He’s the co-founder of Microsoft, became a billionaire philanthropist focused on poverty and health, and now he’s turning his attention to saving the planet.
Our guest in the Global Conversation is Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Founder of Breakthrough Energy. He spoke to Euronews Science Correspondent Jeremy Wilks as he publishes his new book entitled ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’.
You say in your book that we’re at the same point today with climate change as we were several years ago with pandemics, meaning we think we’re prepared, but we’re not really. What is it we’re not understanding about climate change?
“Well, the sources of emissions are very broad. And many of them, we really haven’t gotten started on figuring out how to avoid those emissions. The whole manufacturing sector, air transport, even the plans to grow the electricity grid would require us to do way more than we’re doing today, including pushing through a lot of innovation. So it’s great that the young people care about this cause, it’s great we have a goal, but my book is to say, here’s what a plan might look like, let’s get a plan organised.
Let’s just touch on the pandemic a little bit, quickly, before we get into climate change any more. It’s been over a year now. We’re still not managing it well. Are you surprised by that?
“Well, each country has done a few things well and made mistakes. When I gave my 2015 TED talk saying that we’re not ready for the next pandemic, I talked about diagnostics and practicing and how you coordinate different things. The creation of the vaccine went faster than we would have expected. Our foundation had been backing the mRNA technology, but no vaccines had been made, so that part at least is very hopeful, and eventually that’s what will bring this epidemic to an end.”
But when it comes to the management of it, the kind of political management of it, it’s not been a great success, I don’t think. What do you kind of read into that? And what does that mean for how we’re going to deal with climate change?
“Well, no one expects government to be perfect. But government overall does fantastic things: education, justice, health. We always are pushing because we’re citizens, and we get to talk about how we want to see it improve. In the case of climate, it is going to take a lot of creative policies. And the political voice, particularly those young people, has to remain strong, so we use all 30 years in order to do this because it is going to be hard, but it’s not impossible.
And the vaccine rollout has highlighted the differences between the rich and the poor, between the richer countries and the poorer countries. Climate change is going to probably do the same thing, isn’t it?
“Absolutely. The reason that I’m so engaged is that the work that the Gates Foundation does to help health in poor countries, and to help farmers there will all go into reverse as the years go by and these higher temperatures mean that the subsistence farmers aren’t able to grow as much and they’ll have their crop failing, which will lead to malnutrition and migration and complete instability because of climate.”
When I was reading the book, I had the impression that you were trying to convince somebody about the importance of climate change. Is that American politicians, the American public, or were you actually trying to convince yourself of the importance of climate change? I genuinely had that feeling, I felt you were trying to pitch the importance of climate change, and it’s actually been a relatively recent thing that you grasped how big the problem was.
“I started a lot of learning sessions in 2005, and just like I gave a TED talk in 2015 warning about the pandemic, I gave a TED talk in 2010 warning about climate change because we’re already seeing the effects, the negative effects on these poorest who did nothing to create the problem.
“The reason that it’s timely to do the book now is not because of my views, which have always been very strong about what a problem this is, but rather that because of the energy of the advocates there is the possibility that the right political priorities and the right drive towards innovation, and even working on the hard parts of the emissions like steel and cement and aviation fuel, there’s a chance that could happen.
“Particularly this year, as we have the recovery funds being programmed against climate, as we have the Glasgow (COP26) meeting coming up, I thought a framework of how hard it’s going to be, how I’ve seen innovation move forward, and what I call the Green Premium, I thought it was very timely to have the book as part of these discussions.”
Do you feel that it’s a kind of an appropriate time also to maybe send an example to President Joe Biden, have you done so already and the people in Washington are going to be listening too, do you think?
“Yeah, I’ve certainly talked not only to the President but also to all his key people working on climate like John Kerry, who’s the climate envoy. I’m spending a lot of time also talking with the UK about the conference and how we make sure it covers not just the easy stuff, but the hard stuff as well. So, yes, the dialogue with the Biden administration is very promising.”
And how about the American people, because America is a country where we hear the voices of more sceptical people related to climate. How do you see it playing out with this book? I mean, you’ve obviously written it for a broad audience.
