How venture capital investment in deep tech can tackle climate change
This is one of a series of articles written by Young Global Leaders with action-oriented ideas to improve the state of the world by 2030.
Solving climate change is like cleaning dirty laundry: the pile only gets smaller as we pick up and deal with each piece of clothing. No one solution – or even a handful of solutions – can stop the production of greenhouse gases (GHG) that cause global warming, or reverse the environmental damage already done to the planet, because we’ve built a whole civilization on burning or cracking hydrocarbons for energy and chemicals. There’s a lot of dirty laundry.
Instead, beating climate change will demand a wide variety of innovations, and the majority of society will be called upon to play their part. It won’t be easy. Academia will pursue discovery research to answer the great questions in life, material, and environmental sciences; legislators and regulators will supply laws and treaties that amplify demand for cleaner technologies; entrepreneurs and venture capitalists will commercialize and scale solutions to more sustainable energy, manufacturing, transportation, and agriculture.
Venture capital funded innovations
We believe that venture capital (VC) has a vital role in finding, funding, and growing companies that create breakthrough solutions to otherwise intractable problems. For the last half-century, VC-funded businesses have been a pivotal source of transformative innovations, from the semiconductor to the smartphone, from gene sequencing to vaccines. Now, it’s time to enlist the global innovation economy in the civilizational challenge of our era.
But because it will take decades to replace the fossil-fuel-dependent industries we have with the better, cleaner businesses of the future, the immediate imperative for VCs is to accelerate the deployment of existing technologies that can buy humanity more time to meet the goals of the 2016 Paris Accords, where the nations of the world committed to keep warming below 2°C.
Using ‘deep tech’ to solve climate crisis
Deep Tech is hard but it can also be the cavalry when it comes to tackling climate change. Recent analysis suggests humanity is nowhere close to meeting the Paris Accord targets. Not a single G20 country is keeping pace with its commitments. If all the promises of the Paris agreement were actually met, warming might be 2.4C, so hot that we can’t predict all the consequences. But a planet that only followed the policies now in place would end up with nearly 3C of warming, according to Climate Action Tracker. A world that was 3C warmer would be unrecognizable; much of the central belt of the planet would be uninhabitable for days, weeks, or months every year.
The following companies share a common “deep tech” approach: they combine breakthrough science with new approaches in machine learning, data science, and cloud computing to solve hitherto insoluble problems, all with VC-scale dollars.
Companies cutting emissions
Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is a potent GHG, trapping about 80 times more heat than CO2 over a 20 year period. Inger Anderson, the UN’s Environmental Program Executive Director, recently said, “Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years”. The good news is that methane persists for a short time in the atmosphere, so curtailing methane emissions has immediate impact. Reducing methane emissions is also relatively easy: a recent UN study found that 45% of global methane pollution can be cut within a decade.
Different startups have proposed various ways to reduce methane emissions, including including Volta Greentech and CH4 Global, who have proposed to curtail the high levels of methane (14.5% of GHG emissions) cows burp into the air, by feeding them seaweed.
But the best immediate way to cut methane would be capture leakage from trillions of dollars of natural gas operations, one of the largest sources of methane pollution. Kairos Aerospace, a DCVC portfolio company, is solving the problem of methane leakage by pioneering an accurate aerial monitoring service that provides actionable data on methane leaks from industrial and energy infrastructure. Since it was founded in 2014, Kairos has prevented 14.4 billion cubic feet of methane emissions from being released into the atmosphere, equivalent to removing 1.6 million vehicles from the road.
An obvious way to cut emissions is to make the zero-carbon electricity generation we already have much cheaper. Oklo, another DCVC portfolio company, is building a compact fast nuclear reactorto be fueled initially by existing nuclear waste – a configuration that has already been largely validated by US regulators (with final approval expected very soon). Because Oklo’s micro-reactors could cost around $10 million to build and only $3 million a year to run (compared to the tens of billions now required to construct new conventional advanced pressurized water reactors), they could be used in developing countries or parts of the world now unconnected to the energy grid.
Oklo will also generate energy at utility-scale with larger reactors and by stringing together a series of its reactors. Oklo’s reactors would raise global standards of living by providing economies with abundant clean energy, and power technologies to ameliorate climate change, from conventional indoor air conditioning to large-scale atmospheric CO2 removal.
Only a little more distantly, fusion power, which for decades has been the energy source of the future, may at last become a reality within this decade. Commonwealth Fusion is collaborating with MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center to build the first tokamaks (which confine plasmas in magnetic tori) that can generate more energy than they consume.
Fusion devices would have wonderful advantages compared to ordinary fission reactors: they’d produce little nuclear waste and would use common hydrogen isotopes as fuel. Another company, CT Fusion, is pursuing a cheaper and simpler design than Commonwealth Fusion. Fusion, which fuels the stars, would be an inexhaustible, carbon-free source of energy, overthrowing humanity’s oldest ideas of scarcity.
What does the future hold?
We want another 25 years to create a cleaner future. According to the IEA, half the technologies we’ll need to achieve net-zero emissions haven’t been invented. There are compelling technologies now in development that will beat back climate change, but only a handful of tools can meaningfully reduce emissions now or in the immediate future and give us breathing space to develop those solutions. We simply need more runway to create and scale nascent sustainable energy, manufacturing and agriculture practices.
This decade the world will likely witness more social, economic and environmental changes than over the last century. While the COVID-19 pandemic called for immediate reforms, the mainstreaming of stakeholder capitalism, the impacts of climate change, the escalation of next-generation technologies, and the empowerment of citizenship will pave the way for a ‘resetting’ of the global economy and social practices.
This article series presents pioneering, forward-looking, and action-oriented ideas that should be adopted up to 2030 to improve the state of the world. The WEF invited a group of individuals who have been selected as Young Global Leaders (YGLs) in the course of their careers. Authors include heads of government, business leaders and scientists, prominent intellectuals or civil society leaders.
On an annual basis and since 2004, the World Economic Forum identifies the world’s most promising leaders under the age of 40 — people driving innovation for positive change across civil society, arts, culture, government and business. This series, an initiative of the Forum of Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum, harnesses the expertise and experience of this group of leaders.
For additional information on the article series, please contact Rodrigo Tavares (curator).