Bill Gates has a plan to save the world. Will the world listen?

In his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates argues that there are really only two data points that matter when it comes to tackling humankind’s existential challenge: 51 billion and zero. The first is the number of tonnes of greenhouse gases that are typically added to the atmosphere every year. The second is the number we need to arrive at to avoid catastrophe.
While acknowledging that the challenge is daunting, and how we make things, grow things, move around, keep cool and stay warm will all need to fundamentally change, Gates argues that wholesale transformation is possible while maintaining lifestyles in high income countries and continuing to lift billions out of poverty. And he has a plan.
He employs the concept of the “green premium”. Carbon remains cheaper as a source of energy because of its negative impacts – or “externalities” – aren’t priced in. Governments subsidise fossil fuels because they are reliable and proven. The green premium is the additional cost of using a green alternative. In some instances – such as producing electricity using wind turbines or solar energy – it can be zero, depending on the country. In other sectors, such as concrete, fertiliser or steel production, it’s enough to deter the use of clean alternatives. While wealthy countries might be able to pay a premium for these zero carbon options, that isn’t currently possible for some fast-growing nations in Asia, Africa and South America. The green premium needs to be so low as to make sense to switch.

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Sat at a large conference table wearing a blue pullover, Gates spoke with WIRED in December 2020 from his office overlooking Lake Washington in Seattle. He outlined how a number of different technological breakthroughs, large-scale investment in infrastructure, patient capital, government policy and individual action can have an impact, and provides a roadmap to getting to zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Zero is important: just reducing the carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere, simply extends the extremely limited amount of time humankind has until we hit planetary boundaries. Currently, the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere is around 414.68 parts per million (ppm) – there is consensus that, once the level reaches 450ppm it will raise the global temperature above 2 degrees Celsius, triggering extreme weather events and irreversible, catastrophic change. While some advocates of change suggest that the target should be 2030, Gates believes that’s unrealistic – carbon is too deeply woven into the fabric of everything we do – and could provide a distraction to the more significant goal of zero emissions by 2050.

WIRED: Why this book and why now?

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Bill Gates: I did a TED Talk in 2010 on climate and five years later there was the Paris climate talks, and I’d been saying: ‘Hey, how come when they have these meetings, they never talk about R&D?’ They never talked about innovation, and if you looked at the energy R&D budgets of the rich countries they hadn’t increased at all.
So everybody’s getting together and talking about the short-term reductions, but the only areas you can make short-term reductions are electric cars and using solar and wind for electricity generation. That’s less than 30 per cent of the game – 70 per cent is steel, cement, aviation, land use… People aren’t doing anything about those. If you want to get to a goal, you should start working on the hard things, not just on the easy things. I’m not saying the easy things are easy, they’re just relatively easy.
These nationally determined metrics – the short-term reductions – don’t really tell the story. I’m not saying they should go away, those are good things, but what is the true metric of by 2050 can you get to zero?
The resonance of the topic [climate change] is very high now, despite the pandemic, which is impressive. But if we don’t have a plan to go with that positive energy it’s going to be very sad. You’re going to get attenuation: people will almost be cynical that we didn’t really get going on the 70 per cent that’s the hardest.

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So that’s why I wrote the book, to suggest that the green premium is a metric that – when you call up India in 2050 and say, ‘Hey, when you’re building new buildings, use this cement, use this steel’ – will determine whether they tell you ‘get lost’, or ‘OK, we’ll pay a slight premium’. If you’ve innovated enough and the green premium is zero, they’ll say, ‘Of course.’
Some green premiums – for electricity, for instance – are within reach. Others will involve huge amounts of R&D and investment. How do you think about that?
The brute force way to solve climate change is to figure out how to do direct air capture, get the cost per tonne down and then just write the cheque. Unfortunately, if you call up Climeworks [the Swiss company that filters CO2 from the air], its list price is $600 (£435) a tonne, and they have some government subsidies. So, even if you dream that you can get to $100 (£72) a tonne, you’ve got 51 billion tonnes of emissions, so that’s a $5 trillion (£3.6 trillion) a year price tag to brute force climate change.
Only by going into the individual areas and changing the way that, say, you make cement, or the way you power cars to be electric, do you get something that’s under $100 a tonne. Electric cars are the magic one – as battery volumes go up, charging stations get out there and battery energy density increases to the point that range and charging speed isn’t that much worse [than combustion engines]. Eventually you can say the green premium for passenger cars ten years from now will be about zero.