“Well, there are more and more young people, including Republicans, who see this as THE moral cause. Taking beyond their own personal success, something that they care about, something that they want to make sure gets attention. And, the parties may have different views, but more and more it’s about what do we do about climate change, not whether or not it’s a problem.”
Let’s talk about some of the technology, because your book is a great review of technology, and you talk about the rollout of solar, talk about wind, and how those things are getting cheaper. You also talk quite a lot about nuclear technologies as well, which is something that green activists are not so keen on. Do you think nuclear has to be there in a zero-carbon future?
“Well, the electricity sector will be much larger, because all the energy for the passenger cars and heating and cooling buildings and many industrial processes will be there. And maintaining the reliability, even during bad weather periods, will be a huge problem.
So either we need a miracle in storage, which we may not get, or we need some green source that doesn’t depend on the weather.
So, considering whether a new generation, a ‘from-scratch’ approach, could provide the cost, the safety, the dealing with waste, all the issues around nuclear – could we solve those? – it’s worth working on that, because we may need it to solve climate. And so, yes, I think we should explore that. This has nothing to do with the current generation of reactors. This is about a design where the safety is just based on the physics, not what the operators do or don’t do.”
So you would say that it does need to be there by 2050? We are going to have probably maybe more nuclear than we have now?
“No. If we get a miracle invention that lets us store large, an unbelievably large amount of electricity, like two weeks worth – which is more than every battery ever made times 10 – if we get that, then you could just have the intermittent sources along with the storage to be the solution.”
“But because that’s uncertain, we have to pursue every path that might get us to zero emissions by 2050. And with nuclear, there’s a lot to prove, including, will the public be open-minded after the next five years where it’s demonstrated? Will they be open-minded to a completely new design or not?”
And also, how do you manage the grid as well? I mean, across the United States if it’s very sunny in, you know, in the Southwest and how do you manage to get that power to the other side of the country and then across borders? That’s going to have to be the case as well. How do you kind of tackle those challenges?
“Well, under any scenario, Europe and the US will have to build a lot more transmission. Because you can have a cold weather front and have all your wind and solar shut down. So you have to hope that the size of the continent means that somewhere you can source that energy. So we’ve done an open-source model that will let people play around with their assumptions, and what they’ll see is that a lot more transmission is a necessary piece.” (piece of the response)
I’m interested in some of your discussions which are slightly more controversial technologies, you talk about geoengineering, things like making the tops of clouds whiter so they reflect more light back into space as a last resort thing to deal with climate change. Are you really serious about those technologies?
“No, that’s not a solution to climate change. I thought it was important to mention in the book because there are people looking at it. At most, it would delay the problem for 10 or 15 years while we get rid of sources of emissions. But, you know, not mentioning it would have been a mistake, because it’s out there and people should understand that that’s not in any way a permanent solution. It’s likely not to be used at all. But when you’re faced with this catastrophic problem, proving which paths are a dead end, which are not, we need to get going on that.”
Can we engineer our way out of trouble? We’ve placed a lot of faith in technology and the book really kind of talks. It talks everybody through the technology and explains it. But is that actually a solution or do we just need to kind of reorganise our global system, actually?
“The people in developing countries deserve to have basic shelter. They deserve to have light at night. Because of how hot it will be near the equator, they deserve to have air conditioning. And so we’re not going to stop all flying, all buildings, all transport, all livestock. We need to be able to multiply by zero whatever the units of those things are, otherwise, you just can’t get to zero (zero emissions). So, it’s great for people in rich countries to cut back their consumption, that reduces emissions. But that’s not a full plan to get the planet to zero.”
You talk a lot about kind of being fair and just. Do you think it’s actually possible to get to 2050 and allow that development to happen that you’d like to see and to get down to zero emissions?
“Yes. Innovations like the computer chip, wireless communications, I mean, it’s phenomenal how the quality of life has been improved and life spans are much longer. Even these vaccines in the pandemic are great examples of that. But we’ll only get there if we use all 30 years, and work on all the sources of emissions across all the different countries.
