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Bezos climate fund targets hard-to-tackle sectors, environmental justice

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Bezos climate fund targets hard-to-tackle sectors, environmental justice

Amazon.com Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos' initial round of nearly $800 million in climate-focused grants and investments aims to tackle emissions from the transportation, industrial and agriculture sectors, protect forests and other ecosystems, and address environmental justice and racial equity issues. More than half of the total first round of funds is going to major advocacy groups.

Environmental experts have largely held that the path to decarbonization is more straightforward for the electricity sector, while new technologies and other initiatives are needed for the harder to tackle sectors such as transportation, agriculture and industrial that create the infrastructure needed for the transition.

Bezos created the Bezos Earth Fund in February and pledged to fund scientists, activists and NGOs with $10 billion to address climate change. The fund announced its first round of $791 million in grants and investments on Nov. 16, with $500 million of the total going to big environmental groups.

Specifically, the fund pledged to provide $100 million to the Environmental Defense Fund to support methane emissions research, and $100 million to the Natural Resources Defense Council and its NRDC Action Fund to fund efforts on climate solutions and legislation at the state level. Bezos is also giving The Nature Conservancy $100 million to protect old-growth forests in the U.S. and Canada and promote climate-friendly agricultural practices in India.

The World Resources Institute also received a $100 million grant spread over five years to develop a satellite-based monitoring system for forests, grasslands, wetlands and farms. Some of that grant money will go to help promote the electrification of U.S. school buses. The World Wildlife Fund is getting $100 million for restoring mangroves, developing a new market for seaweed, and protecting forests and other ecosystems.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is receiving $30 million for its "harnessing plants initiative" aimed at pulling and sequestering carbon dioxide emissions from the air.

SNL Image
Amazon.com Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos
Source: Amazon

To tackle transportation and industrial emissions, among other things, a combined $75 million will go to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Rocky Mountain Institute, and the ClimateWorks Foundation. The Energy Foundation, which promotes energy efficiency and renewable energy in the power, transportation and buildings sectors, is getting $30 million.

Nearly $260 million is going to groups that are promoting environmental justice or advocating on climate-related issues on behalf of minorities or tribal communities.

While several academic climate experts indicated they were generally pleased with the first round of funding, one said he was disappointed.

Aseem Prakash, director of the Seattle-based University of Washington Center for Environmental Politics, has long argued that the solution to tackling climate change is addressing the concerns of communities in the Rust Belt that view climate change as a threat to their financial future. When Bezos first announced the fund in February, Prakash was hopeful Bezos would think outside of the box and fund some innovative solutions.

Instead, said Prakash, the first round is going to low-hanging fruit organizations that represent the sushi crowd instead of the steak and potatoes crowd. "This is what disappoints me," Prakash said. "Bezos can anticipate needs ... so where's that brilliance going when it comes to climate change?"

Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard University Environmental Economics Program, said Bezos is buying a lot of political clout by investing heavily in big environmental groups mere months before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Many of those groups will be staffing the Biden administration, Stavins said.

And by putting money toward advocacy groups, Stavins suggested Bezos is also taking the big-picture approach toward "broader policies that would make it in the interest of the private sector to engage in those investments" needed to address climate change.

Stavins also observed that while Bezos is being very opaque about who is staffing his fund or other metrics used to pick grant recipients, some tea leaves can be read from the recent announcement. The allocation decisions are consistent with the model of funds that have a skeletal organization with a very small staff who pick grants for big groups with solid track records, which requires very little overhead to research and choose.

But how Bezos spends the rest of the more than $9.2 billion he has pledged toward climate change could take significantly more overhead to research and reach out to smaller organizations unless the fund opts to instead just renew grants with the bigger groups again, Stavins said.