Why the climate crisis is the ‘economic opportunity of our lifetimes’

He might be one of the world's richest men, but John Doerr is doubling down on investing in clean tech to tackle the climate crisis

Pride of place in John Doerr’s office sits a photo of him and his daughters wrapped in bright orange jackets while on an expedition in Antarctica. “It was an awe-inspiring experience to see the enormous glaciers,” he says. 

The venture capitalist, who is currently chair of VC firm Kleiner Perkins, hopes his new book Speed and Scale will provide an action plan for leaders to solve the climate crisis and preserve these glaciers for future generations to also enjoy.

Doerr’s journey towards climate activism began 15 years ago, following a screening of Al Gore’s seminal documentary An Inconvenient Truth. He says: “Afterwards, I got a withering challenge from my teenage daughter Mary, who said: ‘Dad, I’m scared and I’m angry. Your generation created this problem; you better fix it.’

“I didn’t know what to say then but I do know what to say now. We’re clearly on the verge of a catastrophic and irreversible climate crisis and the reality is that we’re not doing nearly enough. What we need now is a clear course of action.”

This course of action revolves around four big zeros, outlined in the book: a zero-carbon energy grid, zero-carbon transportation, zero carbon from industrial activities and zero net carbon from buildings. But without greater ambition to accelerate the pace of change, targets for limiting average temperature rises to below 1.5 degrees are likely to be missed. 

Doerr’s dream for COP26

Doerr, who is attending COP26 in Glasgow, believes that the UN conference could determine whether the 1.5-degrees aim can be kept alive, describing it as “his greatest dream” for the climate discussions. 

He says: “COP26 is a huge opportunity to build momentum around solving the climate crisis. It will be important to get sector-specific plans, coupled with national policies, to get us to a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030.”

So far, major commitments to end deforestation, cut methane emissions, phase out coal-fired power stations and commit finance institutions to net zero have all been achieved at this year’s COP. 

Despite the fact countries have come together in Glasgow to agree on a set plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions, progress still faces a number of barriers. The first comes from the entrenched interest of incumbents, which Doerr accuses of mounting “criminal campaigns of misinformation and disinformation” over the years.

The other barrier to decisive climate action comes from our political systems, says Doerr. “We have not yet made the climate crisis a top two voting issue in the top 20 emitting countries around the world,” he adds.

In the US, Biden’s social spending bill, which dedicates $550bn to clean energy and climate change programmes, is currently held up in the Senate. The president had hoped for a deal to have been agreed before he flew to Glasgow. 

Solving the climate crisis will require a mobilisation effort that’s greater than when the Allies joined forces to defeat the Nazi axis in World War Two. 

Winning politics and policy represents a key accelerant in Doerr’s climate action plan but the current situation in the US demonstrates how it can also stymie progress. Doerr says: “We are on the verge of a climate disaster and Biden is navigating the narrowest of all majorities. The US really needs to lead here to show the rest of the world that this can be done and lower the costs of the climate transition for everywhere else in the world.” 

Although he is confident the billions of dollars in commitments to climate initiatives will pass in the US, other nations have been less ambitious with their climate commitments. One of the people Doerr would like to sit down with is Chinese president Xi Jinping.

The leader of the world’s biggest emitter hasn’t travelled to Scotland for COP and made no major climate pledges in his written address to the conference. Doerr says: “This game is going to be won and lost in the developing nations - in India, China and Malaysia. The urbanisation of China is the equivalent of building 10 new Manhattan’s every decade, so how they industrialise is going to be baked into the planetary carbon equation for decades to come.”

He believes that it is in the self interest of leaders in all nations to solve the climate crisis and collaboration will play an important role. Doerr adds: “Solving the climate crisis will require a mobilisation effort that’s greater than when the Allies joined forces to defeat the Nazi axis in World War Two. During that period, we shut down all manufacturing of automobiles and appliances and instead directed everything towards winning the battle for democracy. 

“We need that spirit and more for a similarly existential crisis.”

The role of business

Business must also play its part and it appears to be heeding the call, with a record number of CEOs in attendance at COP26. 

Among them was Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who pledged $2bn to restoring landscapes and transforming food systems as part of his Bezos Earth Foundation. Overall the foundation plans to spend $10bn combatting climate change. 

The Amazon founder has recently been criticised for spending an estimated $5.5bn on a 10-minute jaunt into space. But Doerr, who stepped down from his role on Amazon’s board of directors in 2010 and interviewed Bezos for the book, doesn’t see any conflict of interest in his private space flight programme. 

If I’ve learned anything from my work in the technology industry, it’s that when you set really audacious, inspirational goals and you back them up with measurable key results, the outcomes can surpass all expectations 

“The emissions from Blue Origin’s space flights are a roundoff error in the 59 gigatonnes we’re emitting every year,” he says. “I’m frankly glad that he’s pushing that frontier forward. The work of his that I admire the most is his declaration of $10bn for the Bezos Earth fund to deal with the climate crisis.” 

As an early investor in Amazon and Google, and the 177th richest person in the world according to Forbes, Doerr sees investment opportunities in tackling climate change too. He claims that saving the planet will create “the economic opportunity of our lifetimes” with the potential for creating a net 25 million jobs through the transition to clean energy over the next decade.

He says: “If I’ve learned anything from my work in the technology industry, it’s that when you set really audacious, inspirational goals and you back them up with measurable key results, the outcomes can surpass all expectations.”

One area ripe for innovation is the battery market. The cost of replacing internal combustion engine vehicles with batteries is estimated to cost $400bn over the next 20 years: “That’s enormous, it’s the mother of all markets,” Doerr exclaims.

Lowering the cost of climate change solutions is crucial. “We know what needs to be done, the problem is that it costs too much,” Doerr says. He claims that many of these solutions are currently economically infeasible so the challenge becomes “making the right outcome the profitable outcome, so it becomes the most likely outcome”.

Despite being a technology optimist, he recognises that innovating out of the climate crisis is unrealistic. He says: “All these innovations represent the new but we also need to do more in the now. We’ve got to get there [to net zero] before 2050 to have a reasonable chance of leaving a habitable planet for my daughter.”

So, now that her father has taken up the call to help solve the climate crisis, is she more optimistic? “Mary is still scared and she is still angry,” Doerr says. “The book is a contribution to solving the problem but it’s not enough. Mary’s generation, the Greta Thunberg’s and Varshini Prakash’s, give me great hope. So I’m now turning the question back to them: what are they going to do to get us to a carbon free future?”

John Doerr’s six-step plan for solving the climate crisis

Decarbonise the grid: phase out fossil fuels, expand and improve use of renewable energy sources and expand electrical battery capacity. 

Electrifying transportation: increase uptake of electric vehicles by reaching price-performance parity with combustion engines and improve low-carbon fuels for aviation and shipping.

Fix the food system: reduce methane production in farming and promote low-emission alternatives to beef and dairy.

Protect nature: aim for net-zero deforestation, protect the oceans and expand protected lands.

Clean up industry: reduce the emissions produced by industrial processes, in particular the production of steel and cement.

Remove carbon: invest in nature-based and technological solutions for removing carbon from the atmosphere.