Bill Gates warns rapid innovation needed to meet 1.5°C climate target

Microsoft chief warns of stiff challenges and high costs involved while giving UK "very good grade" for emissions reduction

Bill Gates believes middle-income countries like China and India are key to tackling climate change. AP
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Bill Gates has warned the world is unlikely to limit climate change to the 1.5°C which scientists believe will avert planetary disaster and called innovation the key to reducing the emissions of major polluters like India and China.

The Microsoft chief's comments came in an interview for Policy Exchange with former UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt where he pulled no punches in enunciating the scale of the challenge facing the world, as its leaders assemble at the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow.

“There's no comparable feat that mankind has ever achieved to what we need to do for climate change," he said.

"It's all a matter of degrees, so to speak. That is, hitting 2.5°C is better than hitting 3°C, hitting 2°C is better than the hitting 2.5°C. 1.5°C will be very difficult. I doubt that we'll be able to achieve that.”

The IT magnate and philanthropist called for "rapid innovation" in green technologies if these degrees are to be constrained, but said it wouldn't come cheap.

"Now, mankind is much richer today, far more knowledgeable today. We do have the digital tools that enable us to work on these things … what happened with solar panels where they were very expensive, and now they're cheap, or lithium-ion batteries – we need to do that for about six other technologies ... green steel [steel with least carbon footprint], cheap hydrogen, offshore wind.

"And so it does require lots of money ... we have many paths of innovation, we're not just counting on one path. But we will have to see rapid innovation."

Premium on affordable green technologies

If rapid innovation is Bill Gates' prescription for climate success, then according to his diagnosis those most in need are middle-income countries where over 65 per cent of the world's population live.

“The richest middle income country is China, the poorest is India. They are key to climate change," he said.

"Most of the emissions in the world come from middle-income countries. And so the rich countries have to do two things.

"We have to get rid of our own emissions. But we also – because we have the majority of all the innovation power, the great universities, the risk capital, that's in the rich countries – [have] the innovation to reduce the cost of green products, what I call the green premium."

As an example, he called it unrealistic to expect India to stop building basic homes if the cost of "green cement" is too great.

We cannot afford to subsidise the green premiums to the middle-income countries. That would be trillions of dollars
Bill Gates

"We have to make that green premium either very small, like less than 10 per cent, or actually zero."

Going further, Mr Gates called for products such as electric cars which are growing in popularity globally to have a "negative green premium" where the green product costs less than the polluting one.

He said this economic rebalancing was the path to success, not bailouts.

"We cannot afford to subsidise the green premiums to the middle-income countries. That would be trillions of dollars.

"For the low-income countries that are about 3 or 4 per cent of emissions – yes, it is possible that you could step up there, but we need to make it easy enough that India decides to participate."

Mr Gates said that it would take time for India and China to be converted to this way of thinking but that they would eventually realise "they are more in trouble than the temperate zone countries.”

Climate praise for 'exemplary' UK

One country that Mr Gates sees no need to convince of the merits of green innovation is the "exemplary" UK.

"The UK has helped 'bootstrap' some of the new technologies," he said, giving offshore wind as an example.

"Wind is going to play a big role in that that much larger power generation network of the future, on a global basis."

Although Mr Gates acknowledged qualms over the merger of the UK government's climate and business departments under ex-Prime Minister Theresa May, he said he had come round to thinking "the right thing happened" as it has led to "more business-oriented, analytical thinking" on the climate.

As a result, he said the UK got a "very good grade on climate change".

Updated: November 03, 2021, 12:01 AM