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Bill Gates: the Most Important Climate Speech of the Year
Alex Steffen, 15 Feb 10

GatesZero.jpg

When We Talk Zero, We Sound Crazy. When Bill Gates Does It, Bankers Pick Up the Phone.

On Friday, the world's most successful businessperson and most powerful philanthropist did something outstandingly bold, that went almost unremarked: Bill Gates announced that his top priority is getting the world to zero climate emissions.

Now, I'm not a member of the Cult of Bill myself (I'm typing this on a MacBook), but you don't have to believe that Gates has superhuman powers of prediction to know that his predictions have enormous power. People who will never listen to Al Gore, much to less someone like me, hang on Gates' every utterance.

And Friday, Gates predicted extraordinary climate action: zero. Not small steps, not incremental progress, not doing less bad: zero. In fact, he stood in front of a slide with nothing but the planet Earth and the number zero. That moment was the most important thing that has happened at TED.

What, exactly, did he say, and why is it so important?

Gates spoke about his commitment to using his massive philanthropic resources (the Gates Foundation is the world's largest) to make life better for people through public health and poverty alleviation ("vaccines and seeds" as he put it). Then he said something he's never said before: that is it because he's committed to improving life for the world's vulnerable people that he now believes that climate change is the most important challenge on the planet.

Even more importantly, he acknowledged the only sensible goal, when it comes to climate emissions, is to eliminate them: we should be aiming for a civilization that produces no net emissions, and we should be aiming to live in that civilization here in the developed world by 2050.

Obviously, that's a big goal. Because he is the world's biggest geek, to explain how he plans to achieve that goal, Gates put up a slide with a formula (which we can call the Gates Climate Equation):

GatesEquation.jpg

CO2 = P x S x E x C

Meaning this: the climate emissions of human civilization are the result of four driving forces:

* Population: the total number of people on the planet (which is still increasing because we are not yet at peak population).

* Services: the things that provide prosperity (and because billions of people are still rising out of poverty and because no global system will work unless it's fair, we can expect a massively increased demand for the services that provide prosperity).

* Energy: the amount of energy it takes to produce and provide the goods and services that our peaking population uses as it grows more prosperous (what some might call the energy intensity of goods and services). Gates believes it's likely cutting two-thirds of our energy waste is about as good as we can do.

* Carbon: the amount of climate emissions generated in order to produce the energy it takes to fuel prosperity.

Those four, he says, essentially define our emissions (more on that later). In order to reach zero emissions, then, at least one of these values has to fall to zero. But which one? He reckons that because population is going to continue to grow for at least four decades, because billions of poor people want more equitable prosperity, and because (as he sees it) improvements in energy efficiency are limited, we have to focus on the last element of the equation, the carbon intensity of energy. Simply, we need climate-neutral energy. We need to use nothing but climate-neutral energy.

To do that, we need an "energy miracle." We need energy solutions that don't yet exist, released through a global push for clean energy innovation. That, in turn, demands that a generation of entrepreneurs push forward new ideas for renewable energy, unleashing "1,000 promising ideas." He described one of his own investments, but went on to note that we need hundreds of other ambitious companies as well, and he plans to put his own efforts into this arena.

Why is this important? The news stories focused largely on the clean energy aspect of the speech, and certainly the world's most successful businessman announcing that clean energy is the next frontier is a big headline. However, I think though that the real breakthrough was not Gates' answer to the problem, but his definition of success: zero.

Bright green advocates understand that we need prosperity without planetary impact. In many of the circles I run in, this is an uncontroversial idea, and, indeed, the conversation has moved on, to discussing how we decouple better lives from ecological footprints (or even go beyond, and build a society that restores the ecosystems on which it depends).

To say, however, that the standard of zero impact is not widely understood and endorsed would be a whopping understatement. Most people rarely see the things they do, buy and use as directly part of the living systems of the planet. Few people who do think of their connection to nature have ever conceived their lives designed to have no impact at all. For most people, a ten percent or twenty percent improvement sounds like a big deal -- in large part because the improvements they're most familiar with involve giving things up. When they do encounter it, the idea of "zero" looms like a giant wall of deprivation in front of them. The idea that zero might not be the end of the good life, but in fact the beginning of a much better way of life, is simply inconceivable to the vast, vast majority of them. When we talk zero, we sound crazy.

