WASHINGTON – Bill Gates is an optimist when it comes to climate change.
Yes, the Microsoft co-founder and global health philanthropist said, the last four years have been a wasted opportunity to combat the threat of a warming planet and U.S. leadership on the issue waned under Donald Trump.
But he also believes achieving President Joe Biden’s ambitious goals of decarbonizing the energy sector by 2035 and attaining net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is within reach. That is, if clean energy storage and transmission challenges are met, next-generation nuclear power remains part of the portfolio, and the federal government ramps up investment in research and development of carbon-neutral building materials to make them far less expensive.
“My goal is to say we need a plan,” Gates told USA TODAY during a recent interview. “People who think a plan is easy are wrong. People who think a plan is impossible are wrong. It’s super hard and very broad, but it’s doable.”
Gates wrote a new book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need” (Knopf) detailing his ideas for addressing an folding crisis that experts say is already causing temperatures to increase, sea levels to rise, and natural disasters to grow more frequent and intense. The book goes on sale Tuesday.
In a wide-ranging interview, the billionaire investor talked about how the “easy stuff,” like electric cars and the first part of clean energy generation, has largely been achieved. Now, he said, the focus must be on finding ways of reducing the carbon footprint of the agricultural and industrial sectors, such as developing a “green” process of manufacturing cement and steel that’s affordable.
The co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, known for the billions it spends on global health initiatives, spoke with USA TODAY about climate change. The following is a lightly edited transcript of what he had to say on key topics:
USA TODAY: Will your work on the climate rival your foundation’s investment in global health in terms of scope, magnitude and resources?
GATES: No, the dollars on global health are substantially higher. I’ve spent a couple billion on climate things. I’ll spend at least a couple billion more, but it won’t be on the scale of our global health work.
USA TODAY: President Biden issued several executive orders on climate change last month to rejoin the Paris Treaty, prioritize science-based policy across federal agencies and pause oil drilling on public lands to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Is this enough?
GATES: He’s doing the right things but we still do not have a plan. When you look at the R&D spending for things like steel or cement inside the U.S. government, it’s tiny because the Energy Department never thought of themselves as the How-do-you-make-steel?-How-do-you make-cement?- How-do-you-avoid-cow-methane? Department. And we’re dramatically short on R&D.
USA TODAY: Is it just about investing?
GATES: There’s a lot of policies to help bootstrap things like green steel and green cement. The key thing that the U.S. needs to think about is that our responsibility to the world on climate is not just to reduce the U.S. emissions to zero. Because the U.S. has over half of the innovation capability of the globe, it’s up to us to innovate so that what I call the green premium comes down.
USA TODAY: You never mention President Donald Trump in your book. How much did his climate denial and efforts to ignore the crisis set back the country’s ability to meet the ambitious milestones you believe the planet needs to achieve?
GATES: When you’re going around trying to raise money for vaccines for poor countries, everyone’s like ‘Where’s the U.S.’?. And it’s the same on climate. The last four years there have been some progress but, without the U.S., completely inadequate. And I don’t think our biggest problems are denialists. The two factions I worry the most about are people who say hey, that’s there, but it’s too expensive. It just hurts too much. And then the people who think it’s easy like we can solve this in 10 years. That’s no more scientific than denying that climate change doesn’t exist.
USA TODAY: So you don’t think Trump set back the cause irreparably?
GATES: We’re not worse than we were four years ago. He didn’t shut down the national labs. He didn’t reduce the R&D budget. There are things that it’s going to be tricky to get back in shape. But it’s still possible. Between now and 2050, that’s 30 years. We didn’t use four years of those 34 years as well as we should have but it’s still possible to solve this problem.
USA TODAY: In your book, you talk about the need for the federal government to play a key role in climate change by limiting greenhouse gas emissions and helping the clean energy sector grow. But haven’t the past four years shown us how unreliable government can be as a partner and that the private sector is better off solving this problem directly?
GATES: Well, without government, we won’t succeed. If you take a product like green steel, there is no green steel, because the green premium is so very very high. And you know you need all the power of the universities and the national labs to come together on doing a piece of work like that. You know one of the approaches involves clean hydrogen but those projects are very expensive, and they’re just not economic today, so I’m not sure if there’s a way that private sector solves a problem like that.
USA TODAY: What promising new technologies do you think can best address climate change?
GATES: Sadly, no single technology is going to be enough. But I really am seeing some fantastic examples from breakthrough energy of things that seem kind of amazing. There’s a company called Quidnet. They pressurize water and push it underground. And that’s a way of storing energy that can be done almost anywhere in the country.
USA TODAY: You mentioned the importance of energy storage.
GATES: One of the dilemmas in climate is that these intermittent sources like wind and solar can be shut down for long periods of time. Like when there’s a typhoon over Japan or a cold front over the Midwest of the United States, you get even up to a couple weeks where wind and solar wouldn’t be generating hardly anything. And, you know, the batteries we have today they’re getting good enough for cars, but they have to be about 20 times better than that to work in this bad weather, seasonal intermittency where people still expect to get electricity.
USA TODAY: Many Americans still view nuclear power as unsafe or not environmental because of the waste it produces. Can we reach the net zero targets we’re talking about without nuclear power.
GATES: Well there’s basically three ways to deal with the reliability of the electric system. One is to have a miracle in energy storage. If we don’t get the miracle, the only two sources of high scale, 24-hour electricity would be nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion is early enough along that it’s very unlikely it can be a big part of the 2050 solution. And so, at least maintaining investments in nuclear fission, which generate about 20% of U.S. electricity. I think that’s wise.
USA TODAY: Opponents to the dramatic changes in energy supply needed to achieve net-zero emission by 2050 argue it will ravage communities whose economies rely heavily on the fossil fuel industry.
GATES: It’s a legitimate concern. A lot of skill sets in some of the locations that we use for hydrocarbons, we might be able for green hydrogen. So yes, 30 years in terms of jobs policies, we should be able to help fund some transitions. We should be able to make sure people going into the work force are trained for the new jobs that will be there.
USA TODAY: In your book, you suggest one of the steps individuals can take to tackle the climate problem is to run for office. Why don’t you?
GATES: I think the impact of my current work is the best use of my talent where I’m picking companies and scientists and looking across the system here. I wouldn’t be good running for office.