Is "Green Billionaire" an Oxymoron?

Image: Richard Branson. Could this guy be a Green Billionaire? D@LY3D via Flickr CC

When I wrote about Mark Zuckerberg's latest challenge to only eat animals he kills himself it got me thinking about the concept of green billionaires. We've written about how hard it is to be green when you're rich, what with all the yachts and private jets and everything. And we've also written about the billionaire Koch brother's 300 million ton annual carbon footprint.

It's easy to pick on billionaires (keep reading, I'll show you how, including grades!) but what I really want to know is if it's possible to be green when you have all that green.

The Contenders
A while ago the team over at Planet Green listed their top five billionaires saving the planet. I urge you to click over to check out the list, but here's their list with my glib analysis and completely subjective green grade.

Bill Gates - Until Gates can ensure me that his efforts to help feed Africa are devoid of corporate controlled GMOs he'll never be green to me. Grade: D. Some more human scale efforts to feeding Africa would

George Soros - Much has, rightly, been made of Soros's philanthropy, but I can't believe that someone who speculates for a living doesn't have some earth killing investments in his portfolio. Grade: B. Mostly because he gave oodles of cash to support Prop 19.

Jeff Skol - Ebay's Skoll helped back An Inconvenient Truth and he made his billions by creating a global marketplace for used goods. Grade: B. Always room for improvement though.

Ted Turner - Turner could be personally responsible for the surge in popularity of bison over cattle, he helped think up Captain Planet and he recently called for a level playing field for renewable energy. Plus, he predicts we'll all turn into cannibals if we don't get our act together on climate change. Grade: A. Turner just may be the greenest billionaire.

Richard Branson - Branson is one of those guys that talks a good talk, but he has his finger in so many pies he's tough to keep track of. Virgin Airlines consistently ranks as one of the greenest airlines, but, it's still an airline. Virgin Unite, his philanthropic arm, has a Carbon War Room that aims to "help speed and scale solutions that will deliver a low carbon economy", so that's something. Grade: B+. The B is for his green efforts and the + is because I like the cut of his jib.

An Alternate Look at Green Billionaires
The Planet Green list contains names that are familiar to most of us, but Forbes recently also published their list that includes some unfamiliar faces.

Christy Walton - Walton's name is the most familiar on the list to me, but her $4 billion stake in First Solar was news to me. I'm not convinced though, since the other 80%+ of her wealth comes from big box stores stocking cheaply manufactured, and mostly disposable consumer goods. Grade: C-. Hopefully her $4 billion investment will help spur a domestic solar industry.

Aloys Wobben - Wobben's billions come exclusively from Enercon, the German wind turbine manufacturing company he founded. Grade: B+. I'd give him higher marks, but I haven't verified if he has a taste for personal jets and black market caviar.

Zhu Gongshan - Chairman of publicly traded polysilicon maker GCL-Poly Energy. Polysilicon is a key ingredient for solar cell manufacture. We need more of it. Crank up production (responsibly) please. Grade: B.
Wang Chuanfu - Chairman of BYD, a battery maker that produces batteries for electric vehicles. Grade: C. Mike thinks they may be losing their focus on electric cars. Plus, cars, electric or not, are still a huge drain on planetary resources.

Rubens Ometto Silveira Mello - Mello has become Brazil's biggest biofuel baron. He's turned his family's sugar mills into a leading sugar processor including a deal with Shell to produce biofuel. Grade: C. The jury is still out on biofuels.

Han Junliang - Forbes calls Han China's first wind billionaire, he's the chair of Sinovel Wind Group. Grade C. Just barely a billionaire thanks to company's IPO.

Wu Jianlong - Wu chairs solar cell maker Zhejiang Sunflower Light Energy. Grade B+. Because I'm a fan of any developments in solar energy.

Adi Godrej - Godrej made the Forbes list because he developed the 1750 acre Soonabai Pirojsha Godrej Marine Ecology Center. Grade C. While the ecology center is comendable, Godrej's family fortune was made, much like Walton's, mostly through consumer goods which balances out the good in my books.

Wei Wenyuan - Like Hun Junliang above, Wei made his green billions through the IPO of Sinovel Wind. Grade: D Wei is the former chair of the Shanghai Stock Exchange and I have a funny suspicion that he, too, just got lucky with this IPO.

Vinod Khosla - Khosla likes spreading his money around and, while he's a billionaire, Forbes reports that he only has about $200 million in green worth. Grade B. I like Khosla's pluck. He has investments in solar, biofuels and other renewable energy companies. He's not hitching his wagon to any one solution yet.

What Would Make a Truly Green Billionaire?
I don't think there's a clear winner for the title of world's first green billionaire. There are some, like Turner, that bring a green ethic to whatever they are doing and there are others that have simply chanced upon the next hot sector, and green happens to be it. A truly visionary billionaire will emerge in a sector that fundamentally changes the game as far as energy is concerned, plus they'll have to walk the talk. No one has done that yet.

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