The Californians associated with the historic clean energy venture fund announced by Bill Gates at the Paris climate conference on Monday are, in many ways, the usual public-spirited suspects – Tom Steyer, Mark Benioff, Reid Hofman, Mark Zuckerberg.
One participant, however, is a standout. The University of California is the multibillion-dollar fund’s sole institutional investor, at least for the moment. That’s something for Californians to be proud of, but long term, it’s also a concern.
The new Breakthrough Energy Coalition fund is aimed at dramatically speeding up research and development of technology to slash human emissions of greenhouse gases, something that’s going to be crucial in slowing the destruction wrought by global warming. Getting coal, oil and gas consumption down to the minuscule levels required in coming decades will require a wholesale overhaul of our energy use and infrastructure, and technologies yet to be invented.
Unfortunately, government support for clean energy doesn’t come close to what’s needed, in part because of the destructive clout of fossil fuel lobbies. In 2013, according to Gates, less than one-half of 1 percent of total energy sector spending went to research and development underwritten by the government. By contrast, 11 percent of defense sector spending went to government-financed R&D.
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President Barack Obama has promised to do more, as part of a new international push, also announced Monday. But private dollars are still needed, on a scale unprecedented in history.
UC is an obvious choice as an industrial-strength source of investment in the public interest. The university has 10 campuses, three energy labs and a Nobel-studded faculty that includes some of the world’s biggest names in climate science.
It has embarked on a massive plan to make the university carbon neutral. And between its pension funds and endowment, UC controls more than $100 billion in investment money, off-limits for many fossil-fuel companies, thanks to divestment.
As it has been for Gov. Jerry Brown, the climate change crisis has been a priority for UC under President Janet Napolitano. So it’s not surprising that UC’s chief investment officer, Jagdeep Singh Baccher, jumped at the chance when the Indian auto and steel mogul Ratan Tata told him about Gates’ plan for a global clean energy R&D fund.
Though funding technological breakthroughs in energy is a risk – scaling up solar and wind plants and new kinds of batteries and fuels can take decades – solutions to global warming are likely to pay off in the future (and more morally satisfying than, say, coal stocks). Also, the billion dollars UC plans to devote to clean energy investments is only about 1 percent of its total portfolio.
However, UC shouldn’t be in this alone, institutionally speaking. Stanford has a huge endowment, many creative minds and public pressure to sell off investments in fossil fuel projects. So do Harvard, Yale and Princeton, among others.
In a telephone briefing on Monday, Gates said UC was the only institutional investor the group had invited, and said the university would be tasked with drawing others in as the fund takes shape. We hope so.
As nations struggle in Paris to reach even the beginning of a climate change agreement, the world can’t afford to let any powerful player play a waiting game on the sidelines. Ideally, the Republican-controlled Congress should be letting the federal government bear more of the burden.
But since it’s not, others should step up and share the risk – and potential reward – of mitigating this crisis. California isn’t the only one-stop shop for money, brains and goodwill.