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Bill Gates says we need to get to zero emissions

Bill Gates, world’s most successful businessman, has been highlighting the danger of climate change and the need for an energy transformation, earning some praise from environmentalists — and a surprising amount of backlash.

Gates recently gave a TED talk in which he pushed a vision of a world in which population and wealth have increased, even as carbon emissions drop to zero. Although the full talk isn’t available online, a series of photos of the event depict his summary slide, which calls for:

* Basic research funding
* Market incentives to decrease CO2
* Entrepreneurial opportunity
* Rational regulatory framework

This is a fairly standard list of environmental policy objectives. So why the hype?

On the praise side of the ledger, Alex Steffen calls the talk the most important climate speech of the year. According to Steffen, the talk marks the first time such a radical goal (zero emissions) has been delivered by a figure of such mainstream credibility. Environmentalists can talk about energy transformation until we’re blue in the face, but Bill Gates is, well, Bill Gates, a figure virtually synonymous with both innovation and wealth creation.

Over on the other side of the blogosphere, Joe Romm describes Gates’ speech as an ice cream cone made of “20% bat guano” (no, I don’t get it either). According to Romm, Gates’ proposals are a prescription for suicide, and the man himself is a huge hypocrite. The biggest complaint on Romm’s laundry list of grievances is Gates’ call for an “energy miracle,” breakthroughs in technology that deliver emissions-free power at a fraction of current costs.

It seems to me that everyone is reading a bit too much into a fairly broad speech about climate change. Although Steffen clearly has the better take on the talk, it’s worth noting that Gates’ roadmap for emissions reductions is entirely conventional: 20% by 2020, 80% by 2050. It is indeed absolutely fantastic for this goal to win such a strong endorsement from an influential and respected figure not normally associated with environmental causes. And Gates’ vision of a zero-emissions planet does serve as a potent rallying cry, even if he hasn’t affixed any specific timeframe to it. But I can’t see that the ground has altered in any meaningful way. The fate of the planet continues to reside in the entirely dysfunctional U.S. Senate, and not even the world’s richest man can change that fact.

On the other side of the coin, Romm’s take on the speech is just completely unhinged. His actual substantive point — that deployment of existing technology is more important than development of some future energy miracle — is sound. But reading his piece you’d never guess that Gates made a call for an aggressive action on carbon emissions, or that Gates’ and Romm’s policy agendas overlap about 95%, or that the practical differences are fairly meaningless to a non-expert audience. It’s fine for Romm to press his own policy priorities, but couching them in a full-bore attack serves no purpose other than to drive away allies.

For a more nuanced take on some of Gates’ recent climate musings, check out Sean Casten on the need for regulatory reform as a prerequisite to innovation in the energy marketplace. I doubt that Bill Gates would disagree very much with this point, and it would be great to have a powerful voice take up this cause.

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