John Doerr

Salvation (and profit) in greentech

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I'm really scared. I don't think we're going to make it. Probably by now most of you have seen Al Gore's amazing talk. Shortly after I saw that, we had some friends over for dinner with the family. The conversation turned to global warming, and everybody agreed, there's a real problem. We've got a climate crisis. So, we went around the table to talk about what we should do. The conversation came to my 15-year-old daughter, Mary. She said, "I agree with everything that's been said. I'm scared and I'm angry." And then she turned to me and said, "Dad, your generation created this problem; you'd better fix it." Wow. All the conversation stopped. All the eyes turned to me. (Laughter) I didn't know what to say. Kleiner's second law is, "There is a time when panic is the appropriate response." (Laughter) And we've reached that time. We cannot afford to underestimate this problem. If we face irreversible and catastrophic consequences, we must act, and we must act decisively. I've got to tell you, for me, everything changed that evening.


And so, my partners and I, we set off on this mission to learn more, to try to do much more. So, we mobilized. We got on airplanes. We went to Brazil. We went to China and to India, to Bentonville, Arkansas, to Washington, D.C. and to Sacramento. And so, what I'd like to do now is to tell you about what we've learned in those journeys. Because the more we learned, the more concerned we grew. You know, my partners at Kleiner and I were compulsive networkers, and so when we see a big problem or an opportunity like avian flu or personalized medicine, we just get together the smartest people we know. For this climate crisis, we assembled a network, really, of superstars, from policy activists to scientists and entrepreneurs and business leaders. Fifty or so of them. And so, I want to tell you about what we've learned in doing that and four lessons I've learned in the last year.


The first lesson is that companies are really powerful, and that matters a lot. This is a story about how Wal-Mart went green, and what that means. Two years ago, the CEO, Lee Scott, believed that green is the next big thing, and so Wal-Mart made going green a top priority. They committed that they're going to take their existing stores and reduce their energy consumption by 20 percent, and their new stores by 30 percent, and do all that in seven years. The three biggest uses of energy in a store are heating and air conditioning, then lighting, and then refrigeration. So, look what they did. They painted the roofs of all their stores white. They put smart skylights through their stores so they could harvest the daylight and reduce the lighting demands. And, third, they put the refrigerated goods behind closed doors with LED lighting. I mean, why would you try to refrigerate a whole store? These are really simple, smart solutions based on existing technology.


Why does Wal-Mart matter? Well, it's massive. They're the largest private employer in America. They're the largest private user of electricity. They have the second-largest vehicle fleet on the road. And they have one of the world's most amazing supply chains, 60,000 suppliers. If Wal-Mart were a country, it would be the sixth-largest trading partner with China. And maybe most important, they have a big effect on other companies.


When Wal-Mart declares it's going to go green and be profitable, it has a powerful impact on other great institutions. So, let me tell you this: when Wal-Mart achieves 20 percent energy reductions, that's going to be a very big deal. But I'm afraid it's not enough. We need Wal-Mart and every other company to do the same.


The second thing that we learned is that individuals matter, and they matter enormously. I've got another Wal-Mart story for you, OK? Wal-Mart has over 125 million U.S. customers. That's a third of the U.S. population. 65 million compact fluorescent light bulbs were sold last year. And Wal-Mart has committed they're going to sell another 100 million light bulbs in the coming year. But it's not easy. Consumers don't really like these light bulbs. The light's kind of funny, they won't dim, takes a while for them to start up. But the pay-off is really enormous. 100 million compact fluorescent light bulbs means that we'll save 600 million dollars in energy bills, and 20 million tons of CO2 every year, year in and year out. It does seem really hard to get consumers to do the right thing. It is stupid that we use two tons of steel, glass and plastic to haul our sorry selves to the shopping mall. It's stupid that we put water in plastic bottles in Fiji and ship it here. (Laughter)


It's hard to change consumer behavior because consumers don't know how much this stuff costs. Do you know? Do you know how much CO2 you generated to drive here or fly here? I don't know, and I should. Those of us who care about all this would act better if we knew what the real costs were. But as long as we pretend that CO2 is free, as long as these uses are nearly invisible, how can we expect change? I'm really afraid, because I think the kinds of changes we can reasonably expect from individuals are going to be clearly not enough.


