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Shawn Liu, Legal Director at Breakthrough Energy

Shawn Liu, Legal Director at Breakthrough Energy

December 11, 2023

How do you view the role of legal professionals in addressing climate change? To all legal professionals interested in addressing climate change: You are needed and it's a huge opportunity. From a big picture perspective, the effort to combat climate change involves developing innovations, scaling them to commercial scale with private/public capital, enabling government policies, and customers willing to take a leap on the new (and sometimes unproven). Smart and strategic lawyers and JD-trained professionals are critical to each of these huge areas.

What motivated you to work in this sector, and how do you see the company's mission aligning with your personal goals? I started thinking a lot about climate in September 2020 when my oldest (then only) son was 2 and California had crazy wildfires that created Ray Bradbury-esque hellscapes at 9 AM. That was jarring and a real a-ha moment where the abstract and theoretical became the reality for the foreseeable future. It made me think a lot about what the world and life would be like when my kids were my age and that made me want to spend my work time on climate and trying to do something to make that future better.

My company's mission--to discover, develop, and deploy the technologies and enabling government policies necessary to create a carbon pollution-free world by 2050--aligns perfectly with my goals. The problem is so vast and complicated that I've experienced equal parts despair and hope, but the one thing I don't have is regret about how I spend my work energies.

Could you share some examples of innovative legal strategies or approaches your company has taken to advance green technologies? Breakthrough Energy is a network of (for profit, non profit, and political action) entities that funds R&D research, early-stage startups, late-stage commercial demonstrations (i.e. 9 and 10-figure factories), and policy advocacy and lobbying. This full-spectrum toolkit paired with an end-to-end vision for change and the platform of our founder, Bill Gates, is our organizational superpower. It is a luxury to have policy experts, technologists, and funders all under the same room and often, on one thread.

Are there any emerging trends or innovative legal approaches you find particularly promising in the fight against climate change? Four words: Section 45 tax credits. It sounds unsexy but I think it is quite sexy because this is a marketplace (with a huge boost provided by recent legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act) that will grow to $80-100 Billion per year (!) within the next 5 years. It's a huge business area and many smart lawyers are needed in all aspects of building it.

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