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Bill Joy: Solving the Climate Crisis Can't Be Gamified

Bill Joy has a plan to cut global carbon emissions in half. More than 10 years ago, as a partner of San Francisco-based venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins, he identified a list of 25 disruptive clean-tech “grand challenges.” He attacked the list with the same rigor and analytical ability with which the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, in the 1980s, designed the computer codes that laid the foundation for the online world we are living in today, and that made him a billionaire. Only three technologies survived the decade of thorough research and analysis. Joy put his money behind these “super impactful” innovations: “I’m convinced they can change the world.”

Bill Joy
Bill Joy | Still From Kamp Solutions

The analysis of the technologies took so much time because Joy and his team tried to imagine how the selected innovations could truly transform society. One of the projects was an attempt to replace the albedo that we would lose when the ice cap of the North Pole would melt, and we lose the reflectivity bouncing back the warming rays of the sun. “Can we make all the roads white? And the roofs?, we wondered,” Joy says. “We didn’t find a breakthrough way of doing that.”

We are meeting in New York in early May, the day before one of these companies, Beyond Meat, goes public on Nasdaq. Six weeks later, the stock of the company, that offers plant-based versions of beef and pork, has quadrupled. Beyond Meat’s success underscores the depth of Bill Joy’s investigations. A 2016 study by the University of Oxford shows that 70 percent of the global warming problem would be solved if we would all become vegans. However, worldwide meat consumption has increased fivefold in the past 50 years and continues to rise. Joy: “If we want to quickly substitute the impact of protein, we need to match people’s existing habits and expectations.”

Meat substitution can reduce carbon emissions with some 20 percent, Joy is convinced. Still, changing behavior is the harder part of the challenge to reverse global warming to which Bill Joy has committed his resources and time. His number one, and “most impactful” solution is: “inexpensive, safe, non-toxic, abundant” batteries. Joy: “There’s a clear trend towards electrifying everything. So, we need renewable electricity. The easiest way to get that is from solar and wind. With batteries we can make the grid 100 percent renewable.” But these batteries need to be cheap and energy-dense enough “to fully electrify the grid and fully electrify transportation.”

Kamp Solutions: Bill Joy

Today’s lithium-ion batteries don’t meet Joy’s conditions to power the world: “They are expensive, toxic, unsafe, non-rechargeable, and they are made from rare raw materials.” In these batteries, ions are kept separate from electrons in a liquid. And liquids come with dangers. That’s why we keep hearing stories of lithium-ion batteries that exploded. The use of liquids also limits the options for chemical reactions. Joy: “For example: sulphur is something you would love to use in a battery. It’s light and almost free but when you put it in a liquid you get re- actions that cause it to fail.”

Joy has invented a battery technology where the liquid is replaced with a polymer. That polymer is the game-changer he was looking for. It makes the battery chemistry safe, cheap and rechargeable. Furthermore, the use of a polymer takes away the restrictions on materials and “opens up the whole periodic table.” “You don’t have to mine the deep ocean or the Congo for resources like cobalt and nickel,” Joy adds.

“With this technology, we can completely eliminate toxic lead acid batteries, and I can give you enough rechargeable batteries to power your house for 24 hours forever for a onetime investment of $1,000. That’s really cheap.” Ionic Materials is working with battery producers to introduce the new technology in their production processes. “When the battery is fully fleshed out, we have reduced 25 percent of the emissions,” says Joy.

The third component of his 50 percent greenhouse gas reduction strategy is focused on the construction sector that is responsible for between five and seven percent of the emissions. Cement is bonded with water and, in the process, CO2 is released. Solidia cement is a breakthrough innovation: the bonds are made using carbon dioxide instead of water. Joy: “This cement takes CO2 from the air; it draws down emissions.” The very technology that has brought humans on a collision course with nature in the past decades, also has to save humanity. That’s the—controversial—key message of Joy’s climate plan. In 2000, he published a gloomy essay about the future of technology in Wired under the title “Why the future doesn’t need us.” He’s still apprehensive and conflicted. “If technology is sufficiently powerful, and we just let the market take us to wherever random chance takes us, we may end up in a really undesirable outcome,” he says.

Joy misses the ethical commitment by business and political leaders “to do the right thing.” “The capitalism machine just runs. Marketing people create desire. The oil companies knew about global warming. Pharmaceutical corporations know that opioids are addictive. Facebook knows it’s addictive. Smart phones are addictive. Is it any surprise that the addictive stuff out-competes the non-addictive stuff? That’s Darwinism. That will only change when you decide to stop.”

“I can’t gamify solving the climate crisis"

Joy knows that that decision to get serious about the sustainability issue won’t come soon in the current “very anti-intellectual” political climate in the United States. “I thought that the melting of the North Pole ice cap, the hurricanes and the wildfires in California would have already made us realize that we have got to stop.” He stresses the tipping points that drive environmental challenges. “People keep hearing that CO2 levels are going up, and it seems like nothing changes much. There always seems to be more time. However, there’s point where things are barely in balance anymore. The forest that has become drier every year for 10 years because of climate change suddenly becomes a massive fire. Then people ask: ‘What happened?’ It probably wasn’t very much; it was a tipping point.”

Joy knows there could be a catastrophe at which point choices may be limited. His mission is to help humanity to be ready for that moment: “I have tried to get the best tools in place—like a survival kit—that we can quickly scale up when the time comes to push the panic button. It’s not expensive to fix. But if people are not feeling the pain enough, it’s really hard to focus on things which aren’t necessarily very fun to solve. I can’t gamify solving the climate crisis.”

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