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Top 10 Climate Capitalists of the 21st Century

By Boyd Cohen

By Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., Co-Author, Climate Capitalism

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It is hard to believe, but about two years after I first suggested the crazy idea to Hunter Lovins that we co-write a sequel to the global bestseller Natural Capitalism, our book, Climate Capitalism, is finally going to be available in printed form today, April 12th, 2011.  The premise of the book, if not obvious, is that regardless of your political views or your perspective on climate change (die-hard climate activist or climate skeptic), making the transition to the low carbon economy across all key sectors such as energy, buildings, transportation and agriculture, is just good business.

In honor of the launch of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change, I would like to honor my personal top 10 Climate Capitalists (in alphabetical order) from around the globe.  The majority of these individuals were highlighted in the book.  Some are billionaires and at least one is an activist but all of these individuals aim to revolutionize industries and truly move the needle on climate change while profiting and growing our global economy.

Drum roll please....

1.) Shai Agassi (Israel): Shai Agassi took the question posed at the World Economic Forum in 2005 to heart.  “How do you make the world a better place by 2020.” A few years later and Shai Agassi has turned his vision for electrifying the transporation system worldwide to a $1 billion reality with his company, aptly named Better Place. Shai has been named a top visionary by just about everyone for the transformational impact Better Place is having, including Time Magazine, Fast Company and Scientific American.


2.) Ray Anderson (U.S.) The Founder and current Chairman of Interface, Ray Anderson is one of the most outspoken executives of Fortune 500 companies who has led not only his own company, but influenced perhaps thousands more, to embrace a lower impact, high profit path.  Ray has led his company to embrace, Mission Zero, to have a zero net impact on the environment by 2020. He also authored Mid-Course Correction and was named a Hero of the Environment by Time Magazine in 2007. (Disclosure: Ray Anderson also wrote some kind words about our book, Climate Capitalism but his selection to this top 10 list is well-founded).

3.) Richard Branson (UK) While he may be more well known for his mainstream business ventures under the Virgin name and his adventurous ways, Richard Branson is a billionaire who recognizes that the transition to a low carbon future is a must, not just for the planet but for our global economy too.  Virgin Airlines were among the first to test biofuels in its aircraft.  Also, he is the visionary behind the formation of the Carbon War Room, a highly impactful think tank and implementation group dedicated to “Harnessing the power of entrepreneurs to implement market-driven solutions to climate change.”

4.) Christiana Figueres (Costa Rica). Ms. Figueres is a long-standing advocate for global action on climate change and is one of the most powerful people (male or female) in the transition to the low carbon economy as the current Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework for Climate Change.  Ms. Figueres has the unenviable task of trying to gain some sort of unanimity for a post-2012 Kyoto Framework.  She will be instrumental in ensuring some form of consistency (with hopefully some major improvements) to the current Clean Development Mechanism and also moving forward on global support for forestry projects and funding for climate change adaptation.

5.) Norman Foster (UK). Founder of Foster + Partners architectural firm (1967) his company has been behind some impressive green building projects.  But nothing compares with what his team is doing with Masdar City  (Masdar) in Abu Dabhi.  Yes, the same place that is home to about 8% of the world’s crude oil reserves, will also be home to one of the most sustainable cities in the world, thanks in large part to Foster + Partners. Masdar City aspires “to be one of the most sustainable cities in the world… that places its resident companies in the heart of the global renewable energy and cleantech industry. Situated 17km from downtown Abu Dhabi, Masdar City is a high-density, pedestrian-friendly development where current and future renewable energy and clean technologies are showcased, marketed, researched, developed, tested and implemented.”

6.) Al Gore (US) OK, I know this is probably the most controversial selection on the list.  Many conservative commentators have argued that Al Gore has perpetuated the “hysteria” about climate change specifically to gain financially from investments in low-carbon technologies through Generation Investment Management.  While of course many in the climate movement credit former VP Al Gore with bringing climate change awareness to the masses, particularly through his work with Inconvenient Truth. The Nobel Peace prize-winning controversial figure is definitely going to profit from the transition to the low-carbon economy. So the way I see it, even if you side with the climate skeptics, Al Gore belongs on this list.

7.) Van Jones (US). Also a controversial selection, Van Jones was once part of Obama’s administration until conservative critics succeeded in forcing his ouster.  However, Van Jones, recently selected among the top 15 Civil Rights leaders of the 21st century, has been instrumental in driving the message that green and low carbon can equal economic growth and jobs growth.  Van Jones has founded three influential NGOs including Green for All which is “building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.” Van Jones is a dynamic leader and is still young. I expect much more to come from him in the future.

8.) Vinod Khosla (India). A co-founder of Sun Microsystems, Mr. Khosla has made his name as one of the most prescient thought-leaders and investors in the clean technology space in Silicon Valley.  In 2009, Khosla Ventures announced the raising of more than $1 billion in funds for clean tech investments. Khosla must be doing something right, he has attracted investments from Bill Gates and in 2010 was able to convince Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to join Khosla as an advisor on clean tech investments.

9.) Jaime Lerner (Brazil). Like Norman Foster, Jaime Lerner’s background is in architecture and urban planning. However, he has made his biggest mark on the world as a politician.  He was Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil for much of the 1970’s and 1980’s before becoming Governor of Parana, Brazil from 1995-2002. As Mayor of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner introduced revolutionary innovations that were pioneering not just in Brazil about around the globe. He is widely credited with being the father of the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS), an innovative blend of the speed and convenience of subway train systems with the costs of bus systems.  Since he designed the system for Curitiba, BRTS has now been introduced in more than 83 locations around the world from Colombia to Canada and even China.

10.) Shi Zhengrong (China). Despite the environmental impacts of China’s continuous growth, China is also emerging as a climate capitalism leader.  Leading the charge for China is the wealthiest energy tycoon in China, and the world’s first solar billionaire, Shi Zhengrong.  Zhengrong is credited with driving the solar technology revolution in China through his pioneering efforts as the head of Suntech Power. Like Ray Anderson, Mr. Zhengrong was credited as a Time Magazine Hero for the Environment in 2007.  We can only hope there are a lot more where he came from in the Middle Kingdom.

Climate Capitalism is alive and well around the world.  What this list shows is that profitable innovation towards a low-carbon economy is coming from all corners of the globe and from all sectors of the economy from mayors to entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 executives.  While I am confident these are remarkable individuals worthy of being on this list, there are many more climate capitalists not on the list.  In the comment section please add your top selections.


Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of the forthcoming book, Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter hashtag #climatcaptlsm

Twitter: boydcohen


Boyd Cohen is the CEO of CO2 IMPACT, a carbon origination company based in Vancouver, Canada and Bogota, Colombia. Boyd is also the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

Twitter: boydcohen

Read more stories by Boyd Cohen