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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  1. david mcconville - February 17, 2010

    It’s great to hear Gates is advocating substantial reductions, but pinning his solution on “miracle” plays into the desire for a quick fix that ultimately detracts from the need to rapidly apply our current working options. Until the miracle exists, it’s wishful thinking, which seems to increasingly be the hallmark of too many involved in every side of the climate issue. Whether wishing anthropogenic global change is a “hoax” or wishing for an energy “miracle,” they both result in the same disastrous consequences for the biosphere. But if Gates’ influence can direct funding towards additional rapid commercialization and deployment of affordable renewable energy options, more power to him.
    For a thorough analysis of the potential of a “miracle”, see Richard Heinberg’s excellent report “Searching for a Miracle:

  2. Bill in IL - February 17, 2010

    I haven’t read either the speech or the response. I am convinced, however, that we cannot sustain unlimited growth. I think it is incumbent in any plan to live with Earth that we change the ways we live, rather than to simply chug along hoping for technology to save us. I am not anti-technology, but I think it has been the myth for several generations that technology is the panacea for all of our woes. I am all in favor of the zero-emissions goal, and for the call for innovation and entrepreneurial and structural commitments to reach the goal. In concert with that plan, however, I think we need to re-evaluate the values and practices that brought us here. One without the other seems futile.

  3. Trent - February 17, 2010

    Bill Gates could cut carbon emissions immensely if he would recycle all the computers he made obsolete by making everyone upgrade to new operating systems. Its always do as I say NOT AS I DO!!!

  4. richard schumacher - February 17, 2010

    It’s good that Mr. Gates is finally on board. Now he must realize that we already have available the technologies needed for zero-emission energy: nuclear, wind, and Solar (both PV and thermal, and both ground- and space-based). There is no need to delay deployment while searching for improvements and breakthroughs; these will come in time, and we have no time to waste.
    Of course purists and idealists will continue to disdain and try to shred every position that is not identical to their own. The perfect is the enemy of the good enough.

  5. bob - February 17, 2010

    Doesn’t Gates watch Fox News? Global warming is a fraud, scam, and lie brought to us by the socialists.

  6. Peter Greene - February 17, 2010

    Um, I’m no fan of Microsoft OR Windows – but Bill Gates doesn’t make anyone upgrade. I still have an 8 year old laptop running Windows XP, and another laptop running Ubuntu. I get along just fine…
    The thing to focus on is how mainstream the call for carbon reductions has become in less than 10 years. His speech gives cover to all the enviromentalists who would be (and have been) otherwise marginalized as being “too radical”. That can’t be said anymore, and I think the conversation on climate change will be affected, for the better. Let’s appreciate what deserves to be appreciated.

  7. Gail - February 17, 2010

    While I think it is great that Bill Gates is acknowledging the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. I think it is foolhardy to think we can get there without a drastic change in culture and values. Without reduced population,consumption and energy use, we are only holding off the inevitable – the total collapse of the Earth’s ecosystems.
    This is a closed system – water is finite, minerals are finite and the planet’s ability to absorb pollutants is finite. Until we define what is a globally sustainable standard of living for all, it is all smoke and mirrors. Having worked in environmental protection for many years, I see the affects of our standard of living every day.
    The corporations including MicroSoft have far too long emphasized consumption and a narcisstic lifestyle to maximize profits. Unless people are willing to live with far less, we will never achieve these goals.

  8. E. Daniel Ayres - February 17, 2010

    I too get irate about the issues associated with engineered obsolescence, but it is more subtle than previous posters seem to be willing to recognize. It is characteristic of human problem solving and problem identification that a significant investment of effort to find a solution tends to produce a commitment to the continued use of that solution even in the face of things like constantly planned obsolescence and associated fees for upgrades. Designing an economy around this principle because it helps maximize relatively short term profit at the expense of higher resource consumption is at the heart of our problems, especially when coupled with global population growth.
    A simple case in point. Back in 1972 I purchased a dozen pairs of underpants and undershirts from Sears and Roebuck in a premium blended fabric. In 2010 I still wear some of these. However, the company that produced them was bought out and scrapped by their competition. The same thing has happened repeatedly to good ideas that produce simple lasting solutions which reduce our demands on the environment because our business model requires profits rather than sustainable solutions.

  9. Dan - February 17, 2010

    I wonder how this relates to the Kaya equation used in the IPCC scenarios. You’re invited to visit my website Thank you.

