Giving thanks

What I’m thankful for in climate right now

Hi folks,

I know. It’s Thanksgiving Eve. You’re ready to sign off. I support that.

If you do want to hang around for a few, I promise this edition is a touch different than others. I won’t inundate you with numbers and graphs about clean energy deployment or EV sales. I’m not going to belabor complex modeled climate ‘curves’ and what global temperature rise we are or aren’t tracking towards. Nor will I write (too many more) sentences as convoluted as the past two. I got most of my kicks out up here.

Rather, today’s newsletter offers a broader reflection on what I’m thankful for in climate, climate tech, and energy right now.

In today’s email:

  • Climate is a category (“a Clean Industrial Revolution”)

  • We’re ‘decomposing’ climate. As we should.

  • Chemistry and physics and stuff

  • A quick perspective shift

  • How we make next Thanksgiving (and all future ones) better


Climate is a category (“a Clean Industrial Revolution”)

Climate is a category now. Or a sector. Or an industry. Pick your favorite. Whether you call it ESG, climate, climate tech, the energy transition, sustainability, the postponing of the sixth mass extinction, flat-out survival, or something else, it’s here.

When economists, policymakers, and private sector business leaders think about the world now, they think about climate as a category. Investment flows into and out of ‘it’ get measured. ‘Climate’ is a parameter in all relevant financial data sets. Top investors launch new funds to invest in ‘it.’ Climate stories, including business ones, are always in the news in some capacity. Just like other ‘industries.’

Twenty years ago (or even ten), that wasn’t the case. Solar, wind, and batteries were still in their relative infancy in terms of deployment. People argued a lot more about whether global warming was even real. There was a blip of enthusiasm for ‘cleantech’ in the late aughts, but it crashed hard. Interestingly, that’s an important characteristic of asset classes (or ‘industries’) that do endure. Unlike tulip manias, after crashing, they come back. ‘Climate’ is back, it was always here, and it isn’t going away.

Manias crash once and never recover. New ‘categories’ with value often crash, but they come back. (Chart Source: Ecotalker)

Don’t just ask me. I’ve only been at this for a bit. Ask Bill Gates, a major climate investor:

When I founded Breakthrough Energy in 2015, very few people seemed to be talking about how R&D might address the changing climate…Eight years later... the climate innovation landscape has changed completely. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we’re in the beginning stages of a Clean Industrial Revolution.

Bill Gates in Breakthrough Energy’s State of The Transition 2023 report

To zoom out even further, at the most basic level (and germane to this newsletter), it’s also noteworthy that people care about the business of climate, climate tech, and energy. Gone are the days when people wondered whether consumers could successfully drive necessary change by composting, recycling, and hugging trees (to be sure, I’m a fan of all those things, too – we’ll hit this point again at the end). But now, as consumers’, corporations’, and countries’ incentives increasingly align with the planet’s, flywheels start popping up everywhere. Having all three aligned is critical.

We’re ‘decomposing’ climate. As we should.

First, we established that climate is a noteworthy, enduring ‘category.’ It isn’t going anywhere. Building on that foundation, vital work can happen; entrepreneurs, policymakers, and other stakeholders get to decompose all the challenges and opportunities that a ‘category’ subsumes. 

For a long time, climate conversations were all about carbon dioxide. This is still true. The word decarbonization attunes us to this fact. It is a common and accepted stand-in for other words, like energy transition or climate work. But it is also notably not ‘de-methane-ization’ or ‘de-plastic-ization.’

It’s time the climate category I lauded above got decomposed into thousands, perhaps millions, of individualized, niche challenges that ladder up to the whole (all of which are inevitably still enmeshed). Some of these challenges are about carbon dioxide. Many are not.

When decomposed, none of these individual challenges is insurmountable. Sure, they can come with costs and tradeoffs, require time, and demand a high level of comfort with complexity. But they also offer ripe opportunities to build successful and impactful products and services (whether venture-backed or not). Opportunities abound, waiting for the right financial and human capital (you?). 

