‘This will be the hardest thing we’ve ever done’: Bill Gates stresses urgency of tackling climate crisis

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Bill Gates told students that in order to address climate change, countries must overcome infrastructure and policy obstacles as well as accelerate innovation systems at a late February event

“I say this will be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. If we waste any years, because we’re politically confused or our younger generation picks other priorities, I don’t think we’re likely to make [net zero emissions by 2050],” Gates said at the event sponsored by the Stanford Precourt Institute of Energy and Stanford Woods Institute of the Environment. The event is part of his University tour for his book.

Gates, who serves as the co-chair of the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation and founder of Breakthrough Energy, said he found the main motivation for his new book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” while traveling through Africa for his work with the Gates Foundation. There, he heard stories about difficulties with crop farming and a lack of reliable electricity and saw the connection between energy and climate change. He decided he needed to write about the importance of reaching zero emissions and the steps countries can take to get there. He hopes his book will convince people of the challenges in combating climate change and the need to develop low-cost solutions to achieve zero emissions by 2050. 

When addressing another massive crisis facing the world, the COVID-19 pandemic, Gates said that both emergencies require planned government intervention to avoid disaster. “With climate change, we can’t wait until people start dying because by then the natural ecosystems will die off,” said Gates. “This will be irreversible so we’re asking people to invest in one hell of a problem.”

Gates supports the Biden administration’s plans on environmental justice. He also recommended that the United States focus on green hydrogen — hydrogen that is used to create renewable energy — and supplying it to households through existing natural gas pipelines.

He added that both the private and public sector are essential in addressing climate issues. He said the private sector is capable of organizing the complex engineering projects needed to pioneer storage and energy solutions. However, he added that appropriate policies are needed to incentivize companies to commit to being green. To mobilize capital to remove carbon from the energy infrastructure, Gates said that tax credits for wind and solar energy systems effectively promote energy innovation. 

“We’ll likely have to double the amount going into research and development,” he said.

Gates said that there are three actions people should take on the individual level: utilize their political voice to not only vote but spread awareness, buy sustainable products to drive up market demand and engage their employers in dedicating time to sustainability. 

In terms of large innovations, progress in agriculture is key, according to Gates, especially for developing countries.

He predicts the coming of a second Green Revolution, after the first which occurred between the 1950s and late 1960s and resulted in a large increase in food production globally due to the introduction of new high-yield varieties of crops. The Gates Foundation is working with scientists to modify the time plants spend feeding themselves through photosynthesis, producing a new variety of crops. “The seeds are the only hope that we have to do the equivalent of the second Green Revolution,” Gates said. 

Though agricultural innovations would allow countries with low economic growth to become more sustainable, Gates disliked the imposition of emission constraints on these governments. He predicted that these countries could become energy self-sufficient at a low cost but it would take coordination to make a reliable energy grid. 

“It’s the poorest countries that are suffering, whereas it’s the rich countries, historically, that have been the biggest emitters,” said Gates. “There’s a lot of justice considerations that this plan has to take into account.”

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Victoria Hsieh '24 is a Staff Writer for The Daily looking to major in Economics and Biology. She is a Seattle native and enjoys hiking in her free time. Contact The Daily’s News section at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.