Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, already has a lot on his plate.
He has Amazon to run, of course, along with his space flight business Blue Origin and the Washington Post. That’s alongside dealing with public attacks from Donald Trump and the fallout of a phone hack allegedly orchestrated by Saudi Arabia.
Now, the 56-year-old has a new project: A $10bn (£7.6bn) Bezos Earth Fund which he hopes will combat climate change.
His grant is the third largest charitable gift of all time, behind Warren Buffett’s $36bn donation to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Walmart heir Helen Walton’s $16bn donation to her family’s foundation.
The fund has been welcomed by climate change experts, although it has raised eyebrows from Greenpeace and the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group, which point to Amazon’s annual carbon footprint of 44.4m metric tonnes – the equivalent of the annual emissions of Norway.
The Earth Fund could offset Amazon’s carbon footprint, but Prof Cameron Hepburn, the director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment warned that Bezos will need to pick his investments carefully to identify technologies “where modest changes can have a snowball effect”. Here are some of contenders:
Electric cars may already be on roads around the world, but better batteries, range and charging infrastructure are still needed to drive mass adoption.
If electric vehicles do take off, one study estimates that they could save up to 1,700m tonnes of carbon emissions by 2050.
Progress is already being made. Tesla, for instance, claims it has saved 4m metric tonnes of carbon emissions from the 550,000 electric cars it released since the company was founded in 2003.
Dan Grech, the chief executive of renewable energy business Global OTEC Resources, says “it’s well documented that internal combustion vehicles and air travel are some of the big polluters that we need to move the needle on.”
Alternatively, Bezos could fund activists lobbying cities around the world to legalise electric scooters, which can help reduce pollution and congestion as commuters use them in favour of petrol cars.
It is estimated that there are more than 15,000 electric scooters in Paris, filling the city’s streets with more eco-friendly transport options.
With Bezos’s $10bn he could fund similar amounts of scooter fleets in 1,300 cities globally.
Carbon capture and storage
“The electric vehicle revolution is already underway,” says Grech, “I don’t think that’s going to be exciting or big picture enough for Jeff Bezos.”
Another option may be giving grants to researchers developing more efficient way to remove carbon dioxide.
This technology could remove up to 5bn metric tonnes of carbon per year by 2050. But costs range between $200 and $600 per metric tonne, companies in the field have said. If Bezos wanted to just spend his entire grant on a series of carbon capture machines, he could save up to 17m metric tonnes of carbon.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology allows businesses to stop large amounts of carbon emissions from reaching the atmosphere, often turning the carbon into stone and burying it deep underground.
Research published last year in Nature Communications found that direct air capture machines, which suck carbon emissions from the air, could dramatically cut the cost of slowing down climate change.
Prof Dave Reay, an executive director at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, says Bezos has pledged “an awful lot of money. But then tackling climate change is an awfully big and expensive challenge.”
“Many emerging technologies, like CCS, need a financial shot in the arm to get them scaled up fast,” he adds.
Bezos could start by directing his web hosting division to reduce their work with the oil and gas industry, or by encouraging his customers to adopt CCS.
With $10bn, Bezos could fix energy grids around the world by giving research grants to companies working on so-called “smart grid” technologies.
Using a smart grid in the US could save 442m metric tonnes of carbon emissions per year, researchers have estimated. The US has invested $7bn in smart grid technology, meaning Bezos could easily match its total spend.
Rob Gramlich, the president of energy consulting business Grid Strategies LLC, says developments in this technology could have a key impact on climate change.
“A good transmission system is key to expanding the most impactful renewable energy sources we have: wind and solar-powered energy … grid issues are similar in every continent so smarter grid systems will have spill-over benefits across the globe.”
By providing grants to researchers working on more accurate smart meters, better sensors as well as improved automation, Bezos could help power grids around the world become more efficient.
Ocean thermal energy conversion
Bezos likes ambitious projects, and one technology that’s increasingly attractive to climate change experts is ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC).
One plant could produce 10,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide sequestration per year per megawatt. A 50 megawatt OTEC plant costs around $75m. Bezos can afford to build 133 of them with his entire grant.
The technology involves pumping cold water from the depths of oceans and using the temperature difference with warm water heated by the sun on the top of the ocean to generate clean energy.
It’s estimated that a single offshore OTEC plant could prevent more than 500,000 metric tonnes of carbon emissions per year.
Grech, whose business is developing OTEC technology for tropical islands, says “ocean thermal energy conversion is just a few years from commercialisation, but it’s not ready at the moment for the same project finance that’s available to things like wind and solar.”
“Once insurers and financiers see the risk profile reduced and mass production starts, the cost of those technologies does tend to fall quite considerably.”
What is more fitting than Amazon’s founder funding an effort to rebuild the Amazon rainforest as part of a global reforestation project?
Many climate change experts advocate a decidedly old-fashion technology: Planting trees.
A study published in the journal Science last year estimated that regrowing trees in all areas where forests have been cleared could remove 205bn metric tonnes of carbon from the planet’s atmosphere, a significant reversal of centuries of pollution.
Reforestation schemes could cost up to $1,000 per hectare, which means Bezos could fund 10m hectares of reforested land.
Prof Richard Templer, the director of innovation at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, says it is vital for the billionaire to focus on ways to avoid large scale species extinctions.
“Returning habitats at scale is important for all species, including homo sapiens, and has direct benefits for reducing atmospheric CO2 and global heating,” he says.
Ben Caldecott, the director of the Oxford Sustainable Finance Programme, called ecosystem restoration such as reforestation a “win-win” for Bezos.
Perhaps, however, the single biggest impact Bezos can make with his money is to invest it in lobby efforts to end the world’s reliance on oil
“Ten billion from a single person is hugely generous,” says Prof Hepburn “but it is tiny compared to the need to redirect between $1-2 trillion a year away from fossil fuels to clean technologies.”
Additional reporting by Georgina Quach