Exclusive interview with Bill Gates: «Let’s learn lessons from the pandemic to safeguard the climate».


Bill Gates co-founder of Microsoft emphasizes the importance of acting now to avoid an environmental disaster

<b>Exclusive interview with Bill Gates:</b> «Let’s learn lessons from the pandemic to safeguard the climate».
Our interview with Bill Gates: «Let’s learn the lessons of the pandemic to save the climate.»

Exclusive interview with Bill Gates: «Let’s learn lessons from the pandemic to safeguard the climate».

Our interview with Bill Gates: «Let’s learn the lessons of the pandemic to save the climate.»

Bill Gates admits he is «not an ideal messenger» about climate change owing to his high carbon footprint. Yet, the co-founder of Microsoft and the Gates Foundation has just released an important book on decarbonizing the economy and society.

It is an optimistic book, focused on technology solutions. It addresses the tools we already have, such as solar or wind power; new technologies to be developed, such as «clean» concrete and steel or long-term renewable energy storage systems; as well as the economic variable, which Gates considers essential and for which he introduces the concept of «Green Premium.» The core message, in simplifying terms, is that avoiding a planetary climate disaster will be difficult but achievable: there is a path to a clean and prosperous future for all, but it is a path on which we must set out as a matter of urgency.

Let’s start at the beginning. The title of the book, «Climate, How to Avoid a Disaster», predicts that we are heading for a climate disaster. What is the most important thing we can do to avoid it?

«Greenhouse gases that we pump into the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide (CO₂), stay there for thousands of years. Their accumulation is what raises the Earth’s temperature. By 2050, we must therefore bring the current 51 billion tons of gases we emit annually to zero».

To do that, he notes, we need green energy to become as cheap as fossil fuels, new clean materials to become competitive with current ones, and so on. In the book he calls it «eliminating the Green Premium». So what is the Green Premium?

«It’s the price difference between a current product that pollutes, or a fossil fuel, and equivalent clean products that don’t generate emissions, but usually cost more. Green Premium will vary depending on the source. On electric cars, for example, the research is underway and the market is growing, and we can expect that in the next 15 years the Green Premium, which is now about 15%, will have disappeared, that driving electric will cost the same as driving gasoline. But if we look at cement, where research has just started, the Green Premium is now 100%: a ton of cement - in the US - costs $125, decarbonized cement would cost twice that. The United States and the industrialized countries’ responsibility is therefore not only to reduce their emissions to zero, which is already difficult, but also, by innovating, to reduce the Green Premium drastically, by 95%, so that clean cement does not cost more than the cement we have today and that even, let’s say, India does not hesitate to adopt these clean materials and products. The same applies to steel and everything else».

Which conditions must be brought together for this to happen?

« Normally, innovation has its own pace. But here we have this 2050 deadline, so we have to accelerate innovation processes by increasing research and development budgets. What we need is brilliant minds. And we need capital that is prepared to take high risks over the long horizon. And, we need, and this is perhaps the hardest thing, markets for these clean products, even when they are more expensive, catalyzing the purchasing power of consumers, companies and governments.»

A lot of attention is currently directed toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030, to net zero by 2050. He notes in the book that this is risky thinking, that we should keep the focus on 2050. Why?

« If we focus on the short term, we can aim for a 50% reduction by, for instance, investing in gas-fired power plants. Which is one step forward, because they pollute less than coal-fired plants. But this has nothing to do with the path to zero, because the lifespan of those plants is longer than 30 years and those who finance them expect profits in the long term. And so, while obtaining a result in line with the 2030 target, such investments then make it impossible to reach the zero target in 2050.»

Many people think the climate issue primarily requires consuming less energy; you write that we need to consume more energy.

«On the one hand, the living conditions we take for granted - housing, food, electricity - should be available to all human beings. On the other, the planet’s population is growing. Both of these processes will require more energy overall than they do today. But we need to make sure it’s clean energy.»

If I attempt a somewhat outline summary of the book, it says that just eliminating the Green Premium would be enough to trigger the transition to a cleaner system. That the essential factors are cost and technological innovation. But climate change is a complex problem, with social, political, behavioral implications. Do we pay too much attention to technology and not enough to these other vitals?

«Well, we need all of these things. Without a deep commitment, particularly from the younger generation, to make this issue a top priority for the next 30 years, without that commitment, we’re not going to solve the problem. But I’m certainly not the one who can motivate them. My experience is in innovation ecosystems, where you have to combine massive investment in research and catalytic demand - that is, encourage consumers to favor electric cars, artificial meat or heat pumps to create demand for these products.»

Speaking of artificial meat: I know you like hamburgers. Have you tried a synthetic hamburger yet? How did you find it?

«Yes. I’ve also invested in the industry and the progress is faster than I would have expected. The quality is already pretty good and will continue to improve, and as volumes increase prices will come down. I have to admit that right now not all of the burgers I consume are artificial. Maybe 50 percent. But I’ll get there.»

On the artificial meat front you are therefore already at 2030. You have established an organization, Breakthrough Energy, to invest in clean technologies. One of the priority ones: green hydrogen. Why?

The first, if made with renewable energy, is called green hydrogen, and it’s clean; the second pollutes. If we could obtain green hydrogen at low cost - and I’m not sure it’s possible - it would become almost a magic ingredient for many processes, such as producing fertilizers without using natural gas, or producing steel without using coal».

The other priority: direct capture of CO2 by extracting it from the air.

