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Bill Gates: Climate challenge is formidable but solvable

Feb 28, 2021
Precourt Institute

By Kate Gibson

If you think solving the problem of climate change will be easy, you’re wrong. If you think it will be impossible, you’re also wrong.

The climate crisis is the hardest thing humanity has faced, but it is something that we can and should address. This was Bill Gates’ message at a recent Stanford University Global Energy Dialogues session. In a wide-ranging discussion, Gates talked about his recently published book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We NeedHe stressed the importance of innovation to decarbonize all parts of the global economy. He also talked about the role corporations, governments and individuals can play to address the climate crisis.

“We’ve got to enlist everyone in this very, very hard work,” said Gates. “It’s not just one breakthrough.”

“The key point of the book is you have to have solutions across all spaces.”

Gates’ book offers a comprehensive look at emissions sources and an initial plan for meeting the Paris Agreement’s target of zero carbon emissions by 2050. He hopes to start a debate about what a full plan would look like and how we can accelerate innovation to meet a very challenging deadline.

Innovation and the green premium

Gates emphasized the need for innovation and increased R&D on climate solutions. We cannot get to zero-carbon by only focusing on technologies that are ready to go, like wind and solar. We also need to encourage progress on the “hard parts” of decarbonization, such as making steel, cement and hydrogen.

One of the goals of such R&D is the minimization of what Gates calls the green premium: the added cost of climate-friendly technologies compared to their traditional counterparts. Reducing the green premium throughout the economy will be key to solving the climate crisis, he said.

With some technologies, the green premium is modest and already decreasing. For example, the green premium for purchasing and driving an electric vehicle is about 15 percent now, but with technological improvements and more charging infrastructure, that premium will disappear.

“Over time, even a company like General Motors can say ‘no, we're not going to make these gasoline cars anymore, because the electric car will be preferable without a premium,’” said Gates.

Conversely, R&D for green cement has been modest and the premium is high. The cost is nearly double that of traditional cement.

“There’s no market for something that costs twice as much,” said Gates. “We need to innovate so that the same magic that happened for solar and lithium-ion (batteries) comes to the innovations in cement making.”

Gates said his focus on climate change began with an awareness of energy poverty.

“Not only was there very little electricity, and none of it reliable,” said Gates of traveling through Africa with the Gates Foundation, but people also spoke of how “growing their crops was getting more difficult, that there were more floods, but also more droughts.”

He realized that many Africans were feeling the impacts of climate change without having benefitted much at all from the modern energy systems behind it. We need to increase energy access in developing countries, which will increase per-person energy use as more people have access to things like air conditioning, while nearly eliminating global emissions from human activities.

“For justice alone we need more buildings, more electricity,” said Gates.  “The one thing I don't like is imposing emission constraints on poor countries that the rich countries themselves aren't yet meeting,”

From policy to personal commitment

Gates was interviewed by Arun Majumdar, professor of mechanical engineering, and also took questions from students.  Asked how the private and public sectors can work together to address the climate, Gates noted that the private sector has important skills like organizing risk capital and carrying out complex engineering projects, but we also need policy.

Government can subsidize decarbonization technologies and fund increased R&D to help address the green premium issue. Gates hopes that, over time, the United States may be able to shift wind and solar tax credits to technologies in earlier stages of development like large-scale energy storage systems, offshore wind and carbon capture. 

One area of concern for Gates is the partisanship surrounding climate change in the United States. We cannot afford to waste any time because we are “politically confused” on climate, he said. Gates is heartened by the advocacy of younger generations and hopes “we can have the core of this be bipartisan.”

To this end, Gates urged audience members to use their voices politically: not just at the ballot box but also by sharing their commitment to addressing climate change with other people.

“You get extra credit if it’s people from both parties,” he said. “You’re creating a sense of understanding and a sense that with the right effort this is a solvable problem.

Individuals also have power as buyers and as employees. Purchasing things like electric vehicles and meat from companies like Impossible or Beyond can drive up production of these goods, which will lead to lower costs, but individuals can do much more than that. Employees, for example, can work to make sure their organizations are engaged in climate, from buying climate-friendly products to reporting their emissions.

Gates also praised Stanford’s efforts to develop a new school focused on climate and sustainability. He hopes the new school focuses on the most challenging parts of the climate problem and that it attracts the best and brightest students.

"Somebody could start a career (in sustainability) today, and they would have plenty of hard work for their entire life working on these issues,” he said.

This session of the Stanford Global Energy Dialogues series was co-sponsored by Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy and Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

All Global Energy Dialogues sessions are free, and most are open to the public. Please visit the Global Energy Dialogues website to register for future virtual sessions and watch past ones. 

The Global Energy Dialogues are funded by the Stanford Global Energy Forum.