John Keatley

Vaccines typically take a decade or more to produce – Covid-19 proved we can accelerate that process, but it took a pandemic to show us what’s possible. How can we communicate the urgency of the climate emergency?
There is an analogy to the pandemic which is that citizens depend on their governments to understand natural disasters, meteors, climate change and respiratory viruses. These problems are way too complex – individuals aren’t going to study climate models. For the pandemic, the risk was there and the idea of how you orchestrate a testing capacity and make a vaccine should have been there.
After Ebola in 2015 there were a few things done such as the creation of CEPI [The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations] along with Wellcome in the UK, ourselves [the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] and 12 governments. And we’ve been funding mRNA stuff (mRNA medicines instruct cells in the body to make proteins to fight diseases) for a long time. But, governments have to take complex problems and essentially think through what you have to do. Unfortunately, when it comes to the climate, it’s not like there’s any vaccine-like thing, where there’s a solution and six months from now things are going to feel utterly different.
With climate, when you have to replace every steel plant, every cement plant, take the electric grid and make it two and a half times bigger with intermittent sources – this is the entire physical economy. The physical economy is a miracle. It’s taken us since the Industrial Revolution to figure out how to make this stuff so cheap and so reliable that we all just take it for granted. Most people flip that light switch and the miracle of innovation that allows their lights to turn on 99.99 per cent of the time, they have no idea. It’s so cost-optimised, but now that we have this constraint on it: how quickly can you switch all that around?
So climate is like a pandemic in that governments need to work on behalf of their citizens and anticipate what will happen in the future, but it’s way harder than making a vaccine. If the pandemic had come 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to make that vaccine. If it came 10 years from now, with mRNA we’ll be able to make it faster, we’ll be able to scale up more of those vaccines at a cost of $1 (72p) each. We caught mRNA halfway in its maturity cycle, we hadn’t made a single vaccine. CureVac is developing mRNA-based vaccines designed to prevent malaria infection. Moderna is focused on HIV and other diseases.
In order to get to net zero by 2050, we have to innovate at an unprecedented pace. How do we best address that challenge?
We need to up the supply side of innovation and the demand side for innovation. The supply side has got many components, it’s got your basic energy R&D budget where you just have a bunch of professors or national labs messing around with different ideas, and that’s pre-commercial research. In the US, more than half the federal money spent on biomedical research comes from the $43 billion (£31 billion) a year National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget. Weirdly these energy R&D budgets haven’t had the examination they deserve when it comes to climate events.
Then venture capital has to be willing to take huge risks, and be very patient and orchestrate way more capital than you need for software, microchips or for medicine. That’s because these are big plants and you have to replace a lot, you have to scale these things up so you need to work on the supply side and innovation.
On the demand side, you could put on a big carbon tax but politically it’s difficult – such as when they increased the price of diesel in France – even though economists say that it would be good. In most countries we’ll probably end up with a sector-by-sector approach where we say that, for instance, every building has to have five per cent clean cement, or maybe the highly profitable tech or finance companies pay a premium for buildings.
Everybody mistakenly thinks the learning curve means that you make something, and then it gets cheaper than you expected. That is true for wind, solar and lithium ion batteries, the learning curves have been phenomenal. But how do you bootstrap the clean aviation fuel learning curve, or clean steel?
There’s a lot of talk that the recovery funds in Europe will get focused on things such as clean hydrogen. But we really need a mechanism to find who in the world has the best ideas about clean steel or clean cement. And the green premium is the metric.

