Bill Gates says there is bad news and good news since the 2021 publication of his book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster."
The bad news: Russia's war on Ukraine has stalled the transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy, particularly in European nations supporting Ukraine but also dependent on Russian gas and oil.
The good news: Congress has passed legislation to boost support for scientific research and provide incentives for clean energy and climate-charge mitigation in the United States.
Gates says the latter builds political momentum for change in a country that is still the world's second largest producer of greenhouse gases, but also has businesses and universities ready to take on that challenge.
The co-founder of Microsoft spoke Monday, Sept. 12, at the 6th annual Cascadia Innovation Corridor conference in Blaine, Wash. Microsoft is a founding sponsor. The focus is on Oregon, Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia.
"Unless we tap that innovation, we will not solve the problem for all the other countries," he said during a conversation with Brad Smith, Microsoft's president and vice chairman. "We have to show others how to do it in an economical way. Government has to take a big role.
"I have never seen a problem that is completely unsolvable without research, government and private companies coming together. It's a complicated problem, and it's a global problem. It's not just a country, it's a group of countries."
The two-day conference at the Semiahmoo Resort will end Tuesday with a panel of governors from the three West Coast states and the premier of British Columbia. Oregonians who took part Monday were Curtis Robinhold, executive director of the Port of Portland, and Lynn Peterson, president of the Metro regional government and a former Washington state transportation secretary.
Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, based in Seattle and focused on fighting poverty, disease and inequity. He also launched Breakthrough Energy, an effort to commercialize clean energy and other climate-related technologies.
In his 2021 book, Gates argues that the world must reach net-zero emissions of heat-trapping gases, such as carbon dioxide, by 2050 to avert the worst effects of a warming planet. That means a reduction from 51 billion tons of gases added annually to zero — something Gates says is difficult, but can be done.
Congress this summer passed one law (CHIPS and Science Act) that provides $200 billion for scientific research, not just $52 billion for incentives for domestic manufacturing of semiconductors. Another law includes $370 billion for tax credits and other incentives for clean energy and climate-change mitigation — about half the money in the measure known as the Inflation Reduction Act and the nation's largest commitment so far.
"It wasn't clear that anything could get passed," Gates said.
"But the bill came through with all the key things intact. There are tax credits for the things we know how to do, but we are accelerating deployment, such as wind power, solar panels and electric cars. That's about half the money. The other half is for new technologies that address the two-thirds of emissions that are not generated by passenger cars."
Transportation is the largest sector generating greenhouse gases. But Gates said more needs to be done about power generation — renewable sources now account for 20% in the United States, though fossil fuels still are at 61%, and nuclear 19%, according to the Energy Information Administration — and emissions generated by agriculture and industry.
Gates said the new federal commitment over 10 years also shores up support from private capital, which Breakthrough Energy encourages to invest in technologies and other programs.
"I do not see companies with good technologies having problems getting money," he said. "People believe in this cause strongly enough so that we can scale them up and industrial partners get them over the finish line. So I am feeling pretty good because of the pace of innovation."
The costs of solar and wind power and lithium batteries have dropped dramatically in recent years, he said, making them competitive with fossil fuels.
Not all the news this year has been good for Gates' cause.
"If your framework is a short-term goal — emissions reductions and how far you get by 2030 — the war in Ukraine is a big setback," he said.
"But in a way, it reminds people that being dependent on imported hydrocarbons has not just resulted in climate problems but also geopolitical dependence. So I do think in the long term it could accelerate things. The key thing I look at is that we are innovating, so that in all those areas of emissions, we have the equivalent with no emissions."
Gates' book focuses on how greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced in how people get around, keep cool and stay warm, generate power, and in how things are grown and made.
His points were reinforced by other conference speakers.
'Has to be different'
On a per-capita basis, the two states and one province defined as Cascadia generate three times the world average in greenhouse gas emissions — and the damages from climate change in the region have risen in the past few years. Bob Keefe, executive director of E2 — a nonpartisan group of business leaders and investors who promote policies good for the economy and the environment — said such disasters cost the United States $150 billion in 2021.
On the other hand, Keefe said, the number of U.S. workers in clean energy is now at 3.2 million — the total grew by 150,000 in 2021 — and account for 505,000 jobs in California, 77,000 in Washington and 54,000 in Oregon. The national total is on par with real estate agents or public school teachers.
Two partners in the Seattle office of Boston Consulting Group, Charlie Davis and Sean Mathewson, laid out several specific ways the region can bring to reality its 2050 vision of being a sustainable mega-region. Among the ideas: Sustainable aviation fuel, heat pumps in homes and commercial buildings, and a high-speed rail link between Vancouver, Seattle and Portland. (Most of it would be within Washington state, whose legislature has set aside $150 million to match a potential federal grant; small sections would fall within British Columbia and Oregon.)
Though climate change puts $970 billion of the region's assets at risk, they said the region stands to gain a potential $2 trillion in benefits.
While public officials and business executives have talked for years about change, Mathewson said, "This time has to be different."
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