Bill Gates Is Reaching for the High-Hanging Fruit on Climate


“Do the Hard Stuff Too” is Point #6 in Chapter 10 of Bill Gates’s new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. 

Gates elaborated on that point on April 1 in a video talk hosted by the Economic Club of New York. “To get to zero [emissions], you can’t leave the hard categories alone,” the co-founder of Microsoft Corp., now a full-time philanthropist, told the online audience. (He appeared with former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.) “We’ve put all the effort into the easy categories of cars and power generation,” Gates said. “In the hard categories, the work has barely, barely begun. You don’t get success unless you cover them all.”

“All” is the key point. Businesspeople are accustomed to picking the low-hanging fruit first—knocking off the projects with the lowest costs and highest payoffs before tackling the harder stuff. But that won’t work for climate change, Gates said. To overwork the fruit metaphor, the climate can’t be saved unless all the fruit is picked, including the stuff on the very highest branches. And the effort has to start now.

Example: There’s been a lot of progress on solar panels and wind turbines, which is great. Renewable energy has become what Gates called an “easy” category. But solar panels and wind turbines produce power intermittently, and there’s been far less progress on technologies for storing the energy they produce—not just for a few hours, but potentially for an entire season.

The same goes for transportation. Batteries are wonderful for passenger vehicles, but there will never be battery-powered airliners, because the batteries would weigh too much and take up too much room. So for the foreseeable future, the net-zero solution for airlines and some other forms of transportation will be alternative liquid fuels made from carbon that was already in the atmosphere. While those fuels don’t add to carbon output, they are prohibitively expensive, and there hasn’t been enough research on bringing down their cost, Gates writes in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.

Other technologies that require research include zero-carbon steel and cement, meat and dairy made from plants or cells, capture of carbon from the air, safer nuclear power plants, nuclear fusion, and coolants that don’t contain fluorinated greenhouse gases, Gates writes.  

It’s tempting to focus on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. But “making reductions by 2030 the wrong way might actually prevent us from ever getting to zero,” Gates writes. An example of that would be replacing power plants that burn coal with power plants that burn natural gas, which is cleaner but still puts out greenhouse gases. 

A better strategy, Gates writes, is to focus investments on two priorities: installing as much zero-carbon generation as possible and electrifying as many processes and products as possible in anticipation of the day when all electricity will be carbon-free.

“If we think the only thing that matters is reducing emissions by 2030, then this approach would be a failure, since it might deliver only marginal reductions within a decade,” Gates writes. “But we’d be setting ourselves up for long-term success. With every breakthrough in generating, storing, and delivering clean electricity, we would march closer and closer to zero.”

In short: Reach for the high-hanging fruit.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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