You had an ambitious aim when you started Microsoft – a computer in every home. What lessons did building and scaling a company with that impact have that can be applied to getting to net zero?
I’m amazed at what a nice business software is – you get feedback from your customers and you add features. And I was optimistic: I would invest in things that would take ten years to get done. I tried multiple approaches, so we often had teams that might develop a database in two different ways to see which would succeed. I had to anticipate advances in hardware [that would impact] our software. We spent a lot of R&D money, but we had enough products that were always fairly profitable.
I had a broader view that we were going to develop many types of software – most of our competitors were single-product companies, and we saw ourselves as a software factory independent of word processing or spreadsheets or operating systems. We had a more crazy view that we were going to do every type of software in one company and we had this vision of personal empowerment through software.
We were able to create this research group – Google is the only other company to put money into fundamental research. Because, at first, we all just benefited from what the universities or even Xerox PARC had done that they failed to exploit. We hired specific people from Xerox PARC that helped us with graphics interface, networking and other things, and we almost felt guilty that we needed to get back to this pool of intellect.
Some policymakers and leaders are aiming at 2030, but you’re fully focussed on 2050. Why that time frame?
In 2050 I’ll be 95 years old and I will be super happy if I live to see the day that we’re anywhere near zero. This is very, very hard, as it requires all countries to get involved. And so the 2050 date was picked as the best case because a lot of things have to work. But if you innovate for ten years, deploy for 20 years, and you create the right incentives through government policy, you can get to zero by 2050. You have to get going now on the hard stuff and you have to admit: do we have even a clue how we’re going to do the hard stuff and find the craziest thinkers?
I’m not smart enough to know all the different ways you might replace cement or steel. You better be searching the entire IQ of humanity globally to find that person or find ten of them and hope that, even if nine are wrong, one will get you there.
I don’t know if that will happen by 2050. If we take the idealism and energy the younger generation has created around this and we make it a priority – Biden has it right up there with the pandemic, European recovery funds have it very high – then, yes it’s doable.
Getting to net zero by 2050 is not going to be easy. So anybody who says, ‘Oh, let’s just get it done in 10 years’, I want them to go tour all the Chinese steel and cement plants and tell me what I’m going to see there ten years from now.
The digital economy has fooled us in terms of how quickly things can change, because you don’t need the reliability and scale, and therefore the capital and the regulations. With software, if it has mistakes it’s not good, but it evolves quickly.”

John Keatley

Institutions deploying capital – banks and pension funds – are going to be crucial in this process. There’s a lot of rhetoric at the moment with businesses claiming to be purpose-driven. How can we best measure the actions large investment funds are making, and keep big organisations honest about their actions?
Most of that’s all bullshit. The return on a bond for a wind farm is no different than the return on a bond from a natural gas plant, so it’s nonsense. The people who put money into Breakthrough Energy Ventures [the venture arm of Gates’ organisation Breakthrough Energy that’s working towards net zero], that’s real. The governments that raise their energy R&D budget and manage to spend it well, the near-billion dollars put into TerraPower [Gates’ nuclear company] to see if this fourth-generation fission reactor can be part of the solution… Those things are real.
All this other stuff like, we’re gonna make companies report their emissions. The idea that some financial metric reporting thing or some degree of divestment – how many tonnes? You’ve got 51 billion tonnes [of CO2 that needs to be removed]: when you divested, how many of those 51 billion tonnes went away?
You’ve got to invest not divest. And the notion that you just happen to own equities or bonds related to the easy things that are already economic, such as solar farms or wind farms… Whenever somebody says there’s something called green finance, I say let’s be numeric here: is the risk premium for clean investing lower than the risk premium for non-green investing? The answer is: just look at the numbers.
The idea that banks are going to solve this problem or that these metrics are going to solve this problem, I don’t get that. Are they going to make the electricity network reliable? Are they gonna come up with sustainable aviation fuel? It’s just disconnected from the problem and allows people to go off and blather as though something’s happening.
The last couple of weeks have seen the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out begin. Do you think that will increase trust in science, which will impact the urgency to act on the climate crisis?
Whenever you do innovation like social networks, at first you’re not sure what phenomenon will emerge out of that. I do think the pandemic has helped social networks realise that the First Amendment is nice, but allowing lots of vaccine misinformation is not good for society.
Drawing the line between the crazy ‘all vaccines are bad, everybody will get autism’ versus legitimate [commentary] on people who have allergic reactions is very hard. At first the [social networks] thought we will just let the craziness flow, but the fact that the wrong stuff is so titillating draws people in.
We hope that this process has accelerated some maturing of the social networks so that the things that get a lot of attention and are really wrong, that these are greatly reduced or put alongside the truth. I don’t know if that will happen, but I have seen it – including conspiracy theories that relate to me – they’re doing a better job of saying, ‘OK, we don’t want ten million people to see that today because it doesn’t serve their interests or society’s interests’.
People are more educated today than ever and somehow we’ve gotten to this point where climate change has become political, mask wearing has become political.
For some types of innovation this has been a period where the normal rules don’t apply. The idea of 100 companies all working on one disease is insane, because five or six of these vaccines at most, will end up getting used. So you’ve got 94 companies’ efforts that are completely redundant, particularly now.
We still need Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Novavax, because those [vaccines] are more scalable, cheaper and more thermally stable. But, once we get those five [including Pfizer and Moderna] then we probably don’t need any more, because fortunately it turned out it was easier to make a vaccine for this disease than we might have guessed: the first that are proven are working very well.