  10. gatcheson - February 17, 2010

    You give Microsoft too much credit that they alone can affect the demand for faster computers, because there is a lot more software on a computer than just the operating system.
    But it does relate to post #7 E. Daniel Ayres on planned obsolescence. I don’t buy into conspiracies theories blaming manufacturers for obsolescence. It is consumer driven. We buy cheap stuff rather than a small premium for things that will last. We like shiny and new. Technology will advance and I do not think we can avoid repeatedly buying new computers, phones, cameras, DVD players, music players, and such. But we need to change attitudes on consuming items that could last longer like clothing that he mentions.

  11. fyzyxman - February 17, 2010

    Well now. Planned obsolescence is finally being discussed. Has anyone ever read “The Status Seekers” by Vance Packard? We do all this buying at the subtle brainwashing behest of Madison Avenue advertising firms who spend huge sums of money to convince us we are missing out on something or somehow deprived if we don’t have the latest, greatest and possible most usless new gadget.
    WE are also plagued by a short term profit at the detriment of anythig else and everything else for the sake of the almight Dollar mentality. Talk about a sacred cow. Isn’t there something in the constitution about promoting religion, or not? Worshipping of The Dollar seems to be actively promoted by our government to the detriment of us all.
    If the news is to be bleieved, congresspersons are some of the most serious accumulators and worhsippers of the dollar too.

  12. Rob - February 17, 2010

    I may not be a Windows fan, but let’s put responsibility where it belongs… The owner of an obsolete PC should seek to RECYCLE their legacy PC. It is not Bill Gates’ responsibility to do so.

  13. Dave - February 17, 2010

    Eh, your original post makes too much out of this alleged controversy.
    Yes, I too will disagree if Mr. Gates in his techno-wisdom is advocating waiting for a “silver bullet solution” to the AGW problem. It sounds like he sees the need for steady progress on emissions reductions to reach the 80% by 2050. How to get there must begin with real actions now, vs. deferring until “the next big innovation” materializes. As a software practicioner. Gates should know well the perils of vaporware! Innovations will come, prompted by increased implementation and demand therefor, as Mr. Romm ably points out.
    Energy vaporware is legion, including “cold fusion”, “clean/affordable nuclear– too cheap to meter!”, “clean coal”, or a superconducting direct current power transmission grid.
    The stupid reality is that transmission losses and waste account for 2/3 of existing energy production. Zero value is gained from this waste. We can do something about that today. Beginning with smart grid consumption and storage, localized renewable energy production, and wide-ranging conservation efficiency investments.
    I personally sense that in both the near and medium-term time horizons, Conservation provides the biggest cost-effective opportunity for footprint reductions. Just compare the midwestern US, say, with California or Europe on a GDP/joule basis… the same work can be done with less energy if you arrange the means of production more efficiently.
    Mr. Romm is a physicist and I do respect where he’s coming from on climate matters. His actual post makes many points clearly to me as a reader. The ice cream cone analogy pertained to a previous Gates energy speech alleged to be closer to 100 percent unpalatable ingredients. Romm implicitly says that 80% of the substance in Gates’ latest confection is probably fine and good. 80% vs 95%, closer than the diametrically opposed spectrum you have made out to be above.

  14. Geri - February 17, 2010

    I wonder if Bill Gates and his foundation realize the harm that genetically engineered seeds are doing to the world food supply, especially when droughts and floods accompanying climate change make protecting seed diversity so crucial.

  15. E. Daniel Ayres - February 18, 2010

    Another point needs to be made with respect to Microsoft. They learned a critical lesson from market research conducted by IBM and others many years ago. Making it intentionally difficult to deal with version control issues turned out to be an incredible tool for generating corporate revenues associated with upgrading everyone to the latest version. This was attacked in many cases unsuccessfully in the “Browser Wars” of the past decade and a half, but products like Microsoft Office benefitted immensely from subtle things still going on like the insistence on using a four character file extension standard instead of an completely adequate three character one. It helps the PC world battle the MAC world into the present.

  16. Paula Williams - February 18, 2010

    Very well said. Thank you so much for expressing this so well.

  17. disdaniel - February 18, 2010

    Why do I get nervous (and feel a pain in my pocketbook) whenever Bill Gates talks about “innovation”?

