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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

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BG: We need government action to solve this problem—we are talking about transitioning the world’s entire energy system at an unprecedented speed. Private-sector investments alone won’t be successful unless we have the market conditions that reward innovation and allow clean technologies to compete, and we need government to help create that environment. So, we need government action, and it needs to be targeted, robust, and predictable. 

This is also why I talk about innovation not just in technology, but in policy and markets too. We need policy makers to think creatively about the right ways to spur clean energy innovation, level the playing field, and accelerate the energy transition. My team at Breakthrough Energy is working with leaders across government to develop and advocate for the policies we need to get to net-zero emissions.

CH: Beyond policy, you suggest that governments must be bolder when investing in climate-related research and development. What role should universities play here, both in terms of research and transmitting the knowledge needed to shape policies?

BG: Universities provide an environment that fosters ideas and they develop clean technologies. The science, research, and engineering at the world’s universities are among the most important factors in helping us achieve net-zero emissions. Of course, discoveries need to move out of the university setting, to inform new policies and shape the marketplace. Some academic institutions are making concerted efforts to help their professors communicate more effectively, make their research more relevant to policy makers, and propel their technological discoveries into companies and markets. These pieces are crucial to avoid a climate disaster.

CH: You emphasize that the moral case for climate action is just as strong as the economic case, because climate change disproportionately harms the world’s poorest. But climate action also has distributional implications. As you acknowledge, even the very low Green Premium for decarbonizing America’s entire electricity system might not be affordable for low-income households, and developing countries are in a far weaker position to bring about such a transformation at all. How can these challenges be overcome? Does your work deploying other technologies in lower-income settings hold relevant lessons?

BG: This is a hugely important topic. Low- and middle-income countries are going to be using more energy in the coming decades as they rise out of poverty. We should all want that energy to be clean—but they’ll only commit to using clean energy if it’s as cheap as fossil fuels are today.

So, if you’re a leader in a rich country, you should be asking yourself what your government or company is doing to make it affordable for the entire world—including middle-income and eventually low-income countries—to go green. The expanded investment in R&D and other policies need to be aimed at this goal. Many of the companies I’m investing in are working on ideas that would be affordable in lower-income countries.

Also read: Bill Gates roasted for saying rich countries should eat ‘100% synthetic beef’

CH: You are among a number of business leaders who now publicly recognize government’s critical role in any massive undertaking. Even among such undertakings, climate change stands out. Will meeting the challenge require a greater role for the public sector—in general or in a particular area—than even the most pro-government voices are used to?

BG: The transition to clean energy will have to be driven by both governments and the private sector working together—just as the personal computer revolution was.

It will mean a greater role for government, but only because that role has been relatively small so far. Take the fivefold increase in public-sector R&D we discussed earlier. That increase would put clean-energy research on par with health research in the U.S. And just as we have the National Institutes of Health to oversee and coordinate that work, we should create the National Institutes of Energy Innovation (NIEI) to avoid duplication and make the best use of these resources. An Institute of Transportation Decarbonization would be responsible for work on low-carbon fuels. Other institutes would have similar responsibilities and authority for research on energy storage, renewables, and so on.

The NIEI would also be responsible for coordinating with the private sector. The goal would be to have research coming out of national labs that leads to breakthrough products that get to market at a very large scale. We need policies that speed up the entire innovation pipeline, from early research to mass deployment.

CH: At one point in the book, you write that, “Beyond finding ways to make materials with zero emissions, we can simply use less stuff.” Some would argue that capitalism depends on consumption—the more, the better. Does a true solution to the climate crisis depend on a new vision of capitalism for the 21st century? Could, say, a new, more qualitative understanding of “growth” form the foundation of such a system?

BG: I do think people in the rich world can and should cut back some on their emissions. (As I mention in the book, I’m taking a number of steps to reduce and offset my own emissions.) But energy use is going to double world-wide by 2050, driven by significant growth in low- and middle-income countries. That growth is good in the sense that it means people are living healthier, more productive lives. But we need to do it in a way that doesn’t make the climate problem harder to solve. That’s why we need innovation that makes it cheap enough for everyone around the world to eliminate emissions.

CH: You write that your “book is about what it will take to [avoid a climate catastrophe] and why I think we can do it.” Hand on heart: Do you believe we will get our act together in time?

BG: Yes. As I write at the end of the book, I’m fundamentally an optimist because I’ve seen what technology can do, and I’ve seen what people can do. What we need to do is spend the next decade getting the right policy, technology, and market structures in place so most of the world can be at zero emissions by 2050. We don’t have any time to waste.

Bill Gates, founder and technology adviser of the Microsoft Corp., is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Connie Hedegaard served as European commissioner for climate action (2010-14), and as Denmark’s minister for the environment (2004-07) and minister for climate and energy (2007-09).

This interview was published with permission of Project Syndicate—No Time to Waste.

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