Science has become politicised in the past few years. We’re seeing a transition between administrations in the US, do you think that’s going to impact policy as relates to getting to net zero?
In the Democratic primaries people were talking about trillions of dollars being spent against climate. Well there’s two problems with that: a) that money will never be allocated and b) spending that scale of money doesn’t really connect to the problem, it’s more about creating jobs [by doing things such as] insulating homes.But those homes should use electric heat pumps, and you should get electricity to zero. You must have people who are in the centre and saying, yes, this is a good goal, but how do you realistically achieve that, and at the minimal price for doing so? You want debate about that, and market-based pricing actually allows a lot of resource choices to be made in a very efficient way. That’s why, if you could have a properly done carbon tax, it would be a nice thing, but that’s not going to happen in most countries.
So, yes the Biden election is fantastic. He’s got climate as one of his top priorities along with the pandemic, he’s picked people that know this topic and he’s put them not just in specific roles like the Department of Energy, but even people such as Brian Deese to head the National Economic Council. He was the [Obama] White House climate person, and I got to know him when we were doing the Paris climate stuff.
You acknowledge early in the book that you’re an imperfect messenger – a rich, white guy some people will accuse of having a god complex. How do you communicate the idea that – forget Bill Gates in all this – it’s a problem that all of us have to fix?
The fact that we need better metrics in this field surprises me. It’s a field with a lot of positive energy but without a plan. And so you have to work backwards from zero. If there was some book that had already explained all this, I wouldn’t have written it. I can write books about malaria and HIV and diarrhoea. Now, maybe not as many people would read those, but that global health work we do is truly neglected. You can save millions of lives. And it’s hard stuff – we don’t have an HIV cure yet, but we’re trying to use gene therapy and make that super cheap – so there’s plenty of interesting work for the Gates Foundation, such as improving agriculture with new types of seeds, and even improving photosynthesis.
This field [climate] as I learned about it, the framing wasn’t quite right. I actually resisted the idea that I should choose to speak out. Instead I thought, ‘I’ll just do a little bit, like that 2010 TED Talk that I did’. And then this field, because people care so much about it, would then mature in terms of its metrics and working on the hard things. When we were talking about the 2015 Paris talks, it makes no sense – why am I at it, saying there should be an R&D section?
So, I’d say it’s strange that the background I have – of systems thinking to drive innovation – brings a slightly richer perspective. OK, not everybody reads Vaclav Smil, not everybody is that numeric. People read articles saying, ‘this is the equivalent of 20,000 houses’ or, you know, ‘50,000 cars’, and they don’t call up the publications involved and say, ‘why are you spewing these completely confusing metrics?’
I have this effort to create an open-source model of electricity demand generation that includes weather models, so the countries that have made really aggressive commitments about renewable use can see that their grid is going to start being reliable. Now that the utilities are being told, ‘Oh, you have to sign up to these things’, you need an open-source model that really shows, do you have enough transmission, storage or non-intermittent sources like nuclear fission or fusion?
The fact that I’m running an open-source model to test whether these aggressive goals are achievable, it blows the mind – why am I funding this model for these electric grids, which is the most obvious thing to do when you look at climate change?
If you had to bet on a single breakthrough happening in the next decade that really was a game changer, what do you think it would be?
Well, part of the point of the book is that [we can’t rely on a] single breakthrough, we need artificial meat, we need lithium… But I would say, if you can get super-cheap green hydrogen, it sits in terms of the industrial economy at the peak. So, if you pencil in ridiculously low-cost hydrogen, then I can tell you how to make clean fertiliser and clean steel, and even clean aviation fuel.
We have to be careful: some scientific miracles like a storage one may never occur. Some people are now talking about super-clean hydrogen. They don’t get how hard it is, and there’s a good chance it will never be possible to make cheap, green hydrogen.
In this space we need about ten breakthroughs before you can really see a path to 2050, but clean hydrogen is higher than most people would expect. And storage miracles, and either fission or fusion. The book is supposed to make you think it’s not like the pandemic vaccine, though.
Are you optimistic that we can get to net zero by 2050?
Absolutely. But that’s just my personal bias – I’m an optimistic person. I lived through the digital revolution, where every dream we ever had about computing came true. So, I don’t have proof, but yes I am optimistic.
Greg Williams is the Editor of WIRED. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates is published by Allen Lane on February 16.
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