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Credit: Adam Grant

Bill Gates, the wealthiest man in the world in 2014, has for the past decade concentrated his efforts and resources into philanthropic projects aimed to transform the world. He’s invested billions in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which concentrates on improving health and helping the world’s poor access technology and basic services. Some of Gates’ funded projects were covered by ZME Science, like the Omniprocessor that  turns sludge into electricity and pure, clean water or the solar power toilets. As you can see, energy is key to meeting any humanitarian goal. It also matters how you get this energy. If we continue to burn fossil fuel at this rate, the planet might irreversibly warm by a couple degrees Celsius, with cataclysmic shifts.  That’s why Gates has pledged $2 billion strictly into energy R&D. In comparison, the whole US government spent only $6 billion last year. Recently, Gates sat down with The Atlantic for an interview, which I recommend you read. Here are some great snippets.

On whether new commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions expected at the United Nations climate-change conference in Paris in December mean the world is now serious about the problem:

It’s good to have people making commitments. It’s really good. But if you really look at those commitments—which are not binding, but even if you say they will all be achieved—they fall dramatically short of the reductions required to reduce CO2 emissions enough to prevent a scenario where global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius. I mean, these commitments won’t even be a third of what you need.

And one of the interesting things about this problem is, if you have a country that says, “Okay, we’re going to get on a pathway for an 80 percent reduction in CO2 by 2050,” it might make a commitment that “Hey, by 2030, we’ll be at 30 percent reduction.” But that first 30 percent is dramatically, dramatically easier than getting to 80 percent. So everything that’s hard has been saved for post-2030—and even these 2030 commitments aren’t enough. And many of them won’t be achieved.

On why the free market won’t develop new forms of energy fast enough:

Well, there’s no fortune to be made. Even if you have a new energy source that costs the same as today’s and emits no CO2, it will be uncertain compared with what’s tried-and-true and already operating at unbelievable scale and has gotten through all the regulatory problems, like “Okay, what do you do with coal ash?” and “How do you guarantee something is safe?” Without a substantial carbon tax, there’s no incentive for innovators or plant buyers to switch.

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And for energy as a whole, the incentive to invest is quite limited, because unlike digital products—where you get very rapid adoption and so, within the period that your trade secret stays secret or your patent gives you a 20-year exclusive, you can reap incredible returns—almost everything that’s been invented in energy was invented more than 20 years before it got scaled usage. So if you go back to various energy innovators, actually, they didn’t do that well financially. The rewards to society of these energy advances—not much of that is captured by the individual innovator, because it’s a very conservative market. So the R&D amount in energy is surprisingly low compared with medicine or digital stuff, where both the government spending and the private-sector spending is huge.

On what it will take to accelerate the transition from carbon-emitting energy:

When people viewed cancer as a problem, the U.S. government—and it’s a huge favor to the world—declared a war on cancer, and now we fund all health research at about $30 billion a year, of which about $5 billion goes to cancer. We got serious and did a lot of R&D, and then we got the private sector involved in taking that R&D and building breakthrough drugs.
In energy, no government—including the U.S., which is in almost every category the big R&D funder—has really made a dramatic increase. It was increased somewhat under Carter and then cut back under Reagan, and it’s now about $6 billion a year—that’s the U.S. piece, which, compared with the importance to our economy in general, is too low.

Realistically, we may not get more than a doubling in government funding of energy R&D—but I would love to see a tripling, to $18 billion a year from the U.S. government to fund basic research alone. Now, as a percentage of the government budget, that’s not gigantic. But we are at a time when the flexibility—because of health costs and other things, but primarily health costs—of the budget is very, very squeezed. But you could do a few-percent tax on all of energy consumption, or you could use the general revenue. This is not an unachievable amount of money.

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On the dangerous certainty of environmentalists:

The heating levels have not tracked the climate models exactly, and the skeptics have had a heyday with that. It’s all within the error-bar range. To me, it’s pretty clear that there’s nothing that relieves this as a big problem. But when people act like we have this great certainty, they somewhat undermine the credibility. There’s a lot of uncertainty in this, but on both the good and the bad side.

By overclaiming, or even trying to ascribe current things more to climate change than to other effects, environmentalists lend weight to the skeptics. Like, in the near term, the Pacific oscillation, this El Niño thing, has a much bigger impact on current weather than climate change has had so far. Now, climate change keeps climbing all the time—it just keeps summing, summing, summing, and adding up. So, as you get up to 2050, 2080, 2100, its effect overwhelms the Pacific oscillation.
So we have to have dramatic change here. It’s unprecedented to move this quickly, to change an infrastructure of this scale—it’s really unprecedented. And, when you turn to India and say, “Please cut your carbon emissions, and do it with energy that’s really expensive, subsidized energy,” that’s really putting them in a tough position, because energy for them means a kid can read at night, or having an air conditioner or a refrigerator, or being able to eat fresh foods, or get to your job, or buy fertilizer.

That’s why we really need to solve that dilemma, we need innovation that gives us energy that’s cheaper than today’s hydrocarbon energy, that has zero CO2 emissions, and that’s as reliable as today’s overall energy system. And when you put all those requirements together, we need an energy miracle. That may make it seem too daunting to people, but in science, miracles are happening all the time.

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