The Climate Crisis

Decarbonization is the next big thing.

Welcome to issue #16 of next big thing.

Last week, Mario Gabriele published a profile of me on The Miss. It covers a lot of ground on my journey from the U.K. to the U.S., and from entrepreneurship to venture capital. I particularly appreciate how diligent Mario was in interviewing several people close to me for the piece. Check it out here.

It's been a depressing week in San Francisco. The reality of all four of our concurrent crises - the pandemic, unemployment, racial injustice, and climate change - hit home hard.*

As wildfires continue to burn trees, wildlife, and houses across the Western U.S., and as Hurricane Laura hits the Gulf Coast, many of us are turning our attention once again to climate change.

I've written in the past that the climate crisis is the most important issue facing all of us today. I thought I'd expand on that in this essay by sharing my own climate journey, as well as some resources for yours.

My Climate Journey

I remember watching An Inconvenient Truth in my senior year of high school. It terrified me, and was a real wake up call that the planet was warming. I got very interested in solar energy that year, and ended up spending the summer of 2007 researching the solar industry as an intern at a hedge fund. I studied everything from the supply of polysilicon to the innovation in thin-film and other photovoltaic technologies — my conclusion, by the way, was that China would likely flood the market with polysilicon and lower global pricing of solar panels, as well as threaten a number of U.S. players. Cleantech entrepreneurship and funding was booming, and it felt like there was a lot of momentum to solve climate change.

But the cleantech boom went bust. In college, I got obsessed by software and internet startups. I ended up studying molecular biology, but pursued my passion for technology by entering the venture capital industry after graduation. Mobile and the growth of cloud services had become key enablers for a wave of new businesses, and cleantech was, ironically, a dirty word.

I've realized that many others in my generation, particularly those of us in the technology industry, have shared a similar path to mine over the past decade. We got worried about climate change in school, we wanted to work to solve it, but our academic and professional pursuits took us in a different direction. The technology gold rush was too compelling to ignore, and it seemed like the opposite of the gold rush was happening in cleantech.

Of course, our climate problems have only become more severe in the meantime.

Every single day brings with it new depressing news of how the planet is changing for the worse. Just this week, I've read pieces on the potential collapse of the agricultural system, the harsh conditions for farm workers, and how latest research suggests that the Earth has lost 28 trillion tons of ice in less than 30 years. While 189 of 197 countries have signed the Paris Agreement to commit to efforts to prevent global temperatures from rising over 2˚C by 2100, most are far behind.

The good news is that there is real momentum to work on solving the climate crisis again. This is, in no small part, due to a new generation of young people that has focused the world's attention on this issue. Climate activists such as Greta Thunberg and organizations such as Sunrise Movement have shone a light on the fundamental inequity of the climate crisis — the people who will feel the worst effects of climate change are the ones who have done the least to cause it. So it's the responsibility of people like us, with access to choices and resources, to figure out how to make a dent.

This is why I commend companies like Microsoft and Amazon that have pledged to become carbon neutral or negative in the coming decades, and have launched large funds to invest in new efforts. It’s worth noting that Amazon is one of the largest emitters in the world, and employee pressure has helped drive these pledges. In our world of entrepreneurship and venture capital, climate tech is in fashion, and top tier venture firms such as Sequoia Capital and USV have discussed their focus on investing in the category.

There is a sense of urgency to work on this that I've never felt before. And I'm excited to dive in.

Where To Start?

I am by no means an expert in climate tech, but I am climate curious. I’ve been reading and listening to experts, thinking about what I can do as an investor, and what it will take for us as a society to decarbonize. I've learned a lot through others in the My Climate Journey community, founded by Jason Jacobs, as well as through newsletters such as The Breeze by Tommy Leep and Climate Tech VC by Sophie Purdom.

