Moonshots for a Heating Planet


The Cambridge dictionary defines a moonshot as “a plan or aim to do something that seems almost impossible.” If there were ever a time for moonshot solutions, it is now. The latest IPCC report paints a dire picture of our heating planet: Increased greenhouse gas concentrations, which are “unequivocally” anthropogenic, are resulting in changes that are “irreversible for centuries to millennia.” Unprecedented flooding, heat waves, and wildfires devastating communities across the globe graphically underscore the fact that climate change is real and it’s already here. Yet the solution to this existential threat remains nebulous. Although COP26 led to commitments to stop deforestation, reduce methane emissions, and phase down fossil fuels and coal, even if these targets are reached, temperatures may still rise by 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, far exceeding the 1.5 degree limit deemed essential to averting global catastrophe.

If politicians continue to fall short, perhaps private philanthropists can harness the creative solutions necessary to stave off an ecosystem meltdown. Several high-profile individuals have already put big money on the table in a minute to midnight attempt to save humanity. Let’s take a look at two ways in which they are funding moonshot approaches to the climate crisis.

Big Prizes to Incentivize Large-Scale Change

One moonshot approached favored by celebrity philanthropists is to offer large cash prizes aimed at identifying workable climate solutions.

Prince William’s aptly-named Earthshot Prize is centered around five Earthshots to be achieved by 2030: Protect and Restore Nature, Clean Our Air, Revive Our Oceans, Build a Waste-Free World, and Fix Our Climate, the last of which seeks to build a carbon-neutral economy. Each year until 2030, five winners will receive a £1 million prize to scale their solutions. The inaugural award in the climate category will go towards scaling technology which converts renewable electricity into clean hydrogen gas capable of powering cars, planes, homes, and businesses.

There’s no doubt that the £50 million awarded over the next ten years will turn up some interesting innovations. However, on an individual award level, while £1 million will certainly help the winners to expand their solutions, it’s only a drop in the bucket in terms of addressing such monumental challenges. Hopefully, the publicity that Prize winners gain will spur continued investment in their solutions beyond the £1 million award.

Another philanthropist taking a prize-based approach is the often controversial Elon Musk, who currently holds the title of the richest man in the world with a net worth of $296 billion. Given that he made the bulk of his fortune pioneering electric cars, it comes as no surprise that Musk is looking to technology to solve global heating. 

Musk has pledged $100 million through the four-year XPRIZE Carbon Removal competition, which invites “innovators and teams from anywhere on the planet to create and demonstrate solutions that can pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere or oceans, and sequester it durably and sustainably.” Solutions can be engineered, natural, or hybrid, but in order to win the competition, teams must demonstrate that their solution removes at least 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year and come up with a plan for reaching the gigaton per year scale in the future. 

Along similar lines, back in 2007, Richard Branson launched the Virgin Earth Challenge, which put $25 million on the table to develop a commercially viable sequestration method to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. However, since it was launched over a decade ago, no entries have managed to meet all the prize criteria.

Given its stringent guidelines, it begs the question of whether XPRIZE Carbon Removal could suffer the same fate. Is the competition designed to foster innovative solutions, or is this just another of Musk’s publicity stunts, akin to launching a Tesla Roadster into space?

Deep-Pocket Philanthropy

Another moonshot approach favored by high-profile individuals is that of deep-pocket philanthropy. 

The world’s second richest person, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, plans to spend $10 billion by 2030 through the Bezos Earth Fund, taking a systems change approach to revamp the economic structures at the root of global heating.

The Fund’s website states, “The economy in 2030 must be dramatically different from what it is today. Radical changes will be needed in the way we power our world, construct our buildings, manufacture and consume products, manage our land and grow our food, design our cities, and transport our goods. Broader transitions must also occur in how we measure progress, deliver basic services, and equitably distribute the costs and benefits of change.”

In order to achieve these bold goals, the Fund plans to support non-governmental organizations and individuals implementing climate and nature solutions in the areas of technology, investments, and policy and behavior change. The Fund’s program areas consist of Nature Solutions, Environmental Justice, Decarbonizing the Economy, Monitoring and Accountability, and Economics, Finance, and Markets. Grants in the Fund’s inaugural year have already totaled $947 million, with investments targeting areas such as climate justice, decarbonization, nature protection, and green jobs.

Another philanthropist taking a deep-pocket approach to the climate crisis is Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and author of the recent book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.

Gates recently raised over $1 billion from corporations to fund Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, which seeks to speed up the implementation of clean technology solutions. With the goal of helping to achieve net-zero emissions, the initiative will invest in clean products with the aim of increasing their availability, reducing their price, and serving as a model for financing decarbonization infrastructure. The initial focus is on technologies including sustainable aviation fuel, green hydrogen, direct air capture, and long-duration energy storage.

A sister initiative, the Breakthrough Energy Fellows program, supports early-stage clean tech innovators working to develop, scale, and market carbon-reduction technologies with the potential to reduce emissions by at least 500 million tons per year by 2050. The program is mainly directed at scientists and engineers working on innovations that will transform how we make things (manufacturing), how we plug in (electricity), how we grow things (agriculture), how we get around (transportation), and how we live (buildings). The Fellows selected in the inaugural round are working on innovations in fertilizer, electrofuels, cement, steel, and hydrogen.

In addition to his work in Breakthrough Energy, Gates recently pledged $315 million through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to assist smallholder farmers adapt to climate change, helping to ensure food security in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which are more likely to suffer climate-related shocks.

Yet another high-profile philanthropist making large climate investments is Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook, or Meta, fame. His Chan Zuckerburg Initiative recently announced $33 million in funding towards climate-related efforts, $10 million of which will support the Breakthrough Energy Fellows program. The remaining $23 million is directed towards organizations working on carbon dioxide removal (CDR), as well as CDR technologies.

Looking Ahead

Only time will tell whether these initiatives will generate the ideas and momentum necessary to make a significant dent in carbon emissions. As the Bezos Earth Fund notes, “There are no silver bullets” to the climate crisis. However, one thing is certain. For humanity to stand a chance, we need to revamp the very systems that enabled many of these philanthropists to dedicate such vast amounts of wealth to this issue to begin with.

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