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Two Steps Forward

Who wants to be a climate-tech billionaire?

Elon Musk times 20

GreenBiz photocollage

A recent essay in Wired magazine stopped me cold. It was at once surprising and validating, revealing and obvious — and endlessly exciting.

The article in question was written by friend-of-GreenBiz Tim O’Reilly. Besides running his own media empire, O’Reilly Media, and being a prolific writer, he is widely known and respected in the technology world for having predicted and named some of the most impactful technology trends of their day: Web 2.0, Open Source, the Maker Movement.

In his Wired piece, "Climate Change Will Reshape Silicon Valley As We Know It," O’Reilly calls climate change the defining crisis of our time that will lead to a new era of innovation and business creation. "As it becomes more imminent," he wrote, "our efforts to address it will become the epicenter of the next entrepreneurial revolution."

And this: "With the innovation that is needed to transform entire businesses and economies to net-zero emissions, there will be more billionaires created over the next two decades than during the internet boom."

Wow. Just wow. A pretty bold statement considering there currently are precious few cleantech billionaires not named Elon.

With the innovation that is needed to transform entire businesses and economies to net-zero emissions, there will be more billionaires created over the next two decades than during the internet boom.

O’Reilly is hardly the first to point out the massive business opportunities at the intersection of climate change and — well, just about everything else. And that the urgent need to decarbonize our electricity grid, transportation systems, farms, cities, housing and factories stands to upend incumbent players and industries across the global economy and, possibly, distribute wealth to a new generation of entrepreneurs creating both local and global solutions.

While Silicon Valley — and the Silicon Valleys of the world — have taken their time to "discover" the climate change opportunity, its considerable capacity to exploit the moment seems to be coming on strong. Disruption, after all, has been the mantra of Silicon Valley for nearly a half-century, and disrupting yesterday’s technologies is what O’Reilly and so many others have in mind. Today’s venture capital world is littered with investors and funds seeking to jumpstart the innovations that will transform our world — or, at least, save it — through what has been dubbed "climate tech."

Still, O’Reilly’s essay is a validation of the notion that the promise of a clean economy is vast. (We at GreenBiz certainly appreciated reading it, given that it validates and animates our growing suite of events and editorial fare.) And that financing this transition — from venture capital to green loans and bonds to government investments and subsidies — will quickly become a rich, as it were, field. Indeed, it already is.

Just thinking

What O’Reilly didn’t name is the imperative that this tech revolution also be socially and economically just — that the fruits of all this innovation and value creation benefit those across the economic spectrum, and especially the global poor. And not in a trickle-down way, as the internet has done, where the world’s poorest and most remote citizens eventually get access.

That approach hasn’t worked. Nearly 30 years into the internet revolution, vast numbers of individuals and communities are still waiting: In 2021, only 59 percent of the world’s population is online, according to data released in January by DataReportal. (About 66 percent use mobile phones.) More than 3 billion people aren’t yet online, tens of millions of them in the United States.

Simply put, we can’t afford to wait another three decades before all humans — indeed, all species — benefit from sustainable energy, mobility, infrastructure, food production and all the rest.

As I said, it’s not just venture capitalists, O’Reilly’s principal focus, who stand to gain from the climate-tech revolution. Many innovations needed today will come from scaling, and financing, innovations already in the market or that soon will be. Making them accessible and affordable to those across the economic spectrum will require an entirely new ecosystem: multinational companies; global financial institutions; multilateral organizations; national and local governments; nongovernmental organizations; local banks; faith-based organizations; micro- and nano-entrepreneurs and many others.

If we do it right, with foresight and humanity, we’ll create the vast numbers of climate-tech billionaires that O’Reilly envisions, but this time they won’t be concentrated among a small group of mostly white men in a few epicenters around the world. If the full potential of climate tech is to be realized, the faces and races of next-gen wealth creators must look more like the world they are striving to save.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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