In theory, if we could find a way to do this on a large scale, the emissions problem could be almost solved. But it’s an early-stage technology. You yourself describe it in the book as « a mere thought experiment,« but you are also one of the world’s leading investors in this field.

So what’s the potential? «There is a Swiss company, Climeworks, that for just over $600 a tonne captures CO₂ from the air. It is doing it on a small scale for now. I’m one of their clients; it’s part of offsetting my carbon footprint. There are other companies, like Carbon Engineering.

We are investing in this technology because direct capture will be needed for the last 10-15% of emissions that we can’t eliminate any other way. It means filtering the air, extracting the 410 parts per million of CO₂, compressing it, and storing it stably where it can stay for millions of years. It’s a new area, but it will become a necessary part of decarbonization.» On the topic of carbon offsets: it is a controversial and opaque approach. «But in the meantime, it’s finally being talked about. And any business that takes its GHG emissions seriously and pays to offset them is much better than a company that doesn’t. But we must better understand which offsets have long-term benefits, which ones really put carbon dioxide out of circulation for thousands of years.

Since you created the Gates Foundation, your primary concern has been public health. I read the annual letter you published in January with your wife Melinda about the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was struck by how what you wrote is also relevant to the climate crisis. What lessons from the pandemic can be applied to climate?

«The main lesson is that to avoid disastrous outcomes it is imperative that governments work together. In the case of the pandemic, we got it wrong; we were not forward-looking, even though I and some others warned about the risk. The U.S. did not play its usual leadership role but eventually we established global cooperation and private sector innovation created the vaccines. Climate, however, is a much more challenging problem for which there are no vaccines. To stop Greenhouse Gas emissions we have to change every cement plant, every steel plant, all mobility, things that have long lead times and require unprecedented political will and trillions of dollars of investment.»

To really change greenhouse gas emissions we need to change every cement plant, every steel plant, all mobility

I have to correct you on the private Innovation point because a lot of public money, tens of billions of dollars, went to fund vaccine research, to secure massive purchases. But that would be a whole other interview....

«Pfizer’s vaccine did not receive public funding.»

Yes, but only that. However, about our responsiveness: over half of the total greenhouse gas emissions since 1751 have been generated in the last 30 years. And we have known the effects for more than three decades. If we were able to mobilize resources and global collaborations against COVID, why can’t we do so against climate change?

« Every now and then I ask myself that too: are we serious or not? We are only now beginning to take the climate crisis seriously. We have lost a lot of time during which we should have been working on the most difficult parts of the issue. Now we will have to act not only to mitigate the damage, through the elimination of greenhouse gases, but also to adapt our systems, our infrastructures and those of the poorest countries».

In the book you state that «you are not an ideal messenger» for the climate. What changes have you made in your life and that of your family to decrease your carbon footprint?

«I drive an electric car. I put solar energy panels on houses. Of course I can’t say I’ve stopped consuming meat or flying anymore. But I invest about $7 million a year in clean products, thus paying a high Green Premium, for instance on aviation biofuels, thus helping, through accelerating demand, to lower their cost.»

The last chapter of the book talks about what we, individual citizens, can do against climate change. Give us a couple of examples.

«I believe first of all that we should all commit to learning more about the climate crisis, industrial economics, etc., in order to make informed decisions. Then there’s our role as consumers: by buying clean products, we not only avoid emissions, but we also send a signal to the market that there is a demand for these products. At work, we can insist that our company measure its carbon footprint and do everything to limit or eliminate it.»

To conclude: let’s envision a world thirty years from now where we will have done everything you describe in the book and whatever else is necessary. What would daily life be like?

«Daily life will be very similar to what it is today, houses, cars, lights, but all without carbon pollution. I think we would all be very proud of the fact that all of humanity has come together to bring about this radical transformation. It would be something unprecedented. Even the great movements during the world wars, where we orchestrated a lot of resources, only lasted a few years. Here we’re talking about three decades of hard work, tough decisions and persistence to prevent future impacts, and then acting in the interest of the next generation. Yes, I think that would be a source of great pride.»

For reasons of limited space, the interview has been summarized and adapted. Video version (48 minutes, in English): go.ted.com/billgates21

Where do the emissions come from?

Each year, we globally emit about 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The emissions of advanced economies, such as the United States and Europe, have remained fairly constant over the past 30 years or even declined, but those of many emerging countries are growing. Part of the reason for this is that richer countries have often outsourced high-emission production to poorer countries.

There are roughly one billion cars on the world’s roads today. Nearly half of that 16% of emissions from mobility and transportation come from passenger vehicles.

Some human activities that create greenhouse gas emissions get a lot of attention, such as power generation and automobiles. To bring emissions to zero, they must be eliminated in all sectors.

Today, two-thirds of all electricity generated in the world is derived from fossil fuels.

While we already have a number of low-emission, cost-competitive solutions today, we don’t yet have all the technologies needed to bring emissions to zero globally. In his book (from which are taken all the figures and information in this article) Bill Gates indicates among those to be developed or accelerated: hydrogen produced without emitting CO2, large-scale and durable electricity storage, advanced biofuels and electro-fuels, zero-emission cement and steel, plant-based and in-vitro dairy and meat, zero-emission fertilizers, next-generation nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, CO2 capture, underground electricity transmission, zero-impact plastics, geothermal energy, hydroelectric pumping, thermal storage, drought- and flood-resistant crops, zero-impact alternatives to palm oil, and refrigerants that do not contain fluorine.

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