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What can Jeff Bezos do for the planet with $10 billion?

A look at how Jeff Bezos' Earth Fund can help the planet — and where it falls short.

A polar bear on top of a melting glacier

Can $10 billion from Jeff Bezos save this polar bear?

Photo: Paul Souders via Getty Images

In a move that permanently raises the bar for planetary philanthropy, on Monday Jeff Bezos announced he would be donating $10 billion of his vast fortune to a new Bezos Earth Fund, aimed at "any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world" by fighting climate change. The fund's size is unprecedented. Its impact, well, that remains to be seen.

As far as climate spending goes, it's an eye-popping sum of money: more than the U.S. Department of Energy allocates toward clean energy research each year and considerably more than NASA's Earth science division spends annually to maintain its fleet of climate-monitoring satellites. It's on par with the amount of money advanced economies have put into the Green Climate Fund, an endowment managed by the United Nations.

But the mandate Bezos sketches out in his 129-word announcement is both incredibly broad and incredibly vague, raising questions as to how it will actually be spent. Some experts say Bezos' charitable donation could help bring crucial low-carbon technologies to market, although several media reports indicate that the money won't go toward for-profit companies (in his announcement, the billionaire says the initiative will finance "scientists, activists and NGOs"). Critics, meanwhile, say the Amazon CEO could do far more by shifting the culture at his company and dropping its contracts with the oil industry.

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But given the stated limits of his generosity, how exactly should Bezos spend that $10 billion for maximum impact?

Colin Cunliff, a senior policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, says this kind of funding could play a role in bridging the "valley of death" between development and commercialization of new green technologies. Priority areas might include technologies for capturing and removing carbon from the atmosphere, which most climate models agree will be necessary for limiting global warming to safer levels, like the Paris Agreement's 1.5-degree Celsius target. Currently, the U.S. government only devotes a few tens of millions of dollars a year to direct air capture research, and the technology is nowhere near ready for prime time.

The Bezos Earth Fund might also have an outsized impact on research aimed at cleaning up difficult-to-decarbonize sectors of our economy, like aviation, shipping and heavy industry. There's currently no clear path toward a commercial airline industry that doesn't run on fossil fuels; perhaps a serious infusion of funds into electric jet engine technology could change that. Industrial processes like steel and cement production are, if anything, an even bigger carbon challenge: Both require factories to generate enormous amounts of heat, and the most efficient way to do that is to burn fossil fuels. The process of cooking cement also releases carbon directly; as a result, this single industry accounts for nearly 10% of humanity's carbon emissions. A billion dollars from the Bezos Earth Fund might be enough to turn sci-fi-sounding alternatives, like cement that sucks carbon from the air, into reality.

Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the nonpartisan Niskanen Center, would also like to see some of Bezos' funds directed toward technologies needed for deep decarbonization of the economy. Bezos could, he said, set up a series of prize programs in which research centers compete for big grants by demonstrating that a certain technology, whether it's carbon capture or better batteries for renewable energy storage, can be scaled up at an economically competitive price point.

"Decarbonize X at price point Y and Jeff Bezos will make you a billionaire," Majkut said, explaining his idea. "It's splashy, and I think it would draw a lot of investment from other research centers trying to achieve demonstration projects."

In tandem, he said, Bezos' philanthropy project could seek out a local jurisdiction or state partner and attempt to decarbonize its entire economy, proving that new technologies can be integrated with existing infrastructure and human capital.

Technology alone won't solve climate change, of course. A rapid transition off fossil fuels will require supportive government policies, which might include everything from a price on carbon to new building efficiency standards to federal jobs training programs. In addition to initiatives to increase access to clean energy and promote climate resilience in vulnerable communities, a good use of the money would be to advocate for "strong federal climate policies," said Rachel Cleetus, the policy director with the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Bezos could do so by supporting politicians with a clear understanding of the stakes and who are ready to take on the fossil fuel lobby.

While it remains unclear if Bezos will use his new fund to try and shift the political headwinds on climate, the philanthropy project itself has a clear political subtext.

In late January, internal strife at Amazon over the company's climate policies — in particular, its contracts with oil companies through cloud-computing subsidiary Amazon Web Services — reached a fever pitch. After several employees were internally reprimanded for speaking out, hundreds of Amazon workers released a series of critical statements under the banner Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, a dramatic act of mass defiance that garnered national attention. The statements called on Amazon to drop its oil industry ties and step up its efforts to reduce carbon emissions. (Amazon's self-reported carbon footprint is 44 million metric tons, higher than that of many countries.)

So far, there are no signs of the company reversing course in response to this internal pressure. Quite the opposite: In recent months, Amazon has moved aggressively to expand its presence in the fossil fuel world, hiring additional workers for its oil and gas division and announcing major new partnerships with BP and ExxonMobil.

It's easy to read Bezos' decision to earmark a huge sum of money for climate projects as something of an olive branch to Amazon employees who are dismayed by their company's ever-expanding oil business. But if the billionaire was hoping his announcement would silence critics, he's likely to be disappointed.

"We applaud Jeff Bezos' philanthropy, but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away," the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group said in a statement. "The people of Earth need to know: When is Amazon going to stop helping oil and gas companies ravage Earth with still more oil and gas wells?"

It's a valid question. As consulting firm Rystad Energy noted in a recent report, the fossil fuel industry stands to save up to $100 billion in annual expenditures through automation, machine learning, and by hosting its vast datasets in the cloud — exactly the sorts of services Amazon is offering. Putting money into clean energy research doesn't negate the effects of helping the oil industry remain profitable, just as Microsoft can hardly claim to eliminate its climate impact while working to accelerate the extraction of carbon-based fuels and bankrolling the campaigns of climate-delaying politicians.

As Stanford political theorist Rob Reich told Vox several years back, big philanthropy "is an exercise of power," a way for the mega-rich to shape public perception. The perception Bezos wishes to project is clear: This is a man who is committed to saving the planet. While one can hope the Bezos Earth Fund will make meaningful progress toward that worthy goal, it's also fair to ask whether a man who has gotten unfathomably rich off a company that encourages unbridled consumerism and is actively shepherding the fossil fuel industry into the digital age is doing enough.
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