Climate tech’s Netscape moment

Billions are pouring into the business of decarbonisation

Wall Street giants and corporate titans are betting on climate innovation

“NERDS WILL invent the future,” declared Vinod Khosla in 2010. The venture capitalist was not talking about the sorts responsible for e-commerce sites, games apps or social-media platforms. Rather, his speech at the California Institute of Technology was intended to inspire brilliant engineers and scientists to pursue climate-related innovation. The “clean tech” investment bubble had just popped, so it seemed an unsexy career option. But if top talent took on the hard engineering challenges involved, he argued, commercial successes and rising public awareness would produce a “Netscape-like” moment, referring to the web browser that ushered in the consumer internet in the mid-1990s. “Ten years from now,” he predicted, “the level of invention will explode.”

The billionaire investor, who has since backed Impossible Foods (which makes low-carbon alternative protein and is valued at $10bn) and QuantumScape (which develops batteries and last year raised $680m via a special-purpose acquisition company or SPAC), got the timing about right. The International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental group, calculates that new patents related to core technologies like batteries, hydrogen, smart grids and carbon capture are far outpacing those in other technologies, including fossil fuels.

Money has followed innovation. BloombergNEF, a research firm, reckons that last year investors poured more than $500bn into the “energy transition” (shorthand for decarbonising…