Daniel Batten is a climate tech investor, author, analyst and environmental campaigner who previously founded and led his own tech company.
Why A Climate Tech Investor Got Excited About Gases From Garbage
Since 2013, climate technology has grown at a similarly astounding pace to bitcoin itself: up 210% in the last year, and up 20,933% since 2013. In fact, climate tech now represents 14 cents of every venture capital dollar invested.
Now, the two worlds are merging as Bitcoin mining emerges not only as the way that the world’s future financial system is secured, but also as one of the world’s most important climate tech propositions. In terms of its ability to tackle our most urgent emission problems at scale today, it is, incredibly, the best-positioned climate tech solution.
A bit of background: climate tech is the fastest growing area of venture capital for a reason. In the technology sector, you get commercially rewarded for solving the biggest pain points. The prevalence of climate tech suggests that collectively, humanity may have finally woken up to the fact our real issues are not a lack of retina display devices, but a lack of a clear path to a safe climate.
Climate tech companies are a little like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: some are focused on the most urgent, pressing issues (akin to “Food, Water and Shelter”) on Maslow’s hierarchy. Others are more about the nuances higher up the pyramid.
When I explain Maslow’s hierarchy to people, I often say “If you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, self-actualisation is unlikely to be your top priority.”
About a year ago, I realized that unless we have our “survival-tech” sorted, the higher layers of climate tech will arrive too late to help us.
Based on the fact that a technology ready today has a more immediate impact than one ready in a decade, and the fact that methane emissions are 84x more potent than carbon dioxide emissions, we can get a sense of what Maslow’s pyramid looks like for climate tech.
Layer 4 climate tech: local emission impact; a project to tidy up local rivers.
Layer 3 climate tech: able to decrease carbon emissions at scale globally.
Layer 2 climate tech: able to decrease methane emissions at scale globally.
Layer 1 climate tech: technologies that decrease methane emissions at scale globally and are ready today.
Most investors can’t be relied on to invest in the most important areas of climate tech.
For example, The PwC State of ClimateTech report 2021 found that of the 15 technology areas analyzed, the top five that represent over 80% of future emissions reduction potential by 2050 received just 25% of recent climate tech investment.
That report itself made no mention of methane, though since the UNEP’s statement that “Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years,” I’d be surprised if it isn’t a new focus area in 2022.
So to put things simply: For us to counter climate change we must work on all four layers simultaneously.
Examples of Layer 3 companies include two very promising companies we invested in recently: Hot Lime Labs, who are decarbonizing the world’s greenhouses, and Zincovery who are decarbonizing the world’s zinc recycling process.
Examples of Layer 2 companies include BlueMethane who have a promising technology that could one day remove 1 billion tonnes of methane from the world’s hydroelectric dams, rice paddies and wastewater. Another example is Cetogenix, who can improve the efficiency with which methane is extracted.
All four of these examples can make a significant global impact on emissions. Equally, all four will require a few more years to achieve the scale necessary to realize that potential impact.
Just like Maslow’s hierarchy — unless we can use technologies that are ready today to decrease methane emissions at scale globally: the sobering reality is that these other promising technologies will be ready too late, because we’ll have already tipped beyond 1.5°C of global warming.
About a year ago I realized that all the projects we invested in were Layer 3 technologies. We weren’t doing anything to reduce methane emissions, which was a more immediate issue. Secondly, we weren’t doing anything to invest in technologies that were ready to work at scale today.
The more I researched methane emissions, the more I realized we don’t have time to wait for technologies that are ready to scale in eight years. We must also get moving on technologies that are ready today; these are our Layer 1 projects, or what I call “survival-tech.”
Our biggest methane emitters are animal agriculture, oil and gas reserves, and landfills. I believe that the best way to reduce animal agriculture involves behavioral change in our eating habits — less meat and dairy in our diets. No fancy technology needed there. The other two cannot be tackled by behavioral change however. Landfills created in the 1970s for example are still emitting methane today, and will continue for years to come irrespective of our current behaviors.
Of the 300+ climate tech ideas I’ve seen in the last decade, the best Layer 1 climate tech I’ve seen is also the most low-tech: Capturing methane and using it to generate electricity, then using that electricity for location-agnostic customers that don’t require expensive gas pipelines or pylons to deliver that power to their doorstep. For the majority of these landfills, the only such location-agnostic customer that made economic sense was Bitcoin mining.
It’s a very simple, crude and devastatingly effective way to solve our most urgent emission issues.
The added advantage that landfills have is that you don’t suffer the distraction of people criticizing you for working with oil and gas companies. All the profits go to municipalities, the community. So it ticks the environmental and social boxes right away.
The uninformed will still retort that “we should be using that methane to power something more useful,” a statement that conveys both “I haven’t considered how useful Bitcoin is to the two-thirds of people living under autocratic or semi-autocratic regimes without solid financial systems,” and “I haven’t looked into the viability of alternative uses of that energy” at the same time.
The reality is that unless your landfill is in a very large urban center, there is no economical way to use the gas produced: Gas pipelines can cost ~$5 million per mile to build, and creating a power station only makes sense at scale. For three-quarters of the world’s landfills, the unique location-agnostic feature of Bitcoin mobile-mining units provides a solution to two-thirds of our world’s most urgent Layer 1 problem (emissions from landfills and oil fields).
It can scale fast, and it turns a liability — the cost of inserting and maintaining flare stacks — into an asset for the municipal landfill, and therefore the whole community.
Currently Vespene is leading the charge. Because of the times we live in, it is no exaggeration to say that this makes them one of the most important Layer 1 climate tech companies in the world, and therefore one of the world’s most important companies of our time.
This is a guest post by Daniel Batten. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc. or Bitcoin Magazine.