Our Outlook on 2022

What it takes to turn climate ambition into climate impact

As we settle into 2022, I've never been more optimistic about the world's ability to respond effectively to climate change. 2021 saw businesses, governments, and consumers commit unprecedented effort and resources to ensuring we have a livable climate. Collectively, we've finally graduated from a debate about whether we should do something, to one about what, specifically, each of us needs to do.

While it may seem urgent to look inward at our own emissions as companies, countries, or individuals, and do what we can to eliminate them, it's much more important to look outward and judge our own activities by how they will help transition the global economy to net-zero emissions.

But climate ambition won't translate automatically into climate impact. While it may seem urgent to look inward at our own emissions as companies, countries, or individuals, and do what we can to eliminate them, it's much more important to look outward and judge our own activities by how they will help transition the global economy to net-zero emissions. Sometimes, the steps we take to reduce our own footprint will be the same as the steps needed to eliminate global emissions, but often, they won't be. In many cases, thinking only in terms of our own current footprint incentivizes some short-term investments, like relying exclusively on buying offsets, that simply won't address the climate challenge.

In the end, it's a math question. If we flipped a switch tomorrow and every country and company making net-zero commitments were instantly as green as possible right now, we still wouldn't be anywhere close to net zero. If we put realistic economic constraints around that switch flipping, we'd be even further behind. While we would have a much greener electrical grid for all of us to use (which we desperately need to get to zero), powered by clean energy sources like wind, solar, and nuclear, by necessity we'd still be emitting fossil fuels to make most of the things we use and produce most of the food we eat every day. For example, there is currently no affordable way to fly without emitting greenhouse gases, no affordable way to build a bridge or a building without spewing carbon into the atmosphere, and no affordable way to supply the food people want to eat that isn't emissions intensive.

Even once the technological problems are solved, there remains an economic problem. Unless we make investments and implement policies to dramatically reduce the Green Premiums on the products and materials we use every day, then the transition will be too expensive for many to afford. This is particularly true for emerging economies, which will not be able to get to zero without either bankrupting themselves and reversing decades of economic progress or depriving their citizens of the quality of life that most of us in developed countries take for granted.

To achieve the type of change we need—to deploy the technologies we have, invent new technologies we need, and drive down their cost fast—we need to take a comprehensive approach. The world needs to think creatively about each step in the innovation chain from lab to commercialization. Breakthrough Energy is a network of programs and partnerships that tackles the challenges we face in different ways to give us the best chance of success. Over the last year, our network has grown. Together with our partners, we have established new programs, funds, and advocacy efforts to help the world avoid a climate disaster:

  • We recently launched Catalyst, a blended financing program designed to accelerate the transition from proven clean technology concepts to actual cheap, reliable clean products by putting together large-scale commercial demonstration projects. (See this white paper by Bill Gates for more detail on the theory of change underlying Catalyst.)
  • To make sure there is a pipeline of innovations to be considered for commercialization, our colleagues at Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) have raised a second fund, following up on their highly successful inaugural fund launched in 2015.
  • Innovators with great clean energy ideas need support to turn those ideas into products and businesses that can attract startup funding. We launched Breakthrough Energy Fellows to provide expert advice, funding, and mentorship to engineers and scientists starting out in the field.

We are honored by the trust our partners have shown by investing in us, and in the first month of this year alone we have had several leading private-sector organizations join our network through the Catalyst program. While each partner brings a different perspective, what binds them all together is a commitment to doing the hard work to bring about the massive energy transition the world needs.

We understand that by asking for our partners' trust we have an obligation to deliver. We deserve to be scrutinized, and we invite our partners and others to hold us accountable for success. This year Breakthrough Energy will be working with a diverse set of partners to develop a new way to measure how much an investment will reduce Green Premiums. The tool will also quantify how an investment will increase the market for a given key climate technology—and how that growth in the market will ultimately reduce global emissions over time. We believe this measurement framework, along with others being developed to bring rigor to evaluating commitments, will help businesses and governments make strategic investments that will have the most impact in securing a net-zero future.

The resources the world has committed are significant and give reason for hope. But it's all about what we do next. We don't have time to waste. Sometimes, what seems most immediate is not what is going to lead to the outcome we want. The world really needs to focus more on the "we" of climate and less on the "me" of climate.

Jonah Goldman

Managing Director, Breakthrough Energy

Dec 23, 2021

The Year In Review

2021 was a Breakthrough Year