Bill Gates: 3 steps to greater clean-energy innovation

Bill and Melinda Gates
CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia

A plea to the world

Bill Gates has recently announced that he was doubling his personal investments in early-stage clean-energy innovation (battery storage, free air carbon capture, etc), from $1 billion to $2 billion, and explained his thinking in a recent post on his blog, along with a plea for wider action, because even as wealthy as he is, we still need help from the biggest players of all - governments - to tackle this enormous challenge. If we don't, it is the poorest and most vulnerable of us who will be hit hardest by a messed up climate; for example, a subsistence farmer in sub-Saharan Africa might be brought to starvation by a single failed harvest... This isn't about having to turn up the A/C.

Mr. Gates explains that to achieve the goals that scientists say we need to reach if we want to limit the damage caused by global warming (to keep the warming below 2 celsius, the biggest emitters to cut emissions 80% by 2050 and all countries to essentially eliminate them by the end of the century), we can do a lot of work with current technology, but to get all the way there, we'll need innovation.

He highlights three ways to create the proper environment for this innovation to happen fast enough:

1) Proper incentives

Gates thinks that governments should fund more basic research into this field. While a lot of R&D is most effectively done in the private sector, basic research is a different animal exactly because it is a public good and "the benefits to society are far greater than the amount that the inventor can capture." The internet is a good example of this kind of public funding into basic research in another field; Everybody now benefits from the internet, but no single company would have funded and built it in the very early days.

2) Bring carbon emissions into the market

Putting a price on carbon has long been a goal of greens everywhere, and for good reasons. "Today the market is not factoring in what economists call the negative externalities—the health costs, environmental damage, and so on. If the market takes these into account, renewable energy will be more competitive with fossil fuels, which will attract more innovators to the field." There's been many places experimenting with carbon markets, but we need something on a much larger scale and with better incentives for the true price of carbon emissions to be accounted for.

Dealing with counter-productive subsidies should also be a priority, and with the savings made there, we could easily fund the R&D efforts required in #1.

We can also be smarter about how we use subsidies. The IMF estimates that direct subsidies for fossil fuels amount to nearly $500 billion a year worldwide, shielding consumers from their true costs. Some subsidies for deploying renewable energy are also very inefficient, creating big incentives to install solar panels where it’s often not sunny or wind turbines where it’s not windy. We should be looking for ways to reduce these subsidies and invest the savings in the basic R&D that will help solve the problem.

smokestacksUnited States Library of Congress/Public Domain

3) Treat Poor Countries Fairly

One thing that Mr. Gates should be highly praised on is that he's not doing all this just to make life better for his rich kids and their friends. His foundation is focusing primarily on the poorest and most vulnerable people, and the lens through which he seems energy & climate is similar. Here he asks us to keep in mind how unfair the situation is, and to do our part to make is fairer: "Unfortunately, even if we could roll out the ideal zero-carbon solution tomorrow, some climate change is inevitable, and it will hit the world’s poor the hardest. The countries that have done the most to cause this problem have a responsibility to not only invest in mitigation, but also help poor countries adapt to a changing climate."

One example of innovation that Mr. Gates has been funding is called the Omniprocessor and can be seen below (it involves him drinking poop water, so you don't want to miss it):

Via Gates Notes

Bill Gates: 3 steps to greater clean-energy innovation
We can power our civilization with clean sources of energy, but we need to accelerate progress.

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