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How Jeff Bezos is spending his first $791 million on climate action

Bezos is giving it to organizations with a proven track record—but doesn’t seem to be aiming to reshape the climate world.

How Jeff Bezos is spending his first $791 million on climate action
[Source Image: phochi/iStock]
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If you had $10 billion to spend on tackling the problem of climate change, how would you spend it? For Jeff Bezos, who has spent the last several months talking to experts about the question—after pledging to donate roughly 7% of his fortune to the climate in February, a far higher total dollar amount any other individual donor in history—part of the answer has been turning to some of the world’s biggest environmental groups, which are all already well-funded.

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Some groups, including the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, will each get $100 million in the first round of grants, which total $791 million. Although some smaller organizations are on the list, such as the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, the biggest piece of the funding will go to groups that are already well-funded. (The Nature Conservancy, for example, had a 2018 budget of $930 million.)

“He’s a new philanthropist,” says Steve Cohen, a professor and senior advisor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “He hasn’t done this before. And so I think that’s one of the reasons why you focus on established organizations, because you know you’re going to get some performance out of them—they have a track record. If you want to quickly see visible results of your investment, that’s going to be one way to do it.”

The nonprofits, in turn, strategized about the best use of new funding. World Resources Institute, for example, plans to spend some of its grant to help the U.S. transition to electric school buses nationwide. “Electrification of school buses represents a unique opportunity to accelerate decarbonization while bringing direct, tangible benefits to every community in the United States,” says Ani Dasgupta, global director of the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Only 1% of the country’s 480,000 school buses are electrified now; the new program will partner with school districts, utilities, manufacturers, and state and federal authorities, “to simultaneously aggregate demand, scale manufacturing, change policy incentives, and develop new financing models that can be replicated across the country,” he says. (The money won’t be used for any direct grants to help school districts buy new buses, which arguably also would be useful.) Electric school buses are more expensive to buy now, but cheaper to operate. They also reduce air pollution, add new jobs in green manufacturing, and can double as storage for renewable energy. The nonprofit believes it will be possible to help all school buses transition by 2030.

It’s one example of how an injection of funding could help accelerate change. “We prioritized this because we see an opportunity to move the needle at scale through this program,” says Dasgupta. “Though solutions exist in pockets, we are not changing our transportation system fast enough to meet the urgency of the moment.” While some others in the tech world are focusing on developing radical new climate tech—like Stripe, which is helping give some early funding to carbon removal technologies—Bezos seems to have at least partly embraced a different approach, scaling up solutions that already exist and are more proven, and giving some support to groups that advocate for better government policy.

Here’s a look at how the first round of grants will be used:

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  • Environmental Defense Fund will get $100 million to complete and launch MethaneSAT, a satellite tool that tracks methane pollution, a potent greenhouse gas. The organization projects that the work can help cut methane pollution in the oil and gas industry 45% by 2025—something that it says is the “fastest, most cost-effective thing we can do to slow the rate of global warming now even as we continue to decarbonize the energy system.” The grant will also be used to study nature-based solutions for storing carbon in forests, soil, and oceans.
  • The Nature Conservancy will get $100 million to protect the Emerald Edge, the largest intact coastal rainforest on Earth, reaching from Washington State to Alaska. The funding will also support work to reduce the carbon footprint of farming in India, where agriculture is a major contributor to the severe air pollution in cities like Delhi.
  • World Resources Institute will get $100 million to build a new tool that uses satellites to track land use—building on the organization’s Global Forest Watch and Resource Watch tools—and monitor carbon emissions, supporting work like forest restoration. The grant will also be used to help push the U.S. to move to electric school buses by 2030.
  • World Wildlife Fund will get $100 million to protect and restore mangrove forests, which store huge amounts of carbon and also help protect coastlines from flooding, along with critical ecosystems in areas such as the Amazon. The organization will also use the funding to help scale up the seaweed farming industry, including developing markets for seaweed to replace fossil fuels in some products.
  • Natural Resources Defense Council will get $100 million to “advance climate solutions and legislation at the state level, move the needle on policies and programs focused on reducing oil and gas production, protect and restore ecosystems that store carbon (like forests and wetlands), and accelerate sustainable and regenerative agriculture practices,” the organization says. The grant will also support environmental justice work and the NRDC Action Fund, a separate political advocacy group.
  • ClimateWorks Foundation will get $50 million to help countries move to zero-emissions trucks and ships, both through R&D and advocacy for new government policy. It will also use the grant to help scale up the industries for low-carbon cement and steel.
  • Three groups focused on environmental justice, The Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund, the Solutions Project and the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, will each get $43 million for their work.
  • Salk Institute for Biological Studies will get $30 million for its work to make crops like corn and soybeans able to store more carbon through their roots in soil.
  • Energy Foundation will get $30 million to expand equitable clean energy use in the 25 states responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, with programs that help states increase zero-emissions vehicles, energy, and buildings.
  • The Union of Concerned Scientists will get $15 million to push for electric trucks and an improved electric grid in the U.S.
  • The NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led team of grassroots organizers, will get $12 million, but has not yet announced how it will spend the money.
  • Dream Corps Green For All will get $10 million for its work on communications campaigns to make climate change a nonpartisan issue.
  • The Rocky Mountain Institute will get $8 million for its campaign to move to carbon-free buildings, and $2 million for a new startup lab.
  • The Eden Reforestation Project will get $5 million for its work to restore ecosystems in the developing world.

More grants will follow. But ultimately, it’s only a small piece of what needs to happen. “My overall thought is, the richest man in the world giving $10 billion to the most important problem in the world is a very good thing,” says Cohen. “And hopefully people will follow that example. Because we need more than philanthropy. We really need a concerted effort by the public and private sectors.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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