I’ve seen a lot more evidence of folks thinking about climate this way this year. I’ll talk about a few venture firms as an illustrative example:

The first venture fund focused exclusively on biodiversity — Superorganism —launched this year. We’ll have a newsletter out on them soon. My friend Lauren Singer manages a venture fund — Overview Capital — focused solely on short-lived climate pollutants (i.e., all greenhouse gasses not named carbon dioxide). Convective Capital raised a $35M fund specifically for wildfire management and mitigation start-ups. You get the idea.

Those are just a handful of (excellent) examples of firms targeting specific niches, as opposed to a broad ‘climate’ mandate. This is crucial because it a) signals more maturity in the climate ‘industry’ or ‘category’ as a whole and b) means people, capital, and other resources are being marshaled towards more and more targeted approaches. I’m confident that will catalyze impact, R&D, financial returns, and a lot of other learning. 

I could write at length about companies and technologies following a similar path, companies that are getting progressively more targeted about exactly what problem they’re solving. Looking at the portfolio company pages for the firms listed above is a good start.

Chemistry and physics and stuff

Time to call out a smattering of things on the tech side. There’s no way I could give thanks to all the incredible innovation happening across climate tech and energy; this is just a small sample of stuff I’ve seen in the last week alone. Incredible things happen in climate technology every week — that’s why this newsletter exists.


Several companies have made splashy announcements with respect to a potentially game-changing battery chemistry this year. Sodium-ion batteries would be exciting because sodium, as opposed to say, lithium, is pretty abundant. It’s heavier, but not massively so. Sodium-ion batteries would also omit other less sustainable (and often conflict-riddled) metals like nickel, manganese, and cobalt (more on cobalt in a bit).

Northvolt, the burgeoning European battery manufacturing giant, announced it has developed a sodium-ion battery that it notes will be particularly attractive owing to its safety (lithium-ion batteries still catch fire) and cost. The only elements in the electrodes are sodium, carbon, iron, and nitrogen. All of these are abundant.

Elsewhere, BYD, the Tesla of China, announced this week it will build a 30 GWh sodium battery plant. Sodium-ion batteries will likely be more prominent as energy storage for the power sector to start, given sodium is heavier than lithium. But BYD seems to think they’ll use this chemistry in cars this decade, too.


Both nuclear fission reactors and solar photovoltaics rely on fundamental physics principles. Last week, in the UAE, we saw cool examples of both those electricity generation sources getting deployed. First, project developers finalized a 2 GW Al Dhafra solar farm. That is a massive solar farm with more than 4 million panels, it’s one of the world’s largest.

Side by side of the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant & Al Dhafra solar farm (both in the UAE)

Second, the UAE’s Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation granted an operating license for the fourth and final reactor at the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, which is also located in the Al Dhafra region of Abu Dhabi. The Barakah Nuclear Power Plant has four 1.4 GW nuclear reactors (5.6 GW total capacity). That’s also a massive power plant; alone, it will provide about a quarter of the UAE’s electricity.

The reason I like this confluence of energy news so much is because, while solar and nuclear bros often war on Twitter, the twain are not mutually exclusive. Both offer fundamentally different energy generation characteristics. They have their pros and cons. But both are essential to help countries like the UAE or the U.S. reduce emissions from their power sector. It’s still too early in the energy transition to know for sure what the best path to zero emissions is, and that answer will vary drastically by geography. All the more reason to deploy all the low-carbon technologies we have, if nothing else, to continue to learn and to reduce fossil fuel consumption along the way. 

No, neither of those examples is necessarily a breakthrough in physics. But that’s an important reminder, too. We don’t need more breakthroughs to make meaningful progress mitigating emissions. We’ve had the chance to harness fission and solar photovoltaics for decades. It's time to do a lot more of it.

A quick perspective shift

If you have an oven in which to cook a turkey tomorrow, congratulations. Thirty percent of the global population doesn’t have reliable access to clean cooking fuels. These people burn dung or charcoal to make fires to cook, and they often do so inside, which is terrible for their health. The health piece here is most important; millions die from indoor air pollution annually

As is often the case (and as you can always expect from this newsletter), expanding access to clean cooking fuels has many layers of climate impact. ‘Not-clean’ cooking fuels translate into greenhouse gas emissions and bad planetary outcomes across several pathways, ranging from deforestation to source wood to combusting the wood or charcoal itself.

