Photo by Joshua Woroniecki from Pexels

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and worth about US$193 billion, pledged US$2 billion to restore biodiversity and transform food systems at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland.

This is in addition to the US$1 billion for conservation and biodiversity that the Bezos Earth Fund pledged in September of this year.

Billionaires like Bezos have been criticised for spending enormous sums of money on suborbital space missions rather than solving the vast array of problems on planet Earth, such as biodiversity loss and climate change.

In recent months, however, Bezos has quickly become an environmental philanthropist of celebrity status with a further plan to contribute at least US$10 billion by 2030. And Bezos’s sudden fervour to restore the natural world hasn’t stopped there….

Countries unite on the Congo Basin Pledge

The Bezos Earth Fund and the European Union, and 10 other countries, including the UK and the US, also signed on to the Congo Basin Pledge at COP26 to commit US$1.5 billion to restore and protect forests and peatlands and other critical carbon stores.

Bezos also reaffirmed his earlier pledge for Amazon to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 and his company’s “aims to power all its operations by renewable energies by 2025.”

He also spoke of how his suborbital space flight last July reinforced his commitment to tackling climate change: “I was told that seeing the Earth from space changes the lens from which you view the world, but I was not prepared for just how much that would be true,” he said.

Bill Gates is not so optimistic

Another billionaire, however, cast doubt on whether global warming could be held below 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial levels. Bill Gates, in an interview with British politician Jeremy Hunt, pointed to the massive amount of work to be done to meet the multitude of climate goals: 

“It’s all a matter of degrees, so to speak. That is, you know, hitting 2.5 is better than hitting 3, hitting 2 is better than hitting 2.5,” he said. Gates also suggested that the 1.5°C “will be very difficult, I doubt that we’ll be able to achieve that.”

Still, a united front by some of the wealthiest people in the world is a powerful force; it’s now time for governments to step up

Ironically, despite what appear to be sincere commitments to climate change action, a 2019 report by the OECD conservatively estimated that US$500 billion in fossil fuel subsidies and subsidies to support environmentally harmful agriculture was doled out by governments around the world. 

An amount equal to about 10 ten times that dedicated to reversing biodiversity loss and sustaining ecosystem services. It’s now up to recalcitrant governments to step up.

According to the Australia Institute, the Australian government’s fossil fuel subsidies cost taxpayers a whopping AU$10.3 billion in 2020-21 with one tax break of $7.84 billion alone surpassing the $7.82 billion spent on the army.

State governments were also keen to keep the fossil fuel industry ticking over, spending $1.2 billion on subsidising fossil fuel exploration and supporting infrastructure like refurbishing coal ports, railways, and coal-fired power stations, as well as “clean coal” research. 

This despite Queensland Treasury declaring that “spending on mining related infrastructure means less infrastructure spending on hospitals and schools.”

Needless to say, fossil fuel subsidies work directly against climate change action and are tantamount to “pork-barrelling” on a planetary scale.

It’s about “putting your money where your mouth is”—and making sure it goes where intended

The far-reaching pledges by more than 100 countries to cease deforestation and cut methane emissions were shining lights in what was becoming a rather disappointing COP26 conference.

The question remains, however, can the world continue to develop without deforestation and fossil fuels? That is, with a little help from their international friends, can developing countries skip the final development phase and go directly to clean energy?

Advocates, scientists, activists, philanthropists, and “some” of our world leaders at COP26 say they can. Our children certainly say they can.

It comes down to how much rich countries, like Australia, the US, the UK, and the European Union, are willing to give. The pledges announced at COP26 amounted to more than $20 billion from governments and the private sector. A good start! 

But it will take a genuine global effort, not built on pledges, contracts, or technology that might or might not eventuate, but the “collective” effort of sincere and honest relations-building between countries that continue to be consumed by domestic politics and self-interest. 

As Greta Thunberg said in her speech at the Youth4Climate conference in Milan, Italy, in September: “Net-zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah” … it’s time to walk the talk!

One way to do this is to commit to pledges by legislating them and clear and transparent reporting minus the spin. Legally binding agreements and mechanisms that put our planet’s interests first will go a long way to ensuring what our political leaders say is what they actually mean. 

And hey, most importantly, make absolutely certain that the “money” goes to where it was intended.

Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science. He has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design, teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the UDIA (Urban Development Institute of Australia) and author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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