Eric Toone, one half of the investing committee at Breakthrough Energy, speaks to conference attendees at the breakthrough Energy Summit in Seattle on Wednesday October 19, 2022.
Photo by Cat Clifford, CNBC
SEATTLE — Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the climate-technology investment firm started by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, will begin to devote more to companies that help people and businesses adapt to the consequences of climate change.
Since making its first investment in late 2017, the firm has made more than 100 investments in startups which have been primarily focused on climate mitigation — that is, reducing emissions and stabilizing the amount of climate-warming greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
It will now begin to look at investing in companies building solutions to adapt to a hotter and wetter world, the firm’s executives said at last week’s Breakthrough Energy Summit.
“It’s time to start accepting reality and that we’re not going to be able to do this fast enough, the ship is too big, it’s too hard to steer,” Eric Toone, one half of the investing committee for Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), told conference attendees last week.
Toone highlighted a quote from John Holdren, a research professor at Harvard University who served as President Obama’s science advisor: “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering.”
Mitigation won’t happen fast enough and suffering is unacceptable, Toone said.
“We’re left with adaptation,” Toone told the audience. “And so while BEV’s principal focus will continue to be mitigation, we will now work on adaptation as part of our portfolio — adaptation to some of the most severe consequences of elevated levels of greenhouse gases and global warming.”
Even if we could immediately replace all fossil fuel-powered technologies, the technology does not yet exist at scale to remove the greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, that have been already released into the atmosphere, said Carmichael Roberts, the other half of BEV’s investing committee, in an interview.
“It takes a while for the planet to cool down,” Roberts told CNBC. “It’s not like a light switch that you turn and flip off. … That’s the harsh reality and the motivation — that we are running out of time.”
If the planet were a human body, anthropogenic climate change is something akin to hurting your ankle, Carmichael said. The first order of business is to mitigate the pain. The second is to stabilize the hurt ankle so it can heal, and the third is to learn how to get around while the hurt ankle is healing.
Adaptation amounts to the third measure — learning how to live with the damage.
One example of adaptation would be making ports more resilient to the extreme weather caused in part by climate change, Toone said.
“About 70 percent of the world’s commerce moves around the planet by ships. The operation of those ships is aided by a family of about 2,000 ports around the world,” Toone told the conference audience last Wednesday.
“Like a lot of infrastructure, ports are built to withstand 100-year events, but when 100-year events start happening every five years, and when the definition of 100-year event changes massively, you’ve got an issue,” Toone said.
“We have to find ways to harden its infrastructure against the impacts of global warming — active mooring systems, advanced abnormal event detection, cranes that operate in higher winds, all sorts of things like that. There’s an enormous amount of technology that needs to be developed here,” he said.
Toone also mentioned water shortages as an area that will require more investment, including finding cheaper ways to desalinize salt water (“desal” for short).
“Water is a huge deal,” Toone told CNBC in an interview. “We’re going to have to do desal at massive scale.”
Fresh water is important for human beings, but it is also vital for agriculture.
“In the Central Valley, which grows half the fruits and vegetables that this country uses, those guys are pulling water out of wells that don’t refresh. This is a bad, bad, bad plan,” Toone told CNBC.
In an aerial view, the San Gabriel River and the exposed lakebed of the San Gabriel Reservoir are seen on June 29, 2021 in the San Gabriel Mountains near Azusa, California.
Mario Tama | Getty Images
As BEV focuses more on adaptation, it will look to invest in companies that both mitigate and adapt at the same time.
“There’s loads of cases where you can design a product that does both. And the truth of the matter is, that’s the best thing,” Roberts told CNBC. “If it’s ankle, you want to make sure it doesn’t have any more pain. There’s a certain boot that you can put on your ankle that when you walk on it, amazingly, you don’t feel the pain — so it mitigates the pain and allows you to heal — but at the same time, it adapts you well enough that you can actually walk without crutches.”
An example of a company that does both (and is already part of the Breakthrough portfolio) is Source Global. Its hydro panels look similar to solar panels, but instead of taking sunlight and turning it into energy the hydro panel takes sunlight and air and converts them into water.
Using hydro panels eliminates the need to transport water, thereby reducing emissions. But they also perform an adaptation function, because they enable resilience when, for example, a large storm comes and destroys the infrastructure of a city.
“Isn’t it kind of crazy that we act surprised every year that a hurricane comes and knocks out the water? The only thing we don’t know is when it’s coming and where it’s going to hit,” Roberts told CNBC. “Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”
Another way to look at embedding adaptation into a mitigation solution is making it resilient, Roberts said.
“It cannot be fragile — whatever you design as a system,” Roberts said.
Focusing on adaptation has often been a philanthropic endeavor, and it has been on the agenda of the Gates Foundation. But Breakthrough Energy Ventures is not a philanthropic organization.
“We have to be very clear here. We are not the Gates Foundation. Full stop. And in the past, the Gates Foundation has done a lot of work on adaptation,” Toone told a group of reporters in a media briefing in Seattle.
“We build companies that scale, both in volume and distribution, through commerce. … Our focus will continue to be on mitigation, but where there are opportunities to be impactful on the adaptation side, we will invest.”