Bill Gates: Climate change calls for 'innovation by a deadline'

Photo by: Dan G / CC BY

To save the planet from the worst effects of climate change, the world needs to accelerate innovation before it’s too late, according to Bill Gates, the billionaire co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“It’s very novel for the world to need innovation by a deadline,” he said Wednesday in a virtual conversation about his new book, “How To Avoid a Climate Disaster,” in which he outlines ways to dramatically reduce the 51 billions tons of greenhouse gases that people add to the atmosphere each year. “And yet now, by 2050, if we don’t get to zero, the temperature rise will be so damaging that life will actually get worse for humans and most of the natural ecosystems.”

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in November will be a critical moment to highlight innovations for a net-zero figure, Gates told Alok Sharma, president of COP26. They discussed the roles that philanthropists, investors, and governments can play in accelerating the innovation pipeline, from early stage research to the mass deployment of affordable, green, and reliable technologies.

“If your goal is zero [emissions], you don’t get to skip anything.”

— Bill Gates, co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The conversation was part of Gates’ virtual book tour, which has generated debate over whether his focus on more technical solutions to reduce carbon emissions overlooks some of the more complicated interventions that will be necessary to slow the pace of climate change.

The Gates Foundation is primarily known for its work on global health. Its limited work on climate is focused on climate change adaptation through its agriculture portfolio. But in recent years, Gates has become increasingly interested in combating climate change. Outside of his foundation, he has made climate-related investments both personally and through Breakthrough Energy, an organization he launched to support technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

At COP21 in Paris in 2015, Gates announced Mission Innovation, an initiative to get countries to double their investments in research and development for clean energy, alongside the presidents of the United States, France, and India.

Now, as governments spend trillions on COVID-19 recovery, they have an opportunity to “bootstrap projects to take on harder sources of emissions,” Gates said Wednesday.

Gates said COP26, which is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland, will present an opportunity for governments to identify ways to drive down what he calls the “green premium,” or the added cost of clean technologies.

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“The responsibility of the U.S. and the U.K. is not just to drive their emissions to zero,” he said. “Their responsibility is to make it easy for all countries to get to zero. So that’s why that reduction in green premium is the best long-term metric.”

Gates said manufacturing accounts for 31% of all greenhouse gas emissions, highlighting the urgency of decarbonizing cement and steel.

“In a way, we’ve put most of our efforts into the easier things, like passenger cars and renewable energy sources,” he said. “We also need to get going on the hard stuff, because if your goal is zero, you don’t get to skip anything.”

Gates presented two scenarios for how conversations between donor countries and India might go in 2050, depending on what happens to the green premium of clean cement and steel.

“When we talk with India in 2050, and we say, ‘Please use green cement and green steel,’ will they say, ‘Hey, send us the trillions we’d need to subsidize that’? Or will they say, ‘Okay, it’s so modestly, only slightly more expensive that even with very little help externally, we agree to help the world’?” he said.

As technologies move through the innovation pipeline, from research and development, to validation and early deployment, to large-scale deployment, the key is to bring the green premium down dramatically, Gates said.

“Without the government driving this, it’s just not going to happen. Philanthropists can be helpful. They can drive some of the advocacy. But in the end, it’s too big of a problem,” he said. “So that’s why events like COP26 are so incredibly important.”

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.