How Bill Gates thinks about climate change, innovation, and the SDGs

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. Photo by: Sikarin Thanachaiary / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

SAN FRANCISCO — Bill Gates describes himself as an impatient optimist, and his belief in the power of innovation extends to climate change, where he sees progress to report.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is not currently counted among the world’s leading climate change funders. When 29 philanthropists came together to commit $4 billion to climate change mitigation over the next five years during the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco last week, the Gates Foundation was not among them. But Bill Gates, the billionaire co-chair of the largest foundation in the world, is in the midst of doubling his own investments in renewable energy projects.

Innovation will be key to confronting climate change, helping those affected by it, and meeting the growing demand for energy, Gates believes. On a conference call with reporters last week, in response to a question from Devex, Gates elaborated on his views about how climate change will challenge the Sustainable Development Goals, and what he and the foundation plan to do about it.

“The foundation is very directly involved in all the things that are going to minimize the impact of the changed weather,” he said.

The majority of the suffering caused by a changing climate will be felt by smallholder farmers, who often “don't have enough savings or buffer stock to make it through a bad year without being in a situation where they don't have enough to eat,” Gates said. The consequences are hunger and malnutrition.

“What we have to do is help these farmers with farming techniques and new seeds — seeds that deal with drought better, that deal with flooding better, that are just basically more productive,” he said. “And so, in the years where the weather is reasonable, your output is dramatically higher.”

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The Gates Foundation’s agricultural development strategy focuses on improving crops, protecting crops, and providing farmers with more advanced ways to manage crops in a changing climate.

“Some of those new seeds will use advanced science that people call GMO [genetically modified organisms] to get that doubling in productivity and deal with drought and avoid the starvation,” he said.

The weather is going to get worse, Gates acknowledged.

“We’ve already locked in a certain degree of warming that will increase every year over the next 50 years, even in the best case, because of the way there are lags in the system,” he said.

As the Gates Foundation has worked through its agricultural programs on climate change adaptation, Gates has become personally involved in emissions-free energy, which he says will be critical to climate change mitigation.

Companies and governments have a role to play in dramatically reducing the use of hydrocarbons in the economy in order to reduce greenhouse gases, Gates said. The private sector can provide new solutions for generating energy or making industrial materials, he explained.

Countries whose “transport and industry and agriculture and electricity sectors are generating virtually all of these greenhouse gas emissions” also need to make policy changes, while funding more basic research and development, Gates added.

He referred to Mission Innovation, an effort launched by 20 countries at the Paris Climate Summit two years ago, in which they committed to doubling their spending on energy-related research and development by 2020, as well as Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a parallel effort to bring private capital to early-stage clean energy innovations.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures has raised over $1 billion and has made its first 10 investments “in innovators that will change the emissions levels as their products are scaled up,” Gates said. Examples include energy storage startups.

The key, Gates said, it to unlock the risk capital that is needed to “take the ideas out of the laboratory and be patient and build them into successful companies.”

NCDs. Climate change. Financing. Read more of Devex's coverage from the 73rd U.N. General Assembly here.

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.