And as yet, we don’t have the right metrics. We haven’t really modelled out things like that electric network. So, you know the book is kind of a call to action. Let’s come together to get a plan because it’s so important.
Lots of our viewers have been asking about nature-based solutions, things like planting trees to take CO2 out of the atmosphere. Is that a kind of a valid way forward? Is it the kind of thing that individuals actually should be doing themselves as well?
“Well, unfortunately, you know, with 51 billion tonnes of emissions, you know, nature is good at planting trees lots of places, the amount of reduction is not going to be a high percentage.
And you’d have to fund the replanting of those trees for thousands of years because when you put CO2 in the atmosphere it stays there for thousands of years.
So if you’re saying you’re going to offset something, then trees burn down or die every 40 years. The cost per tonne to really fund that over, say 4,000 years is very, very high. So getting rid of the emissions in these processes will be the only way to tackle all 51 billion tonnes.” (We emit 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases every year – meaning CO2, methane, and others)
And taking CO2 out of the atmosphere mechanically, using machines to do so, do you think that’s the better alternative?
“Well, I’m funding a lot of direct air capture companies (Direct air capture is a technology to take CO2 directly out of the air).
Again, there the cost per ton is still too high, but there are lots of new ideas. You know, it’s over 400 dollars a tonne today, and so it means you couldn’t solve the problem that way. If we can get that under a 100 dollars a tonne it can be part of the solution. And so it’s like green hydrogen or green aviation fuel. The direct air capture is one of the things governments should get behind and create demand for the best solutions there.
Talking about governments, legislation, policy, the right kind of framework there is really important, and you get into that later in the book. And I’m wondering what you think about the European Green Deal, which ties the coronavirus recovery funds together with green investments. You don’t get the money unless you’re investing in something green. Do you think they’re going far enough with that?
“Well, I think it’s pretty fantastic. It’s a large commitment. I think that the impact will depend on the quality of those projects. And so our scientific team which has funded all these start-up companies will try to collaborate with Europe as much as possible on those projects because you’ve got to try things out, you’ve got to try things out at scale. And that money can accelerate the work.
And the discussion is to use it for many of the sources of emissions, not just the renewable electricity or passenger cars, but also the tough, tough areas. So it’s great they’ve made this commitment to get going and fund those projects.”
We need to innovate on all fronts, and all of that is going to require a lot of money. Do you think that the billionaires of this world – and you’re part of that club – should be taxed more on this? They should be obliged to invest more in these things.
“Well, tax policy is a country-by-country thing. I’ve talked about U.S. taxes, the fact they could be higher. But, I’m no expert on European taxes. Government is going to have to step up here. It will require resources just like it does for education and health.
But how do you motivate them? How do you motivate them? Because you’ve got plenty of motivation on health at the moment, but where’s the motivation to really dig into the kind of extreme innovation and change that you’re talking about?
“Well, the costs. As we’ve seen with the pandemic, the cost of making these new tools was billions, and it will save the economic tragedy that’s trillions and trillions of dollars.”
But how do you build the political will there? I mean, I don’t know whether I necessarily see it, because politicians are short-sighted, and we know that.
“Unless the younger generation is speaking out on a constant basis – which I congratulate the advocates who driven that – and unless they’re making their views clear it’s possible we won’t make the right trade-offs. And, the level of deaths will be dramatically higher than anything you’ve seen in the pandemic. And you won’t be able to get out of it if you just let it come on you, then you’ll suffer for many decades.”
I want to finish by going back to the pandemic we’re all talking about and thinking about the vaccine now. Is there a vaccine for climate change?
“No, we need more like a dozen breakthrough innovations because of all these sources of emissions. And so it’s not just electric cars, it’s not just green aviation fuel, it’s not just artificial meat. You have in manufacturing and agriculture, transport buildings…. there’s a lot to do here. But the damage and destruction, permanent destruction of the natural ecosystems is far, far worse than even at the peak of the pandemic. And so it should be a cause that humanity can come together on. It’ll be hard, but if we achieve it, it’ll be the best thing we’ve ever done.”