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Last week’s World Business Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen drew more than 500 executives from cleantech firms, utilities and some of the world’s largest corporations, as well as top envoys for the upcoming international climate talks to be held in the city this December. VantagePoint Venture Partners CEO and Managing Partner Alan Salzman joined the gathering as an “ambassador for Silicon Valley,” he told us in an interview after the event, and he came away with a generally positive outlook on how policy is shaping up.
Salzman said he saw it as his job at the summit to “bring a sense of optimism to the party” and put “mundane Silicon Valley activities front and center.” He explained that meant representing the innovation arm within the private energy sector for an audience that doesn’t necessarily think about the business community with the same degree of granularity — a big utility and small startup, he said, seemed to fall under the same big umbrella for many of his fellow summit-goers.
Salzman said he carried around an LED bulb and spoke about some of VantagePoint’s investments (the firm’s portfolio includes Tesla Motors, Adura Technologies, Better Place, BrightSource Energy and Miasole) to make the innovation sector and its potential to transform industries more tangible.
“If we say over the next 20 years that all vehicles are going electric, it can be a daunting-sounding undertaking,” Salzman said. According to Salzman, “That sounds like magic to someone at an intergovernmental agency in a part of the world that doesn’t have an innovation sector.”
Looking back on the transformation of communication that has taken place since the early 1990s, he said, transforming transportation “seems a lot easier.” Salzman offered Tesla as an example of how startups and entrepreneurs can help spur changes in a legacy industry. He said the company showed how “using off-the-shelf technology, you could make the electric car that auto companies said wasn’t possible.”
While the group at last week’s meeting agreed on six business-friendly steps for a global climate deal, Salzman noted two points of relative disharmony at the summit, both likely to come up again in Copenhagen. One is “the role of the private sector, let alone the entrepreneurial subset of the private sector,” in relation to government. A second hurdle for negotiators will come from the question of how to deploy cleantech innovations in developing economies, an issue that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said will make the Copenhagen talks the “IP battle of the year.”
Salzman wants to see a model similar to the one that took cell phones from a clunky luxury product to a near-ubiquitous communication tool. Technologies that could eventually help lower global greenhouse gas emissions, such as solar panels, Salzman argues, should be developed and initially deployed in economies that can afford to be early adopters, and later introduced in developing economies “when it makes sense,” after costs come down and performance goes up — rather than instituting a tax of some kind on wealthier countries to help others afford technologies while they’re still very costly.
Asked if he thought this strategy would reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to slow climate change at the pace scientists are now urging, Salzman said he thinks “there’s a strong case to be made for collaboration” among public and private sectors in different countries and regions to help deploy renewable energy and other technologies in developing economies before they become widely affordable. But he seemed to favor voluntary action here, rather than mandates.
A few days before the summit kicked off, we asked Salzman what message he wanted to deliver at the event as one of few venture capitalists leading discussions there. He told us that he wanted to draw a distinction between investing and spending, an idea he returned to when we spoke again after the meeting. It would be a mistake, Salzman said, to think of the “significant amounts of dollars flowing into these technologies” as expenses or taxes. They’re an investment, he said, and so governments and taxpayers should expect returns.