Will Solving Climate Change Make Elon Musk The World’s First Trillionaire?

FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020 file photo, SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer media award, in Berlin, Germany. Technology mogul Elon Musk has a lined up a new gig in addition to his jobs as CEO of electric car maker Tesla and spaceship maker SpaceX. He is going to host the iconic TV show “Saturday Night Live " on May 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Britta Pedersen, Pool, File)

You may never have heard of Mukesh Ambani. He’s the wealthiest person in Asia with a net worth just shy of $100B. He is also currently number eleven on the Forbes Real-Time Billionaires List. Ambani’s net worth jumped $3.7B recently just on the announcement that his company will “aggressively” pursue the production of cheap green hydrogen.

You have likely heard of Elon Musk. Musk’s net worth hovers closer to $200B, and he and Jeff Bezos are neck and neck for the top spot on the Forbes list. Elon Musk’s fortune is primarily due to the market value of Tesla, which as of this writing is approximately $750B.



Musk and Ambani are high on my shortlist of people who might become the world’s first trillionaire. That’s because the common thread between Musk’s fortune and Ambani’s recent multibillion-dollar jump in wealth is climate change. Or, more precisely, the prospect that their future ventures will significantly slow climate change and mitigate its worse effects.

Tesla, for instance, is worth more than most of the rest of the automotive industry combined—even though its market share in 2020 was only about 1% of global new car sales. That’s because market values are a bet on future growth, and investors believe the need to address climate change will drive the wholesale replacement of gas-burning vehicles with electric vehicles (EVs). This will drive massive growth for Tesla.

However, EVs are just a small part of the massive economic transition necessary to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Globally, we emit about 50 billion tons of carbon each year. Transportation is only responsible for about 16% of those emissions. What’s more, cars and trucks are only responsible for nearly half (or 8%) of transportation-related emissions. If Tesla sells enough cars to reduce a significant part of that 8%, Musk’s worth will shoot well past the trillion-dollar mark.

The other 92% of carbon emissions that still needs to be reduced provides ample opportunity for Ambani and other climate innovators to develop and deliver other breakthrough products needed to save the planet. It’s like selling umbrellas when it’s raining, but with an astronomical worldwide addressable market.

Ambani’s emphasis on green hydrogen is a bet that Tesla’s batteries-based approach won’t work for a wide range of fossil-fueled-powered heavy industrial processes like cement and steel making and transport applications like trucking, ocean shipping and planes. Investors seem to agree there will be a massive market for cheap, carbon-zero, renewable hydrogen fuel.



There’s ample opportunity for other climate heroes to emerge and beat both Musk and Ambani to the $1 trillion milestone, too. As I will lay out in future articles, huge clusters of carbon emissions require breakthrough solutions, and whoever delivers those solutions at scale will be rewarded handsomely.

Here’s a shortlist of areas of greatest potential, drawn from my book, “A Brief History of a Perfect Future,” coauthored with Paul B. Carroll and Tim Andrews.

Energy Breakthroughs

  • Pumped hydro (water is pumped uphill to a reservoir when energy is available, then released downhill to a lower reservoir through a hydroelectric generator, when power is needed)
  • Thermal storage (a substance is heated when energy is available, then the heat is used to produce electricity whenever it’s needed)
  • Alternative fuels, including biofuels and hydrogen produced without emitting carbon
  • Grid-scale electricity storage that can last a full season
  • Geothermal energy
  • Safe, modular nuclear fission
  • Nuclear fusion

Carbon Emission Breakthroughs

  • Zero-carbon cement
  • Zero-carbon steel
  • Zero-carbon plastics
  • Plant and cell-based meat and dairy
  • Zero-carbon fertilizer
  • Coolants that don’t contain F-gases
  • Carbon capture

Take cement and steel, for example, which together account for 13% of annual global carbon emissions. The chemical processes involved in making cement and steel emit carbon dioxide that has nothing to do with fossil fuels. Globally, we currently make about four billion tons of cement each year, and the chemical reaction for each ton of cement releases a ton of carbon dioxide. We make about 1.8 billion tons of steel each year, and every ton results in 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide. Those emissions are on top of the tons produced by the fossil fuels burned to melt the needed limestone and iron ore. Cost effective products that reduce or capture these emissions would command a vast market.

Cows account for another 4% of global carbon emissions in the form of methane through what scientists call eructation and flatulence, or what our kids refer to as burping and farting. They also contribute about half of the nitrous oxide released into the atmosphere as their feces decompose. Electrification offers no simple solutions for any of these agricultural emissions, though other innovations hold promise. Pilot projects putting additives derived from seaweed in cows’ feed have reduced their methane output by 50-90%. Scientists are studying ways to reduce methane production through genomics and selective breeding. The many companies now developing artificial meat could also greatly reduce the size of cattle herds—and make a ton of money.



Given the Laws of Zero that are rapidly advancing science and technology capabilities (which I discussed in previous articles), the urgency to address climate change and the allure of new wealth, the next several decades will be a golden age for bettering billions of lives through innovative climate solutions—and reaping trillions in wealth in the process.

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