I hope that I can invest in and support founders building businesses that improve the planet for the better, and combat the climate crisis. How to prioritize where to build and invest? Bill Gates has laid out the five main categories — electricity, agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, buildings — for mitigating climate change. Project Drawdown is a fantastic resource for understanding climate solutions in the context of their potential emissions impact. Reduced Food Waste has the highest potential to reduce emissions such that the temperature rises by only 2˚C by 2100. I'm proud of my investment in Imperfect Foods, which helps to fight food waste by offering surplus produce and other grocery products to consumers, but there is much more to do here. Others that are high on the Drawdown list are Health and Education, Plant-Rich Diets, Refrigerant Management, and Tropical Forest Reforestation. I'm inspired by my founder friends working on these and other impactful areas, such as Sanchali Pal at Joro, Taylor Francis at Watershed, and Diego Saez Gil at Pachama, who just lost his home in the Northern California fires.

Smoke hangs low at Big Basin Redwoods State Park as some redwoods are still on fire on Aug. 22 in Boulder Creek, Calif.
Fires burning through trees at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on August 22 (Los Angeles Times).

One of my favorite podcast episodes about the climate crisis is this one featuring Saul Griffith, founder and CEO of Otherlab, with Ezra Klein, editor of Vox. Griffith paints a vision for solving the climate crisis with tools that are already at our disposal, and by improving quality of life in the process. The decarbonized world is a better world for everyone.

There are three core steps to decarbonization, which is the process of reducing humanity's dependence on carbon:

  1. Decarbonize the supply of energy: 100% renewable generation of electricity.

  2. Electrify everything: just as Tesla has done with cars, enable everything to run on electricity.

  3. Negative emissions: carbon capture and removal.

This simple framework for decarbonization is one that I keep coming back to in my exploration of the climate crisis. We have all the technologies to do steps 1 and 2, but we need leadership and policy to execute on them. Step 3 does require innovation, and there's a lot happening in carbon sequestration, for instance. But the bottom line is that we can fight the climate crisis today if companies, governments, and individuals work together to fix our energy supply to be renewable generation of electricity, and our energy consumption to be electric.

There is of course a lot more to unpack here, particularly around policy, environmental justice, and the role of governments versus the private sector. But I hope these links and thoughts provide a starting point for any of you looking to go deeper on the climate crisis. And for those of you much further along than me in your climate journey, I’d love for you to share learnings and resources in the comments.

Decarbonization is the Next Big Thing

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that my wife, Chandrika Srivastava, has focused her career on climate and leads product at Treau, which is working on products that cool and heat your home more efficiently using low-carbon refrigerants (Refrigerant Management is #4 on the Drawdown list). She was previously at Tesla, SolarCity, and Nest, three of the shining light businesses in climate technology.

Those three companies are proof points that climate entrepreneurship and investing can be both extraordinarily lucrative and beneficial to the planet. Tesla, SolarCity, and Nest ended up being fruitful results of the cleantech era, and represent the potential of the climate tech movement.

Tesla, with a market capitalization of around $400 billion today, is the second biggest company in the world started since the turn of the millennium (after Facebook)! It’s worth letting that sink in.

Back in 2007, John Doerr, the legendary venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins, gave an emotional TED talk about climate change. I went back and watched it this week. Imagine my surprise when Doerr said this near the end:

So, our call to action, my call to you, is for you to make going green your next big thing.

Thirteen years later, my call to you is to make decarbonization the next big thing. It needs to be, and it will be if we all make it a top priority. Chandrika and I plan to dedicate many of our personal and professional efforts in the decades ahead to the climate crisis. We invite you to join, and we are here to help.

Thank you to Chandrika Srivastava, Jason Jacobs, Laura Yao, Sanchali Pal, and Taylor Francis for your feedback on the draft. I'm going to take next week off to try to spend some time off-the-grid, and will return to writing after Labor Day.

I started next big thing to share unfiltered thoughts. I’d love your feedback, questions, and comments!

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*These four crises unfortunately have many links between them. Here’s a piece on the climate crisis and covid-19 in the New England Journalism of Medicine, here’s one on the relationship between racism and climate change published by the Yale School of the Environment, Bill Gates wrote about lessons from the pandemic that we can apply to climate change, and here’s a blog post by Fred Wilson from this week on the trifecta of the pandemic, economic crisis, and racial crisis.