Even Billions From Bezos Won’t Solve Climate Change

Josh Petri

(Bloomberg) --

Like all great philanthropic gestures, it started with an Instagram post. 

“Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet,” wrote Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos beneath a shot of Earth from space. “I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new ways of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share.” His budget: $10 billion. 

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A post shared by Jeff Bezos (@jeffbezos) on Feb 17, 2020 at 10:00am PST

It’s an astonishing number, but it pales in comparison to Bezos’s recent earnings. He’s added $15.6 billion to his net worth thus far in 2020. Even if the full value of the gift was immediately withdrawn from his savings account, he’d still be the richest person on the planet.

And the size of the fund could be a problem. It is, as Gernot Wagner points out, “both a lot, and not much at all.” When compared with other private climate funding, it’s more than anyone else has been spending. But it’s minuscule compared with the overall scope of the challenge. The U.S. government alone spends more than $2 billion per year on climate-related research funding, and any real global effort to address the problem will require trillions of dollars. Wagner suggests Bezos focus his spending on both political activists and innovation that will make fossil fuel alternatives cheaper. 

Still, with or without Bezos’s billions, the shift to renewables is happening, thanks in large part to market forces. At least five of America’s coal producers went bankrupt last year as fossil fuel prices plummeted 40% from their 2018 peak. But the dirtiest of fossil fuels isn’t quite dead yet. In fact, its purveyors think coal might make a comeback. The nation’s largest producers are hoarding cash, betting that prices will rise in the second half of 2020 as global consumption increases. (China’s ongoing battle against coronavirus has cut CO2 emissions by about 100 million metric tons. When China, a huge coal consumer, recovers, so will coal prices, or so the thinking goes.)

New research published this week in the journal Nature put any recovery by the coal industry in a much darker light: Fossil-fuel production may be responsible for far more atmospheric methane than previously thought. If the results are validated, the greenhouse gas will need to be managed even more tightly than was accounted for in the Paris Agreement. At least at the local level, many cities have begun to set individual targets to reduce emissions. Some are doing better than others. 

Finally, I leave you with this horrifying bit of news, courtesy of climate change: Locust swarms the size of cities are ravaging East Africa, destroying crops at an unprecedented clip. The United Nations has warned of a massive threat to food security in a region of the world where millions already go hungry. The inundation has been caused by rapidly warming seas, which in turn generate an increased number of cyclones, which produce the perfect breeding ground for the insects. The problem is only expected to increase. 

Josh Petri writes the Week in Green newsletter recapping the best reads and key news in climate change and green solutions. Sign up to receive the Green Daily newsletter in your inbox every weekday.

To contact the author of this story: Josh Petri in Portland at jpetri4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David Rovella at drovella@bloomberg.net

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