Forget banks: Investors should be worrying about the climate
The reports issued by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are usually grim affairs. But even by that standard, last week’s seemed particularly bleak.
The upshot is that the world has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius, and we’re on track to hit 1.5 degrees Celsius — the “safe” limit set by the Paris Agreement — in the early 2030s. So unless we make drastic changes, the world will blow past the amount of warming deemed safe just 10 years from now.
There’s a good chance that by the time 30- and 40-year-olds hit retirement, the world will be shitting the bed. The hurricanes, heat waves, polar vortices, fires, floods, droughts — all the things that make us stock the pantry, invest in backup power and beef up our insurance policies — we’ll be waxing nostalgic about those. Wasn’t it cute how bad we thought things were back then?
Where the fuck is the panic?
To be sure, plenty of people are worried. Problem is, most of them don’t have (or can’t marshal) the sorts of sums required to put a dent in the problem. Meanwhile, those who do are largely sitting out one of the biggest crises — and one of the biggest opportunities — of their lifetimes.
There are a handful of investors who “get it,” but most don’t. Rather than invest in fusion or batteries or carbon capture or grid management tools, they seem content plowing their money into ad optimization software, corporate spend cards, corporate SaaS platforms — CRM, marketing or payments, take your pick! — or anything to do with the metaverse, really. One after another after another. (Soon, AI chatbots will join the list because, come on, have you seen what happens after the latest toy lands on “60 Minutes”? It’s like a bunch of high schoolers rushing to ape the latest TikTok trend.)
When they’re not busy financing incrementalism, they’re giving failed wunderkinds hundreds of millions of dollars or fanning the flames of runs on regional banks. Is that what they aspire to?
It would be less frustrating if venture capitalism weren’t tailor-made to tackle a problem like this. Sizable but manageable risks? Check. Needle-moving technologies? Check. Enormous upsides and the potential to refashion trillion-dollar markets? Check and check.
Where is everybody?
Let’s compare two vastly different markets to illustrate the problem. Over here we have software as a service, which investors have lavished with money and attention because those companies produce recurring revenue, which is often steadier and more predictable. Altogether, SaaS companies worldwide raised $122 billion last year, according to PitchBook. In other words, to fund companies that lease software on a monthly basis rather than sell perpetual licenses, VCs invested more money than the entire GDP of Slovakia.
On the other side we have clean energy, which includes everything from batteries to renewable fuels, building electrification, solar, wind and more. Here, investors placed $40 billion worth of bets last year. In case you’re bad at math, investments that eliminate carbon pollution in myriad sectors of the economy were one-third those made just to sell software on a monthly basis.
Venture capitalists once backed companies that took big, consequential swings. In 1946, VC pioneer American Research and Development handed the founders of High Voltage Engineering a $200,000 check to develop a fledgling technology known as X-rays to treat cancer. At $2.8 million in today’s dollars, that may not seem like a lot of money. But remember, apart from ARD, venture capital didn’t exist back then.
Today, those big swings are similarly modest. Probably too modest. Investors should be collectively ramping up their ambitions, but the numbers don’t reflect that. Let’s look at two “big swing” techs: carbon capture and fusion energy. Last year, global VC firms invested just $4.25 billion in carbon capture and a mere $1.1 billion in fusion energy, per PitchBook. Together, they represent a “get out of jail free” card, allowing humanity to produce enough energy to drive the power-hungry process of reversing nearly 200 years of unchecked carbon pollution.
Fusion represents perhaps the riskiest bet of them all. The science has progressed rapidly in recent years, and many startups express growing confidence in their timelines, but there’s still plenty of risk involved. Yet the technology has such tremendous potential, both for the climate and for returns, that investors should be pouring enormous sums into the market.
In that way, fusion shows a way forward. Most fusion companies will need a lot of money, and most probably won’t pan out. But those that do will deliver significant returns. Today, the global energy market is worth $10 trillion. If one company could capture even a sliver of that, it would be rewarded with an absolutely stratospheric valuation.
Given the risky but promising nature of a fusion-heavy portfolio, let’s assume for the sake of argument that investors will need 1,000x return from a winner to cancel out losses from their failed bets. If today’s portfolios assume winners need to return 10x, that means venture capital will need to take 100x more shots. So either firms need to get way bigger or there need to be way more of them. The easiest solution, of course, would be for more firms to dive into fusion. But that would mean that many would fail, too.
Fortunately, fusion isn’t the only climate tech that’s in need of investment. Opportunities are multiplying by the day. Some are riskier than others, but all of them are bets on the future. And given that all of our futures are tied to the climate, if any of those bets pay off, the returns will accrue not just to investors, but to everyone. In climate tech, venture capital has a chance to get back to its roots — investing not just for money but to change the world.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.