Combating Climate Change With Cool Tech

How is the world going to reach the climate goals of COP21?

Not with your grandmother’s wind turbines.

“The truth is, if we adapt existing technologies … there’s still going to be a big gap to fill,” said President Obama about the importance of climate innovation.

“Cool technologies” need to fill the gap, and fast, says Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Together with a global group of investors, Gates helped form the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to spot and develop clean energy strategies that drive down costs for everyone, from entrepreneurs in Africa to innovators in India and China. According to Gates, this is the first time research and development has been on the agenda at international climate talks.

Joining him is Jack Ma, chairman of the Alibaba Group, China’s giant e-commerce company; Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg; and Ratan Tata, who stepped down as chairman of the Tata Group, one of India’s largest conglomerates, in 2012 to run the firm’s charitable trusts.

Jack Ma, chairman of the e-commerce giant Alibaba Group and member of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, speaks during “Action Day” at COP21. (© AP Images)
Jack Ma, chairman of the e-commerce giant Alibaba Group and member of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, speaks during “Action Day” at COP21. (© AP Images)

“The world urgently needs a new economic revolution” focused on clean energy, said coalition member Aliko Dangote, founder of Nigeria’s Dangote Group. Dangote credits part of his success, which built his cement company into the largest manufacturing group in West Africa, to his investment in an independent power grid for his operations. In a recent interview, he called lack of reliable electrical power the biggest threat to businesses in Africa.

The coalition currently includes 28 of the world’s biggest investors and has pledged to invest early in transformative ideas. According to Gates, these could include investments in paint that transforms any surface into a solar cell, fusion power, or “flow batteries” that allow solar panels to store power after dark.

The coalition will help companies vault the “valley of death”: the virtual canyon between success in the lab and success against existing carbon-emitting technologies.

“Private companies will ultimately develop these energy breakthroughs,” Gates said. “But their work will rely on the kind of basic research that only governments can fund.”

Mission: Impossible?

Twenty governments, including China, India, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil, pledged to double clean energy research and development over the next five years. The program, Mission Innovation, will increase basic research to $20 billion per year, to find the most promising paths to a post-carbon future.

The private sector’s Breakthrough Energy Coalition will focus on developing technologies from Mission Innovation countries, which currently make up 80 percent of global clean energy research.

Twenty countries are part of Mission Innovation, which pledges to double clean energy research and development within five years. (Gobierno de Chile/Flickr)
Twenty countries are part of Mission Innovation, which pledges to double clean energy research and development within five years. (Gobierno de Chile/Flickr)

Obama describes this model in action: Government-backed research plus private investment has already tripled wind power production and multiplied solar power generation more than 20 times since 2009. In some parts of the United States, this energy is cheaper than conventional, carbon-based electricity.

“We know that if we put our best minds behind it and we have the dollars behind it, we’ll discover what works. We always have in the past, and we will this time as well,” Obama said.

Learn more about the COP21 climate agreement at @US_Center, and check out the potential future of clean energy when the Breakthrough Energy Coalition begins investing.