Clicky

Bill Gates: Funding clean technology is the way to avoid climate disaster | Free to read

The author is co-founder of Microsoft, founder of Breakthrough energy and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Before the last major COP meeting in Paris in 2015, innovation was hardly on the climate agenda. This year, it’s in the spotlight in Glasgow. The shift in global focus to the invention of clean technologies was one of the major achievements of the Paris COP. Continuing on this path is perhaps the greatest opportunity this year, because only through innovation can the world reduce net greenhouse gas emissions from around 51 billion tons per year to zero by 2050.

There is now significantly more money for basic research and development and more venture capital for clean start-ups in sectors that are difficult to decarbonize than ever before. As a result, some key clean technologies – like sustainable aviation fuel, green steel, and extra powerful batteries – are now in place and ready to scale.

However, if the world is really committed to climate innovation, those breakthroughs need only be the beginning of the story, not the end. At COP26, we need to think about how we can convert laboratory-tested concepts into ubiquitous products that people want and can afford to buy. This requires massive efforts to fund hundreds of commercial demonstration projects of early-stage climate technology.

It’s incredibly challenging for any Start-up to commercialize its product, but it’s unique to energy companies. When I started at Microsoft, we didn’t need a lot of infrastructure to write code, and once we wrote it we could make almost infinite copies with perfect fidelity for very little money.

Climate smart technologies are much more difficult to navigate. Once you can make green hydrogen in a laboratory, you have to prove that it works – safely and reliably – on a scale. That means building a huge physical facility, ironing out engineering, supply chain, and sales issues, repeating them over and over, and steadily reducing costs. Demonstration projects like this are enormously complicated, extremely risky and extremely expensive – and very difficult to finance.

There is another complication with clean technology. When all of this complicated, risky, and expensive work is done, you end up with a product that performs more or less the same as what it is intended to replace – green steel has pretty much the same functionality as today’s steel – but costs more, at least for a while.

Obviously, it is difficult to find buyers, which means that banks are charging more for loans. The high cost of capital, in turn, increases the price of the products. Because funding is so difficult to come by, a commercial demonstration can be an excruciatingly slow process. Right now, the key to the climate innovation agenda is making it faster.

I believe we can do that. Hundreds of governments and corporations have made net zero commitments and billions of dollars to invest. If we create systems that incentivize funding these projects and commit to buying products like sustainable aviation fuel and green steel, we have a chance to accelerate the innovation cycle. By putting much more money into building demonstration projects, recognizing these contributions as one of the best ways to meet net zero commitments, and creating a system to measure the impact of these investments, we are giving ourselves our best chance of avoiding a climate catastrophe .

When I think about going to zero, I ask three questions. First, can the world maintain public support for climate protection? That depends on the energy transition not costing so much that people lose patience. Second, can emerging economies like India, Brazil and South Africa – which have contributed much less to climate change than rich countries but are hardest hit – continue to fight poverty without emitting greenhouse gases? That depends on lowering the price of green materials so that they don’t have to compromise between growth and a livable climate.

And third, what happens in the meantime? Almost everyone living today has to adapt to a warmer climate. The effects of higher temperatures – more frequent droughts and floods, the drying up of arable land, the spread of herbivorous pests – will hit farmers particularly hard. These changes will be problematic for farmers in rich countries, but potentially fatal for those in low-income countries. So not only do we need to make clean energy cheaper, but we also need to duplicate innovations like improved seeds that help the poorest farmers grow more food.

At COP26, the world should put expanding clean technology innovations – both to mitigate the worst effects of climate and to adapt to the effects we are already feeling – on the agenda, just as it put research and development on the agenda in 2015 .