Bill Gates and his emphasis on innovation – not environmentalists – should take centre stage in American energy debate
Yesterday I wrote about MIT’s climate change plan that engages fossil fuel companies to find science and technology solutions. Today the subject is Bill Gates and his plan to invest billions of his own money in clean energy research.
The common theme here is people and institutions investing in real-life stuff that works better – or will work better one day – than our current technology. The lifeblood of Western economies is innovation and better technology. We cannot go wrong developing new technology that allows us to use energy more efficiently.
As I pointed out yesterday, MIT’s approach is the opposite of the negative protest-oriented model of environmentalists like Bill McKibben et. al. Sure, they put climate change and energy on the global political agenda. But that job is done. Now is the time for solutions.
Which means it is time for innovators like Bill Gates to take centre stage.
Everyone knows that since leaving Microsoft nearly a decade ago Gates has dedicated himself to investing 95 per cent of his immense fortune (estimated to be almost $80 billion USD) in solving global problems through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He gets plenty of attention for investing in financial services for the poor or better hygiene in developing countries.
Bill Gates is less well known for investments in clean – or cleaner – energy.
This summer he wrote a manifesto of sorts about his intention to spend several billions of his own money (his Foundation doesn’t invest in energy) on clean energy research, such as new batteries and other storage methods, advances in solar technology, and nuclear design that “would be safer than previous designs and would go a long way toward solving the nuclear waste problem.”
He plans to spend his money in three basic areas:
- Innovation incentives: He says the world spends only a few billion dollars a year on researching early-stage ideas for zero-carbon energy, but should spend a lot more. “We need hundreds of companies working on thousands of ideas, including crazy-sounding ones,” he argues. As early-stage innovations mature, private capital will flood in to commercialize the technology. The emphasis on capital and markets is a welcome alternative to the restrictive, government-led strategies advocated by most environmentalists.
- Develop better energy markets: Gates isn’t opposed to subsidies, but he thinks they often make markets less efficient and impede the goal of developing and diffusing better energy technology. He also argues that governments have to cost in the “negative externalities” of fossil fuels with carbon taxes. “Whatever approach we take, it should create incentives to develop new energy solutions while also giving energy companies enough certainty to plan and execute the transition to zero-carbon sources,” he wrote.
- Treat poor countries fairly: Some climate change impact is inevitable and poor farmers, for instance, will need help adjusting. He’s not advocating massive subsidies, as some developing countries are demanding, but smarter research to spur adaptation.
“In my view, innovation is essential to human progress,” he concludes. “Some people would say that it is the lens I use to look at every problem, and I have to admit that there is some truth to that. But I believe it is justified by history.”
Innovation is, indeed, the answer to climate change. America needs to listen far more to Bill Gates than it currently does to Bill McKibben.