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President Obama and Bill Gates Double Down on Clean Energy Innovation

Two new coalitions will more than double global investments in energy research to fight climate change.

President Obama wanted the United States to send a powerful message in Paris, and he’s getting a helping hand from some of the world’s biggest entrepreneurs. On Monday, Obama and Microsoft founder Bill Gates announced two aligned efforts to more than double the global investment in clean energy research. Obama, Gates and French President Francois Hollande together launched a 20-nation coalition called Mission Innovation, an initiative to “dramatically accelerate public and private global clean energy innovation.”

Simultaneously, Gates announced a parallel initiative, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which includes 28 of the world’s preeminent private investors, who together are committing to ramp up investment in clean energy R&D.

The announcements gave a healthy jolt to the Paris climate talks right out of the gate. These partnerships should help boost confidence globally that developed nations like the United States and Japan will actually be able to deliver on their climate promises, and make even bolder commitments in years ahead.

The diverse coalition goes beyond the world’s major powers, including nations like Denmark—long celebrated as a leader in wind power innovation—as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Formidable economic powers such as Great Britain, Canada, Germany, France, Australia, and South Korea are also participating. “They stretch across five continents. And when you add all partner countries together, they represent 75 percent of the world's CO2 emissions from electricity, and more than 80 percent of the world's clean energy R&D investment," the White House said in a statement.

On Monday, Obama stated that the United States has committed to doubling its investment over the next five years from $5 billion to $10 billion. Another $10 billion will be provided by the 19 other member nations. Much of that investment will be geared toward public-private partnerships, with the Department of Energy and 11 other federal agencies focusing on areas that include renewables, nuclear, electric grid technologies, carbon capture and storage, and others.

The announcement came on the heels of Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg unveiling their Breakthrough Energy Coalition, an investment team that includes some major heavyweights like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Virgin’s Richard Branson, founder and CEO Marc Benioff, and Alibaba CEO Jack Ma. Their group aims to fill gaps in government funding by putting the weight of the world’s tech giants behind investments in zero-carbon technology. Of course, they plan to make a lot of money along the way by supporting the best environmentally friendly ideas coming out of public research institutions across a broad range of categories including electricity, transportation and agriculture.

“Given the scale of the challenge, we need to be exploring many different paths—and that means we also need to invent new approaches,” Gates wrote in a blog post announcing the venture. “Private companies will ultimately develop these energy breakthroughs, but their work will rely on the kind of basic research that only governments can fund. Both have a role to play.”

Many clean energy advocates, however, are urging that the coalitions’ money could be much better spent. While innovation and R&D are important, “what we need is deployment,” writes Jigar Shah, founder of SunEdison and Generate Capital, on LinkedIn. “Don’t believe for one second that we don’t already have the technology. We do.”

“The challenge with today’s announcement by Bill Gates is that while he and other are filling a real need, it is not the press release we need coming out of these negotiations. That press release would say, ‘Now that we have figured out solar and wind deployment, does anyone want to work on deploying the hundreds of other technologies ready to scale up?’”

Whether the money is better spent on R&D or on deployment, there’s no denying that the announcements energized the start of COP21, and the collaboration across borders and businesses is exactly the type of collaboration it will take to get a good deal done.

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