trees and reforestation are relatively low on the tech billionaire’s agenda.
While the tech billionaires wouldn’t necessarily be able to ‘fix’ climate change by planting more trees, they could have a ‘huge impact’ if they spent more of their capital on the issue, 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 for Musk and Gates did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment, while a representative for Bezos declined to comment.
Forests or fusion?
There’s no denying that tech billionaires are becoming increasingly interested in climate change.
In January, Musk, Tesla’s CEO, pledged to invest $ 100 million in new carbon capture technologies. Carbon capture is the process of capturing waste carbon dioxide directly from the air or just before being emitted from factories and power plants.
His investment in new carbon capture technologies shadows the $ 1 million he spent on trees in 2019 when he donated YouTuber Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson to help him reach a $ 20 million tree planting goal .
Musk’s position on climate change is complicated, however. Although he runs a relatively green electric vehicle business, he has also been criticized for his love of bitcoin, which is now one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters.
Meanwhile, Gates believes nuclear power is the future and his company TerraPower, which he founded in 2008, wants to build a fully functional state-of-the-art nuclear reactor.
In his new book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”, Gates does not appear to be convinced that trees are worth investing in.
“It has a clear appeal for those of us who love trees, but it opens up a very complicated topic… the effect on climate change appears to be exaggerated,” he writes.
Gates argues that the most effective reforestation strategy is to stop cutting so many trees we already have and says that “ somewhere you need about 50 acres of trees planted in tropical areas to absorb the emissions of an average American. during their lifetime. “
The Microsoft mogul clarified his stance on trees in a podcast interview with New York Times journalist Kara Swisher in February.
“Replanting continuously for 10,000 years is legitimate compensation,” said Gates. ‘If you only plant one generation of trees, that won’t yield much. You know, I’m not saying it’s a mistake or anything. But that won’t make a significant dent in this problem. ‘
Gates, who is now the largest owner of agricultural land in the US, added, “The idea that there is a place to plant a trillion trees is just plain wrong.”
Elsewhere, Bezos established the $ 10 billion Bezos Earth Fund last February to provide financial support to scientists, nongovernmental organizations, activists and the private sector.
So far, the Bezos Earth Fund has provided 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 with its planes and vans, and for using excessive amounts of cardboard in packaging its products. Amazon says its packaging is 100% renewable and no plastic clamshells and wire ties are used.
Amazon Web Services, the company’s colossus of cloud computing, and Microsoft also operate energy-intensive data centers around the world.
Making a profit in plants
But Kroll thinks tech billionaires are still relatively “obsessed” with inventing new technologies to tackle the problem.
His company, Ecosia, has made tree planting an important part of his identity.
Ecosia, headquartered in Berlin, donates 80% of its profits to charities dedicated to reforestation. Essentially, if a person goes on the Ecosia search engine and performs a search, almost all of the money the business makes from digital advertising is used to plant trees.
The company has partnered with more than 60 tree planting organizations that have planted more than 123 million trees, Kroll said, adding that they are primarily in tropical developing countries.
“Planting our trees removes about 1 kg of CO2 from the atmosphere on every search,” said Kroll. “I do dozens of searches every day, so thousands of searches a year. That’s a few tons of CO2 removed from the atmosphere just by searching.”
Kroll suggested that people should only be classed as billionaires if they remove a billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.
“Everyone else is just dollar billionaires,” he said. “That’s boring. We don’t need that anymore in a 21st century.”