  18. miggs - February 19, 2010

    Thanks for the shout out for Sean Casten’s post on this subject. He’s the CEO of Recycled Energy Development (, a company with which I’m associated, and yes, there’s a huge problem when it comes to energy regulations. There’s a reason that there has been no Microsoft equivalent, no Fed Ex, no Google, in the energy sector: the game is rigged. Electric utilities get profits by (more or less) selling as much power as possible — and thus by being as inefficient as possible. If we change the rules of the game so that efficiency and clean energy are rewarded, we’ll see a lot more of those things.

  19. John - February 21, 2010

    I believe most people here agree with you, but this is very difficult to do within an economic system, where consumption always rewards the producers. You probably can find a lot of hypothetical solutions to this, but most get shot down, when you look at the details. Of course, I’m still open to new ideas.
    Note that even the cap-trade system does not even address this underlying issue.

  20. thermostat - February 22, 2010

    I do not know Bill Gates and his foundation recognized hazards, the practice of genetically modified seeds on the world food supply, especially in the drought and floods associated with climate change, biodiversity protection, the seed key.

  21. E. Daniel Ayres - February 24, 2010

    I should not dignify your post with a reply but… I am trained as a sociologist and I understand the social-psychological dynamics which are in play. Individuals who are ignorant of facts and fearful tend to interpret information they receive based on their “core values” rather than evidence.
    As someone rased in a household headed by a PHD scientist and with a mother who had almost completed a PHD, I understand and appreciate the nuances of science and appreciate the various contriarian arguements which are based on facts. Nothting in what you have said makes any sense because no factual basis for your statements exists.
    I first encountered information about Global Warming one day in 1970 when I was walking across the Daig at the U. of M. I met an acquaintance of mine who was a graduate student studying geology and computer science and employed part time on a research project developing elements of a global weather simulation system.
    He had tears streaming down his face and was clearly upset. I asked him why and got an explanation of the magnitude of effects coming out of their simulations based on the best historical and current data for carbon dioxide as a fraction of our atmospheric gasses. The conclusions based on these now much refined models were that humanity and perhaps all life on this planet were headed rapidly toward possible extinction as human induced, already probably “unstopable” changes in our planetary atmosphere continued over the next century or century and a half.
    Note that his group had taken into account all the then available infromation available regarding CO2 concentrations from ice core data in Antarctica and elsewhere. He stated that the rapidity of change in CO2 levels currently underway (1972) was faster than any other time on record, and that the models predicted a whole list of phenomena which have been coming on line at approximately the times he suggested back then.
    The scary part of this scenario is that it appears that even when rational humans are clearly able to identify a problem and point to solutions, the irrational elements of society are still in control of what is going on. Our paralyzed, polarized political system, as described by my favorite political science professor, is the best system ever devised to allow people and groups to say “NO!” This protects individual freedom at the expense of collective survival given what I have seen in my lifetime.
    I have always believed that we could come together and solve problems in a crisis. The problem this time is that the vast majority of the world’s population is living in abject poverty and is too preocupied with day-to-day survival to permit the kind of focus and direction of collective resources necessary for a viable long term solution.
    As an aside, most people don’t even remember the “Ozone crisis” of the 1980’s when the world was able to mobilize action to eliminate widespread use of chlofleurocarbon propellants in spray packaging and the use of certain refrigerants which were particularly destructive to topospheric ozone which is the world’s shield against cosmic radiation.
    While ozone depletion has finally almost stabilized, many don’t recognize that it will take centuries for the levels of protection against raidiation which causes skin cancer especially in humans adapted to northern climates (read white european ethnic origins) to receede to levels where those folks will have the protection they need against skin cancer. In effect, human action is inadvertently selecting for those with higher concentrations of melanin in their skins, read, black, indian, mixed race folks with better built in protection against UV in their skins. I hope this makes you happy!

  22. E. Daniel Ayres - February 24, 2010

    My appologies for the last paragraph. I attributed Red Neck, KKK style, know-nothing, fascist leaning, racist irrationality to you, BH. This may not be the case. My scientific mentor, Stanley M. Garn, wrote a little book back in the day with a single word title, Race. In it he showed how fundamentally similar we all are and pointed out that the minor variations associated with skin color were, tiny differences that had nothing to do with our fundamental common genetics, that of Homo Sapiens.
    Note now that Homo Sapiens is the one species to ever have developed a culture and technology which has become more important to species survival than indivdual natural selection, the historically dominant factor in the evolution of all life up to this point in time. It is true that corporations are now more important than people. They are a cultural manifestation which is shaping our collective future as a species.