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Feb. 18, 2021, 12:15 p.m. EST

Bill Gates explains why he’s optimistic about preventing catastrophic climate change, even as he warns we have ‘no time to waste’

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By Connie Hedegaard, and Bill Gates

Project Syndicate — This month Bill Gates published his new book, “ .” 

Connie Hedegaard: Let me start with a confession: For years, I thought you were not particularly interested in climate change. I vividly recall a closed session at Davos some years back. The discussion turned to climate, instead of other sustainability issues, and you left the room. 

Rachel Koning Beals reviews the book: Can Bill Gates — ‘another rich guy with an opinion’ — move the needle on climate change?

Now you powerfully and emphatically make the case for urgent climate action. You start your book by describing this journey. At first, it was “hard to accept that as long as humans kept emitting any amount of greenhouse gases, temperatures would keep going up.” It was only after returning to a group of climate scientists “several times with follow-up questions” that it eventually “sank in.” To what do you attribute your initial resistance, and how might your experience be applied to getting others on board?

Bill Gates: The world is in a very different place today than when I started studying climate change. We know more and have established more of a consensus about the problem. But it’s still hard for many people to accept that only reducing emissions, without getting on a path to zero, isn’t enough. It’s also hard to accept how much innovation it will take to get to zero—to fundamentally remake the energy industry, the largest business in the world. In the book, I make the case that persuaded me, and I hope it persuades others. I’d urge climate advocates to keep making the case for zero and for reducing emissions in a way that puts us on that path.

CH: From your bathtub analogy to your fish allegory, you dedicate significant attention to making abstract concepts or complex data more concrete and accessible. Do you think this approach is the key to finally shifting the mind-set of those who, despite all the science and data, still seem to believe that we can just continue with business as usual? Have similar approaches helped you in your work pushing the technological frontier at Microsoft or advancing global health and development at the Gates Foundation?

BG: Although the book isn’t aimed specifically at climate-change skeptics, I certainly hope it will persuade them that we need to invest seriously in clean energy. The countries that do the most to nurture innovation in this field will be home to the next generation of breakthrough companies—along with all the jobs and economic activity that accompany them. That’s why these investments are the smart thing to do, even if you don’t buy the ironclad case that humans are causing changes in the climate that will have catastrophic consequences if left unchecked. 

CH: The COVID-19 pandemic not only highlighted the costs of ignoring science, but also proved that rapid, large-scale behavioral change is possible, and showed that leaders who take responsibility for addressing problems can gain respect. But, as you point out, it also carried another crucial lesson: the relatively small (10%) reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions that global lockdowns produced showed that behavioral changes like flying or driving less are nowhere near enough. Are there other lessons we learned during the pandemic that apply to climate change? How can we best apply them to climate action?

BG: One lesson is the flip side of the idea that flying or driving less isn’t enough: We need a massive amount of innovation so that people can fly, drive, and otherwise participate in the modern economy without causing emissions. This is actually an even tougher challenge than making and distributing COVID-19 vaccines (which is the biggest public-health campaign ever). 

But it will take the same close cooperation among governments at all levels, and with the private sector as well. And just as we all have to do our parts by wearing masks and distancing, individuals also need to play a role in reducing emissions. They can advocate for policies that accelerate the transition to zero, and they can reduce the Green Premium by buying low- and zero-carbon products like electric cars and plant-based burgers. That will attract more competition in those areas and ultimately make it cheaper to go green.

CH: Like ending the pandemic, you argue, addressing climate change hinges largely on science and innovation. Overall, you are “optimistic that we can invent [the tools we need], deploy them, and, if we act fast enough, avoid a climate catastrophe.” What experiences or lessons instilled this belief in you?

BG: I’ve seen firsthand how investments in R&D can change the world. Research sponsored by the U.S. government and American companies made microprocessors and the internet possible, which unleashed a phenomenal amount of entrepreneurial energy to create the personal computer industry. Likewise, the U.S. government’s effort to map the human genome led to breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer and other deadly diseases.

As for getting to zero, I’m seeing amazing work myself. Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the private fund I built with a number of partners, has invested in more than two dozen companies that are working on low- and zero-carbon ways to make cement and steel, generate and store large amounts of clean electricity, grow plants and animals, transport people and goods around the world, and heat and cool our buildings. Many of these ideas won’t pan out. But the ones that do could change the world.

CH: As you note, however, “innovation is not just a matter of developing new devices. It’s also a matter of developing new policies so we can demonstrate and deploy those inventions in the market as fast as possible.” The European Union (and now also China) has started to engage in such policy innovation. 

In an effort to correct a flawed incentive structure that fails to take into account what you call “Green Premiums,” many European countries have introduced mechanisms for taxing CO emissions, resource waste, and pollution. Are such policies shifting the incentive structure in a meaningful way? Would a carbon border-adjustment mechanism help to drive progress?

BG: Putting a price on carbon is one policy that will make a difference, as part of an overall approach where the goal is to increase both the supply of and the demand for clean-energy breakthroughs. I mention a wide range of other ideas in the book. For example, one thing governments can do to expand the supply of innovation is to expand funding for clean-energy R&D dramatically. (I recommend a fivefold increase.) On the demand side, in addition to a carbon price, it is things like standards for how much electricity or fuel must come from zero-carbon sources.

We need innovation in policy just as much as in technology. We have seen policy and technology come together to solve big problems before. As I document in the book, air pollution is a great example; the Clean Air Act did a very good job of getting poisonous gases out of the air. Other incredibly effective policy solutions in the U.S. include rural electrification, expanding energy security, and sparking economic recovery after the Great Recession of 2008. Now we need to turn the world’s policy and technology IQ to eliminating emissions. My team at Breakthrough Energy, the network of initiatives I founded to accelerate the clean energy transition, is working hard to develop and advocate for bold policies that achieve the world’s climate goals.

CH: Governments, you point out, have often attempted to use rules adopted to solve other problems to reduce emissions—an approach akin to trying to “create artificial intelligence using a 1960s mainframe computer.” 

But introducing major new legislation is difficult, not least because the incumbent producers resist higher standards and other costly changes. As someone who has been on the “regulated” side of the regulatory equation, what solutions or insights do you see for resolving the problem of lagging policies?

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