Bill Gates on climate policy

Conservation and behavior change alone will not get us to the dramatically lower levels of CO2 emissions needed to make a real difference. We also need to focus on developing innovative technologies that produce energy without generating any CO2 emissions at all.

People often present two timeframes that we should have as goals for CO2 reduction – 30% (off of some baseline) by 2025 and 80% by 2050.

I believe the key one to achieve is 80% by 2050.

But we tend to focus on the first one since it is much more concrete.

We don’t distinguish properly between things that put you on a path to making the 80% goal by 2050 and things that don’t really help.

To make the 80% goal by 2050 we are going to have to reduce emissions from transportation and electrical production in participating countries down to zero.

You will still have emissions from other activities including domestic animals, making fertilizer, and decay processes.

There will still be countries that are too poor to participate.

If the goal is to get the transportation and electrical sectors down to zero emissions you clearly need innovation that leads to entirely new approaches to generating power.

Should society spend a lot of time trying to insulate houses and telling people to turn off lights or should it spend time on accelerating innovation?

If addressing climate change only requires us to get to the 2025 goal, then efficiency would be the key thing.

But you can never insulate your way to anything close to zero no matter what advocates of resource efficiency say. You can never reduce consumerism to anything close to zero.

Because 2025 is too soon for innovation to be completed and widely deployed, behavior change still matters.

Still, the amount of CO2 avoided by these kinds of modest reduction efforts will not be the key to what happens with climate change in the long run.

In fact it is doubtful that any such efforts in the rich countries will even offset the increase coming from richer lifestyles in places like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, etc.

Innovation in transportation and electricity will be the key factor.

One of the reasons I bring this up is that I hear a lot of climate change experts focus totally on 2025 or talk about how great it is that there is so much low hanging fruit that will make a difference.

This mostly focuses on saving a little bit of energy, which by itself is simply not enough. The need to get to zero emissions in key sectors almost never gets mentioned. The danger is people will think they just need to do a little bit and things will be fine.

If CO2 reduction is important, we need to make it clear to people what really matters – getting to zero.

With that kind of clarity, people will understand the need to get to zero and begin to grasp the scope and scale of innovation that is needed.

However all the talk about renewable portfolios, efficiency, and cap and trade tends to obscure the specific things that need to be done.

To achieve the kinds of innovations that will be required I think a distributed system of R&D with economic rewards for innovators and strong government encouragement is the key. There just isn’t enough work going on today to get us to where we need to go.

The world is distracted from what counts on this issue in a big way.


Gates is saying what I and others have been saying all along. Perhaps people will listen to him.

20 replies on “Bill Gates on climate policy”

@ Richard,

Indeed, good comments in your article above. I would say that dealing with climate change is going to take a combination of solutions, not just one magic bullet.

Insulating houses, encouraging innovation, developing new technologies will all help to reduce emissions.

But I believe the entire population of this country will need to change its mindset also.

For example people will require to adopt a more mature responsible attitude to energy conservation.

Once the mindset is changed then actual reduction in emissions should follow.

For example, I am always amused by changes in the automobile industry. Years ago people owned much older cars, even though these cars had poor rust resistance and lower fuel efficiency in general. But people kept them for much longer, sometimes up to 20 years or more.

These days cars are much more efficient, safer and much better rust resistance, but people change the car every 3 years or so? Life can be so contradictory at times!!!

I accept that there are many reasons why people change a car every three years. But surely the gain in reduced Co2 emissions by the newer technology is reduced somewhat in having the newer technology replaced every 3 years?

Could it be possible for manufacturers to repower an older car with a low efficiency engine with a engine of a higher efficiency instead of building a entire new car? This only tends to happen with larger projects such as power stations every 30 odd years or so. Perhaps car manufacturers should be compelled to investigate this option.

I could go on and on with other examples, but this country needs to change its way of thinking in so many areas.

All perfectly sensible, but I fear Bill Gates carries too much baggage from his his Microsoft days squashing any competition to its hegemony to cut much ice with the younger generation who will have to confront this challenge.

“Should society spend a lot of time trying to insulate houses and telling people to turn off lights or should it spend time on accelerating innovation?”

It should do both. It will make the zero target easier to acheive if the demand is lower.

I’d be inclined to take Bill Gates’s advice on the solution to global warming the same way I’d take Bono or Bob Geldof’s advice on how to end world poverty – with a large grain of salt.

