05 May 2022 |

SUSTAINABILITY VALLEY

By Nick Van Osdol

SUSTAINABILITY VALLEY

John Doerr, who made his fortune as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, has given $1.1B to Stanford University to establish a new climate and sustainability school. In talking about his philanthropic giving, Doerr said he believes “studying climate change will become the new computer science.” 

Doerr’s gift is one of the largest ever to a higher education institution in the U.S. Combined with other gifts, the school has $1.69B in total funding. There will be eight initial areas of study:

  1. Climate change
  2. Earth and planetary sciences
  3. Energy technology
  4. Sustainable cities
  5. The natural environment
  6. Food and water security
  7. Human society and behavior
  8. Human health and the environment

It will also feature a “Sustainability Accelerator” for both tech and policy.

On paper, it’s inspiring news. Another feather in climate and climate tech’s cap, as it were. And it’s a diverse fundraising announcement, especially when we take stock of all the private market investment that’s taken place in climate tech over the past twelve months. It’s not all about financial capital – investing in developing human capital is just as important.

My first reaction to seeing the headline pop up on Twitter? “Man, it would have been cool if this existed ten years ago!”

As with all things climate and climate tech, though, there’s more than meets the eye with this story. It’s emblematic of bigger debates in climate tech and sustainability.

THE QUESTION MARKS

Many climate technology industries are still relatively nascent. And yet there’s already a talent gap; sourcing talent is one of the biggest challenges climate tech companies face as they attempt to grow and scale. 

Whether putting money into new schools at venerable institutions like Stanford is the best use of funds to close this talent gap and encourage the next generation to commit themselves to tackling climate change is a good question. Some contend Stanford is sufficiently flush with cash and that Doerr’s contribution would have gone further at other schools. Especially had he elected to ‘democratize’ access to this critical education, by, say, donating to a less ‘exclusive’ school.

At the same time, Stanford sits in the heart of Silicon Valley, where a sizable share of innovation and R&D in climate tech happens. Even if some of the impact is symbolic, locating sustainability and climate at the heart of an institution like Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is valuable.

Perhaps more saliently, folks I know reacted rather viscerally to a few other pieces of the story and the information we know about the school Stanford will establish. For one, the newly appointed Dean is already distancing the school from political ‘advocacy’. Secondly, the school will accept donations from fossil fuel companies and allow them to fill board seats

Here’s where the question marks start to become even more salient.

  • How will a ‘climate and sustainability’ school teach climate as an apolitical issue?
  • Will fossil fuel execs have a finger on the scale of what’s in the curriculum? 

That’s why I’m covering this piece today. It illuminates deeply rooted questions that are critical to the climate conversation in general, outside the confines of a college campus. For instance, let’s take the fossil fuel point and extend it to the climate tech space as a whole. Is engaging with fossil fuel companies worth the time and effort? There’s definitely a world where they, as best-in-class infrastructure builders, play a significant role in decarbonization. That’d be fantastic.

But has engagement or shareholder advocacy with them shown significant promise so far? Er… not so much.

THE NET-NET

I’m a bit biased because my (ongoing) climate and sustainability journey has been somewhat self-taught, accelerated by hundreds of conversations with experts in their respective fields. You’re looking at the product of said journey. This newsletter started as and remains a way for me to teach myself about climate tech.

So I think there’s a ton to be said about practical, non-traditional education for people who want to work in, invest in, or shape policy for climate, sustainability, and climate tech. E.g.,

  • Terra.Do’s online, career-focused, climate school
  • Climatebase, a climate jobs marketplace that also recently launched a fellowship to accelerate and facilitate people’s transition into climate careers
  • Invaluable media and research resources, like Project Drawdown 

Still, and even as much as climate impact before 2030 is critical, the companies I cover regularly in this newsletter will all need great talent out to 2050 and beyond. We need policy leaders at the local, national, and international level. Hopefully many come from this new school! 

And even if and when the world hits net-zero some time in the not-to-distant future (🤞), the climate is such a complex system that there’ll never be a shortage of exciting challenges for people to study and tackle. 

In a recent conversation with Zach Stein, CEO and co-founder of Carbon Collective, he noted how our answer on most things climate needs to be “Yes, and….”

So I view the Stanford announcement positively.

Yes to Stanford’s climate change & sustainability school. 

And philanthropists should fund similar programs at a range of colleges, from community to trade to HBCU, regardless of whether it lends them the same cache. 

And there are hundreds of other fantastic entry points to the industry that don’t require a degree from an ivy league institution.

ELSEWHERE IN CLIMATE AND CLIMATE TECH

Germany and India inked a deal as part of which Germany will support renewable energy development in India with $10.5B from now until 2030. 

At COP26 last year, several countries came together to sign a comparable deal that would see $8.5B routed to South Africa to accelerate their transition from the use of coal. Coal provides a staggering amount of South Africa’s electricity (north of 80%). 

Expect the next decades to include more such deals in which the countries that benefited the most from burning fossil fuels in the past help developing countries accelerate their energy transition.

We’re at the tip of the iceberg here though, and it’s hard to say how effective such agreements will be. For one, the money has to flow. ‘Donor’ countries need to follow through on their commitments. As do the countries promising to decarbonize faster.

Which brings me to another question… what is ‘faster’? How do you know what would have happened absent the money?

These initial deals are critical to see if they can actually drive strong, measurable results. This space could see trillions (with a T) flow through it in the future; making sure it works first isn’t a bad idea. 

Back to India and Germany. What does Germany gain from earmarking $10B+ for India? For one, influence. There are some more concrete quid pro quos, but it’s worth viewing what Germany’s up to here in the context of decades rather than years. Here’s a more concrete example: Germany recently opened a second “Hydrogen diplomacy office” in Saudi Arabia. 

Hydrogen has all kinds of climate tech implications and uses, and green hydro has been all the rage this year. In this case, one could imagine transporting solar power from Saudi Arabian deserts to Germany in the form of hydrogen.

So don’t confuse all this activity with magnanimity. Countries spend money to establish spheres of influence in self-interested ways. If it serves cooperation towards decarbonization, then I’m all for it.

But rest assured that squabbles about equity and ‘who should pay’ will continue and probably grow louder. Both before deals are made and after.