The third lesson we learned is that policy matters. It really matters. In fact, policy is paramount. I've got a behind-the-scenes story for you about that green tech network I described. At the end of our first meeting, we got together to talk about what the action items would be, how we'd follow up. And Bob Epstein raised a hand. He stood up. You know, Bob's that Berkeley techie type who started Sybase. Well, Bob said the most important thing we could do right now is to make it clear in Sacramento, California that we need a market-based system of mandates that's going to cap and reduce greenhouse gases in California. It's necessary and, just as important, it's good for the California economy.


So, eight of us went to Sacramento in August and we met with the seven undecided legislators and we lobbied for AB32. You know what? Six of those seven voted yes in favor of the bill, so it passed, and it passed by a vote of 47 to 32. (Applause) Please. Thank you. I think it's the most important legislation of 2006. Why? Because California was the first state in this country to mandate 25 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020. And the result of that is, we're going to generate 83,000 new jobs, four billion dollars a year in annual income, and reduce the CO2 emissions by 174 million tons a year. California emits only seven percent of U.S. CO2 emissions. It's only a percent and a half of the country's CO2 emissions. It's a great start, but I've got to tell you — where I started — I'm really afraid. In fact, I'm certain California's not enough.


Here's a story about national policy that we could all learn from. You know Tom Friedman says, "If you don't go, you don't know"? Well, we went to Brazil to meet Dr. Jose Goldemberg. He's the father of the ethanol revolution. He told us that Brazil's government mandated that every gasoline station in the country would carry ethanol. And they mandated that their new vehicles would be flex-fuel compatible, right? They'd run ethanol or ordinary gasoline. And so, here's what's happened in Brazil. They now have 29,000 ethanol pumps — this versus 700 in the U.S., and a paltry two in California — and in three years their new car fleet has gone from four percent to 85 percent flex-fuel. Compare that to the U.S.: five percent are flex-fuel. And you know what? Most consumers who have them don't even know it. So, what's happened in Brazil is, they've replaced 40 percent of the gasoline consumed by their automotive fleet with ethanol. That's 59 billion dollars since 1975 that they didn't ship to the Middle East. It's created a million jobs inside that country, and it's saved 32 million tons of CO2. It's really substantial. That's 10 percent of the CO2 emissions across their entire country. But Brazil's only 1.3 percent of the world's CO2 emission. So, Brazil's ethanol miracle, I'm really afraid, is not enough. In fact, I'm afraid all of the best policies we have are not going to be enough.


The fourth and final lesson we've learned is about the potential of radical innovation. So, I want to tell you about a tragic problem and a breakthrough technology. Every year a million and a half people die of a completely preventable disease. That's malaria. 6,000 people a day. All for want of two dollars' worth of medications that we can buy at the corner drugstore. Well, two dollars, two dollars is too much for Africa. So, a team of Berkeley researchers with 15 million dollars from the Gates Foundation is engineering, designing a radical new way to make the key ingredient, called artemisinin, and they're going to make that drug 10 times cheaper. And in doing so, they'll save a million lives — at least a million lives a year. A million lives. Their breakthrough technology is synthetic biology. This leverages millions of years of evolution by redesigning bugs to make really useful products. Now, what you do is, you get inside the microbe, you change its metabolic pathways, and you end up with a living chemical factory.


Now, you may ask, John, what has this got to go with green and with climate crisis? Well, I'll tell you — a lot. We've now formed a company called Amyris, and this technology that they're using can be used to make better biofuels. Don't let me skip over that. Better biofuels are a really big deal. That means we can precisely engineer the molecules in the fuel chain and optimize them along the way. So, if all goes well, they're going to have designer bugs in warm vats that are eating and digesting sugars to excrete better biofuels. I guess that's better living through bugs. Alan Kay is famous for saying the best way to predict the future is to invent it. And, of course, at Kleiner we, kind of, apologize and say the second best way is to finance it. And that's why we're investing 200 million dollars in a wide range of really disruptive new technologies for innovation in green technologies. And we're encouraging others to do it as well. We're talking a lot about this.