I share your reservations about people venturing too far from what they’re good at. Bill Gates is good at characterising problems and a strategy to solve them. And that’s what he does in this piece.

@ Paul Hunt & Veronica

To be fair, I think the Gates Foundation probably escapes Microsoft’s rep. Bill seems to be working it full-time now (Gates is only really a figurehead for MS these days). While I share scepticism about an IT exec telling us about climate change, I wouldn’t lump him in with the likes of Geldoff and Bono. There is something more sincere about Gates imo.


Like Richard, and as I indicated, I fully agree with Bill Gate’s statement. And I’m not attributing any malign intent to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which has attracted the full support of the Sage of Omaha) – though I might query the failure of competition authorities internationally to prevent software users over-paying to finance this largesse.

I’m just pointing out Bill never was, is not and never will be “cool”. My kids and their peers, who either work in or are deeply engaged with these new-fangled technologies, simply snort with derision at the mention of his name. And I’m led to believe this derision is widespread.

@Paul Hunt,

Would that derision have anything to do with bearing more of a resemblance to Mr. Magoo than say, Johnny Depp?


On the contrary, I find that the younger generation (say, 18-30) are probably more adept at applying the biblical adage “by their fruits shall ye know them” than their elders.

But this is distracting from the eminent sense in Bill Gates’s statement which Richard is, quite rightly, keen to highlight. So, perhaps, we might focus on this and consider the use of more charismatic and effective mechanisms for getting the message across.

Suggesting a reduction of 80% in CO2 by 2050 surely implies either a massive cull in the population, a massive fall in production and consumption or much greater efficiency and development of alternative technologies. It is unknown if such technologies can be developed although I am an optimist when it comes to technology. Surely such a target is grossly irresponsible.

It’s an aspirational target. If we can’t meet it without doing something drastic, then we won’t.

Bill Gates is roughly right when he says that 80% emission reduction by 2050 means zero-carbon electricity by then. As power plants have a life-time of 40 years or so, that would mean that any new power plant build after 2010 would have to be carbon-neutral.

We won’t meet the 2050 target so. But Gates’ thinking about the problem is correct.


Excellent points, my first response is why does it have to be either/or?

Past experience is that there is no innovation that is free of a downside (remember antibiotics?). We need to be progressing on both the emission reduction and the innovation side.

The second point is where does innovation stop – do we spend on massive geo-engineering projects like Levitt & Dubner’s giant tube pumping sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere? Or do we focus on smaller, alternative energy projects that will work out in the slightly longer run. Granted, if things get desperate, we may need an emergency project, but when do we need to make that decision?

An aside: The sad thing is that innovation could have worked out – thirty years ago. Jimmy Carter may have been a distrastrous President in many ways, but he did set out to wean the US off Middle Eastern Oil. Instead the US got Ronald Reagan, a mixed blessing. Another opportunity was missed after the First Gulf War. Investment in alternative energy sources would be paying off just about now.

The risk is that the innovation solution (if there is one) may come along when the world’s temperature rise has passed the +2C limit, the lowest threshold of danger we have. Irreversible and catastrophic may changes may have taken place in the world’s climate by that time. I cannot say Richard or Bill Gates is wrong, but I think we need to consider the options very, very carefully.


It is interesting that Bill Gates guru on energy/environment is Vaclav Smil.
Let us see how this affects Bill Gates and those who find his blogs useful or otherwise!

Bill Gate produces lousy software and buys out anyone who does better. Naturally when he says something, I not merely believe it I consider it to be the voice of Gopd on earth ……

Setting up a charitable foundation means that it is now tax free and that death taxes will be nil. The gifts to the foundation lessen income/gains tax due on the sales of his shares. Such foundations are de rigeur in the USA. They ensure that the donor has power inperpetuity. They can influence all thos echaritable causes where the rich meet. It is the membership fee for an exclusive club where favours happen paid for by these foundations. Favours are remembered and returned else exclusion occurs.

AGW is a scam. Carbon trading is a way of profiting that the Fench declared unacceptable.


They seem to have learned from John Law? Have we?

If CO2 reduction is important, we need to make it clear to people what really matters – getting to zero.

On the other hand CO2 reduction maybe completely useless. The IPCC is appearing more rotten by the day. The “peer reviewed” data on the Himalayan glaciers is just the latest fault line in the once monolithic body. Pachauri’s conflict of interest, the gaming of the peer review process in the CRU, the manipulation of data by GISS. It goes on and on.

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