I could expound on other comparable luxuries we take for granted. ~ Approximately 750 million people globally (a sliver short of ~10% of all humans) lack consistent access to electricity. Most of us don’t understand how electricity works and take it for granted. Including me. If the power goes out for even two minutes in the developed world, it’s news.

I’m not here to make you feel bad. The perspective shift I’m after here portends good news.

First, we can take a moment to appreciate technology, like the grid and electricity, for what they are: absolute miracles. We often talk longingly about achieving light speed, while the speed of electrical signals in transmission lines is already often 50-99% the speed of light (electrons themselves move much more slowly). And yet no one bats an eye.

Secondly, we can be excited about progress the world is making to expand equity. To return to the question of clean cooking fuels for instance, companies like Acacia Innovations, Greenway, and many others are working hard to ameliorate this problem in Africa and India. And access to clean cooking fuel is expanding.

I like 'coming home' to cooking fuels once in a while because it isn’t just another example of access to electricity, because it isn’t just another chart of skyrocketing renewable energy deployment or EV sales. ‘Climate’ is about so much more than the power sector (and transportation).

How we make next Thanksgiving (and all future ones) better

If you’re reading this on a laptop or an iPhone, then you may well be using cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo (if you’re not reading this on an electronic device, then I’d love to know who printed this out and mailed it to you). It’s possible that the cobalt in your device came from an ‘industrial’ mine. These use more mechanized methods and are (a touch) more regulated. Or it came from an ‘artisanal mine,’ code for unregulated, involving child-labor, and often entailing fundamentally harrowing working conditions. ‘Artisanal’ mines account for 15-30% of cobalt produced in Congo (paywall), and the DRC accounts for ~70% of global production.

Again, I’m not here to flagellate you or myself. I’m typing this on a computer. What I’m attuning us to is that we have, in every moment, an opportunity to expand our awareness and appreciation. For more on that, I’ll tap in Robin Kimmerer and the below passage from her book, Braiding Sweetgrass.

… I notice that my eyes and my thoughts pass quickly over the plastic on my desk. I hardly give the computer a second glance... And yet I mean no disrespect for the diatoms and marine invertebrates who two hundred million years ago lived well and fell to the bottom of an ancient sea, where under great pressure of a shifting earth they became oil that was pumped from the ground to a refinery where it was broken down and then polymerized to make the case of my laptop…

Robin Kimmerer

Once we expand our awareness and appreciate and take stock of what we have (and how it works), we can make more conscientious decisions. With our wallets. With how we spend our time. At the ballot box, albeit somewhat less often. With how we work and live.

If you’re buying a new car next year, you have a choice. An EV is a better choice for the planet than an internal combustion engine, by a wide margin, even after taking into account things like cobalt mining or the steel that goes into the car’s chassis. All reputable lifecycle analyses corroborate this.

You can also buy an EV that has almost no cobalt in it. I’m not here to tell you whether that’s “better” across all possible parameters than an EV with a ‘traditional’ lithium-ion battery that will include cobalt. These things are complicated. If the global cobalt market collapsed tomorrow, that would still be bad for the Congolese; the government earns 46% of its revenue (paywall) from taxes on copper and cobalt mining companies. Buying a used hybrid rather than a new EV might be best if you’re going for the best possible environmental outcome. I don’t know the answer. 

Choices that, again, have nothing to do with the power sector and transportation, can be even higher leverage. If you feel called to individual action, consider eating less meat and composting. Think about reducing food waste. All I’m here to say is that the choice, all choices, do matter. In every moment, we can choose to make subtle shifts. Like a photosynthesizing plant that years for the sun, we too can angle ourselves a sliver of a degree more directly towards the warmth, into greater alignment with a better future.

Navigating what the best choices are is no small feat. That’s ultimately a big component of the work in this newsletter. I’m here to help. And you’re here to help, too. By keeping me honest. Sending me ideas. By letting me know what resonates. Plus, many of you are already deeply engaged in ‘climate’ work every day. Or you’re activists and policymakers. Or you’re conscientious consumers. I salute you. No matter what you do or don’t do, I trust you to find your own blade of grass in our global garden to tend to.

My view on Saturday when I spent some splendid time unplugging on the California coast

Hope that was some yummy food for thought in addition to all the food you’ll have for Thanksgiving!

Appreciate you,

– Nick