In 2005, there were 600 million dollars invested in new technologies of the sort you see here. It doubled in 2006 to 1.2 billion dollars. But I'm really afraid we need much, much more. For reference, fact one: Exxon's revenues in 2005 were a billion dollars a day. Do you know, they only invested 0.2 percent of revenues in R&D? Second fact: the President's new budget for renewable energy is barely a billion dollars in total. Less than one day of Exxon's revenues. Third fact: I bet you didn't know that there's enough energy in hot rocks under the country to supply America's energy needs for the next thousand years. And the federal budget calls for a measly 20 million dollars of R&D in geothermal energy. It is almost criminal that we are not investing more in energy research in this country. And I am really afraid that it's absolutely not enough.


So, in a year's worth of learning we found a bunch of surprises. Who would have thought that a mass retailer could make money by going green? Who would have thought that a database entrepreneur could transform California with legislation? Who would have thought that the ethanol biofuel miracle would come from a developing country in South America? And who would have thought that scientists trying to cure malaria could come up with breakthroughs in biofuels? And who would have thought that all that is not enough? Not enough to stabilize the climate. Not enough to keep the ice in Greenland from crashing into the ocean. The scientists tell us — and they're only guessing — that we've got to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one half, and do it as fast as possible. Now, we may have the political will to do this in the U.S., but I've got to tell you, we've got only one atmosphere, and so somehow we're going to have to find the political will to do this all around the world. The wild card in this deck is China.


To size the problem, China's CO2 emissions today are 3.3 gigatons; the U.S. is 5.8. Business as usual means we'll have 23 gigatons from China by 2050. That's about as much CO2 as there is in the whole world. And if it's business as usual, we're going out of business. When I was in Davos, China's Mayor of Dalian was pressed about their CO2 strategy, and he said the following, "You know, Americans use seven times the CO2 per capita as Chinese." Then he asked, "Why should China sacrifice our growth so that the West can continue to be profligate and stupid?" Does anybody here have an answer for him? I don't. We've got to make this economic so that all people and all nations make the right outcome, the profitable outcome, and therefore the likely outcome. Energy's a six-trillion-dollar business worldwide. It is the mother of all markets. You remember that Internet?


Well, I'll tell you what. Green technologies — going green — is bigger than the Internet. It could be the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century. Moreover, if we succeed, it's going to be the most important transformation for life on the planet since, as Bill Joy says, we went from methane to oxygen in the atmosphere. Now, here's the hard question, if the trajectory of all the world's companies and individuals and policies and innovation is not going to be enough, what are we going to do? I don't know. Everyone here cares about changing the world and has made a difference in that one way or another.


So, our call to action — my call to you — is for you to make going green your next big thing, your gig. What can you do? You can personally get carbon neutral. Go to or and buy carbon credits. You could join other leaders in mandating, lobbying for mandated cap and trade in U.S. greenhouse gas reductions. There's six bills right now in Congress. Let's get one of them passed.


And the most important thing you can do, I think, is to use your personal power and your Rolodex to lead your business, your institution, in going green. Do it like Wal-Mart, get it to go green for its customers and its suppliers and for itself. Really think outside the box. Can you imagine what it would be like if Amazon or eBay or Google or Microsoft or Apple really went green and you caused that to happen? It could be bigger than Wal-Mart. I can't wait to see what we TEDsters do about this crisis. And I really, really hope that we multiply all of our energy, all of our talent and all of our influence to solve this problem. Because if we do, I can look forward to the conversation I'm going to have with my daughter in 20 years. (Applause)

"I don't think we're going to make it," John Doerr says in an emotional talk about climate change and investment. To create a world fit for his daughter to live in, he says, we need to invest now in clean, green energy.

About the speaker
John Doerr · Venture capitalist

John Doerr, Silicon Valley's legendary moneyman, is afraid of eco-apocalypse. After building his reputation (and a considerable fortune) investing in high-tech successes, he's turning his focus toward green technologies, and hoping it isn't too late.

John Doerr, Silicon Valley's legendary moneyman, is afraid of eco-apocalypse. After building his reputation (and a considerable fortune) investing in high-tech successes, he's turning his focus toward green technologies, and hoping it isn't too late.