If you were the richest person in the world, how would you splash your cash?
No longer just conversational fodder for that four-pint friend date, this question has been plaguing climate hawks this week, after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took to Instagram to announce that he is going to provide a charitable fund to help “save Earth”. The plutocrat has pledged 10 billion US dollars (about £7.7bn) to the cause.
The figure — around 8 percent of his absolutely massive pile of gold coins — is a boon for fans of a liveable planet. But Bezos was light on detail about how the money will actually be spent, offering a sketch of his general intentions rather than a clear plan.
“This global initiative will fund scientists, activists, NGOs — any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world,” the post read. Speculation has been rife about what this will mean in practice.
Some have pointed out that the timeframe for how the money will be rolled out remains opaque, despite a pledge to begin dishing out grants this summer. That’s an important point: no $10 billion fund is going to save the planet if most of it is sitting in an endowment until it’s too late.
Others have argued that paying a fair share of tax, or improving conditions for employees, should be priorities ahead of personal philanthropy. These people say Bezos should look at getting Amazon’s house in order before he goes crafting eye-catching philanthropic IG posts, no matter how much clout they gain him.
Amazon distributes more than 10 billion packages annually using fuel-burning planes and trucks. It has “plans” to scale up its reliance on renewable energy from 40 percent to 100 percent by 2030, but actions are louder than plans, and it emitted 44.4 million metric tons of CO2 in 2018, close to the carbon footprint of a small nation, so there’s a vast amount of ground to make up.
“The Bezos Earth Fund is a welcome recognition of the serious threat of climate change… [but] Jeff Bezos is speaking out of both sides of his mouth,” says Greenpeace USA Senior Campaigner Elizabeth Jardim.
“It’s hypocritical to announce that climate change is the biggest threat to our planet while at the same time boosting the fossil fuel industry by providing advanced computing technologies to the oil and gas industry so that it can discover and drill more oil, more efficiently.” Amazon provides a machine learning cloud computing operation which works in service of oil and gas companies.
Jardim also points to claims that an organised group of employees who go by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, who are calling on the company to reach net zero emissions by 2030, were threatened with dismissal for making public comments about the company’s record on climate. Amazon said at the time this is a policy on employees making comments publicly that affects all employees.
For its part, Amazon claims it’s moving in the right direction. “Playing a significant role in helping to reduce the sources of human-induced climate change is an important commitment for Amazon,” a company spokesperson tells Change Incorporated. “We have dedicated sustainability teams who have been working for years on initiatives to reduce our environmental impact.
We have almost all the tools available to reduce our emissions, it's just actually doing it that is the problem
“Last year we announced Shipment Zero - Amazon’s vision to make all Amazon shipments net zero carbon, with 50 percent of all shipments net zero by 2030. Over the past decade through our sustainable packaging programs, we’ve eliminated more than 244,000 tons of packaging materials and avoided 500 million shipping boxes.
“This follows an extensive project over the past few years to develop an advanced scientific model to carefully map our carbon footprint to provide our business teams with detailed information helping them identify ways to reduce carbon use in their businesses.” Setting aside the company’s own footprint for a second, the Bezos Earth Fund is happening. So how should it be spent?
"A large part of the money, arguably all of it, should go towards funding those seeking to transform our destructive, disastrously unequal economic systems and end the undue influence of fossil fuel companies and other big corporations on government,” says Green Party peer and former leader Natalie Bennett. However, she says that given Amazon’s record on dodging taxes, treating employees badly and lobbying governments on both of these topics, she won’t be holding her breath.
"Assuming that doesn't happen, then I'd like to see a large chunk of the money going to support farmers around the world transform their practices away from industrial agriculture towards agroecological approaches,” Bennett continues. “In particular, it should focus on producing enough fruit and vegetable crops to provide a sufficiently healthy diet for all, as well as helping to tackle the collapse in the natural world. When it comes to energy, transport and buildings, we broadly know what we need to do, even if we're not doing it. There's much further to go in agriculture."
Dr Ella Gilbert, a climate scientist who has worked in Antarctica, tells us putting money into the roll-out of existing low-carbon technologies would be the top priority for her if she had the levers on Bezos’ climate fund. “We have almost all the tools available to reduce our emissions, it's just actually doing it that is the problem,” she says.
Her focus is on how we get about and heat our homes. “Personally I think investment in the electrification of transport (especially trains, long and short distance), improving public transport systems, especially in rural areas, and redeveloping urban areas to make them pedestrian and cyclist-friendly rather than promoting car use, is a good place to start.
A massive campaign to switch domestic space heating to electric or zero-carbon fuels also has to be a priority. Putting cash into joining up industries and integrating currently disconnected parts of our economy (i.e. creating a circular economy where waste products are re-used and not discarded) would also be excellent.
“For instance, I've seen some fantastic projects where social housing developments have integrated community-scale renewable electricity generation, battery storage, EV charging and green spaces (which of course sequester carbon too). It's a win-win-win for social, economic and environmental reasons.” She points to government funded projects such as The Energy Superhub in Oxford as examples of this.
For science broadcaster, author and co-founder of Scientists for Extinction Rebellion, Dr Emily Grossman, the issue is about changing the way business is done. “We urgently need to see huge political shifts away from our fossil fuel-based economy,” she explains. “The best use for Bezos’ money would be to help bring about fundamental systems change in every industry and bit of society that is fossil-fuel dependent to renewable energy sources. This means supporting organisations that can help people in every walk of life think through and create that change (Forum for the Future, Volans, The Re-generation and Rapid Transition are doing amazing work on this).
Like Bennett, Dr Grossman sees agriculture as a key area where this money could make a critical impact. “Currently around 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions are caused by industrial food, farming and land use, so a chunk of the fund should be put towards enabling more regenerative agriculture practices and supporting local food systems,” she says. “We also need to offer financial support to those in the Global South who are already suffering the worst impacts of climate change and helping them adapt to what’s already threatening their lives and livelihoods.”
As for the organisations Bezos has said he’d fund, Sarah Greenfield Clark, of Extinction Rebellion’s International Support Team, makes the pitch that XR itself would be a good place to start. “It’s a welcome change to see activism groups highlighted by Jeff Bezos as a potential recipient of this new Earth Fund,” she says. “It's not hard to see why: only just over a year old, Extinction Rebellion has been described by CNN as ‘the world’s most high profile environmental movement’ and social media analytics company Onolytica ranked us UN COP25’s number one influencer. We've managed a pace of growth not seen before throughout history and all on a conservative budget. We hope that Jeff Bezos can see the value in supporting our movement and its ambition and potential for 2020".
For now, time will tell where the money goes. Dr Gilbert has a word of caution. “A lot of it requires serious policy implementation, rather than cash alone — and therein lies the problem. Money will help, but it's not the whole answer.”