Bill Gates is making a huge investment into clean-energy technology because, he explains in a recent blog post, “…of all the people who will be affected by climate change, those in poor countries will suffer the most. Higher temperatures and less-predictable weather would hurt poor farmers, most of whom live on the edge and can be devastated by a single bad crop. Food supplies could decline. Hunger and malnutrition could rise. It would be a terrible injustice to let climate change undo any of the past half-century’s progress against poverty and disease — and doubly unfair because the people who will be hurt the most are the ones doing the least to cause the problem.”
Two months ago, Gates announced his plan to significantly increase his investment in clean energy technology. “Just like vaccines, clean-energy miracles don’t just happen by chance,” he explained. “We have to make them happen, through long-term investments in research and development. Unfortunately, right now, neither the private sector nor the U.S. government is making anywhere near the scale of investment it takes to produce these breakthroughs.”
Gates has already invested roughly $1 billion of his personal fortune in companies that are working on clean energy, and he recently told the Financial Times he plans to spend another $1 billion in the next five years on “wild-eyed” energy tech companies. In addition, he feels that the U.S. government should roughly triple energy R&D to $16 billion a year from the current $5 billion a year in order to unleash significant new investments in research into basic energy science, advanced nuclear fission, efficiency, renewables and improvements in the electricity grid.
“Unfortunately, while we can make progress with today’s tools, they cannot get us to an 80 percent reduction, much less 100 percent,” he says. “To work at scale, current wind and solar technologies need backup energy sources — which means fossil fuels — for windless days, long periods of cloudy weather, and nighttime. They also require much more space; for example, to provide as much power as a coal-fired plant, a wind farm needs more than 10 times as much land.
To create the clean-energy future he envisions, Gates believes we need to take several steps:
- Create Incentives for Innovation by drastically increasing government funding for research on clean energy solutions. Right now, the world spends only a few billion dollars a year on researching early-stage ideas for zero-carbon energy. It should be investing two or three times that much. Why should governments fund basic research? For the same reason that companies tend not to — because it is a public good. The benefits to society are far greater than the amount that the inventor can capture. One of the best examples of this is the creation of the Internet. It has led to innovations that continue to change our lives, but none of the companies who deliver those innovations would ever have built it.
- Develop Markets That Help Get to Zero: Another important step will be to ensure that the energy market accurately reflects the full impact of emitting carbon. Today, the market is not factoring in what economists call the negative externalities — the health costs, environmental damage and so on. If the market takes these into account, renewable energy will be more competitive with fossil fuels, which will attract more innovators to the field. Many countries and states are experimenting with different ways to price carbon. Whatever approach we take, it should create incentives to develop new energy solutions while also giving energy companies enough certainty to plan and execute the transition to zero-carbon sources.
- Treat Poor Countries Fairly: Unfortunately, even if we could roll out the ideal zero-carbon solution tomorrow, some climate change is inevitable, and it will hit the world’s poor the hardest. The countries that have done the most to cause this problem have a responsibility to not only invest in mitigation, but also help poor countries adapt to a changing climate. The Gates Foundation is concentrating on one key aspect of adaptation: helping small farmers — who make up the majority of the world’s poor — adjust to hotter, more unpredictable weather by raising agricultural productivity
As for next steps, Gates is optimistic about the upcoming COP meeting in Paris: “World leaders will take another critical step this December at a major meeting in Paris called COP21, where they will discuss plans to reduce global CO2 emissions significantly. COP21 can build a strong foundation for solving the climate crisis.”
“In my view, innovation is essential to human progress,” he says in his blog. “Some people would say that it is the lens I use to look at every problem, and I have to admit that there is some truth to that. But I believe it is justified by history. In my lifetime, innovation has helped eradicate one deadly disease (smallpox) and put us on the brink of a second (polio). We have cut the fraction of children who die every year by a factor of four. Digital technology has revolutionized the way people live. We can create a zero-carbon future too, if we commit to it.”