But when Bill Gates talks zero, he sounds visionary. Gates, whatever else he did Friday, just made the most important idea on the planet mainstream credible. That's a big, big deal.

Was his articulation ideal? No. In fact, I think it has some big flaws. The biggest flaw is that the Gates Climate Equation could lead to carbon blindness, a self-defeating willingness to destroy critical environmental systems in the name of saving the planet from climate change. Climate is not the only absolutely vital planetary boundary we're straining. The biosphere transcends the climate crisis.

What's more, protecting and healing the biosphere is essential to meeting the climate crisis itself. Logging our forests, over-burdening our oceans, converting land for agriculture and grazing, all these are huge contributors to our climate problem, and restoring the capacities of natural systems to absorb carbon dioxide is a critical part of the solution.

In order to truly succeed, we need to improve the quality of our natural systems at about the same rate at which we're converting the economy to clean energy. Properly, Gates' Equation would include a value for nature:

CO2 = P x S x E x C ÷ N

There's another big gap here, though: the prosperity represented by S.

Now we might start with the energy use to deliver those services (E in the Equation). The energy intensity of any given form of prosperity can, I believe, be improved quite a bit; but the idea that E can be dramatically improved without improving the kind of prosperity we're attempting to provide is the very definition of what I call The Swap. The Swap doesn't work.

And we don't need it to. The idea that contemporary suburban American lifestyles (the kind of prosperity most people around the world aspire to, thanks to Hollywood and advertising), the idea that McMansions, SUVs and fast food chicken wraps somehow represent the best form of prosperity we could possibly invent is, of course, obviously ludicrous.

We can reinvent what prosperity means and how it works, and, in the process both reduce the ecological demands of that prosperity and improve the quality of our lives. In most cases, this is a smarter approach than simply improving efficiency.

The answer to the problem of cars and automotive emissions, for instance, isn't designing a better car, it's designing a better city. The answer to the problem of overconsumption isn't recycling cans or green shopping, it's changing our relationship to stuff, so that everything we use and live with is designed for zero waste, and either meant to last ("heirloom design" and "durability") or to be shared ("product service systems") or both. The best living we've ever had is waiting beyond zero. What looks like a wall to many people from this side of zero, looks to like a trellis from the other side, a foundation on which new thinking can flourish.

Cities are the tools we need for reinventing prosperity. We can build zero-impact cities, and we need to. Any answer to the problem of climate change needs to be as focused on reinventing the future as powering it.

(Photos: Nancy Duarte. Make her famous.)

(PS: thanks for all the positive feedback on my tweets during this talk. If you're new ro Worldchanging, and want to follow me, I'm @AlexSteffen on Twitter.)


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Comments

Glad to see that zero is becoming a standard. It took me about ten years to convince one of my best friends that zero emissions is the standard we should be aiming for, not just zero carbon but zero emissions. That's how you design for the environment.

DuPont has a standard of zero emissions, zero defects, and zero injuries. They have made much money by adhering to it, according to Gil Friend in _The Truth About Green Business_. Zero defects comes from Total Quality Management and Six Sigma. Expand that to include zero emissions and we would have a wonderful sharpening of the mind around our ecological problems.


Posted by: gmoke on 15 Feb 10

First - thanks for the excellent summary and thoughts on Gates talk. I've been hoping the talk itself would be posted sooner rather than later.

I think this is a fantastic and important step. My only concern is that the Gates Foundation will continue to focus too narrowly on Climate, as they seemingly have on world health issues. I'm hoping that they have a wider focus and look at all the intrinsically connected issues such as food, general health, clean water, other types of pollution, etc.


Posted by: Gene on 15 Feb 10

BALONEY- TOTAL AND COMPLETE BALONEY
That line of conversation reminds me of GREENPEACE in New Zealand in 87 with the French: change for the sake of change.
A laptop for every child in Africa and a job in the city for every Indian in the Amazon.
The only gate Bill Gates has opened is the gate to Pandora's box. The only solution to massive Third World population explosions is the complete eradication of all rain-forests and new hybrid grains to be planted in their place.


Posted by: Rance DeWitt on 15 Feb 10

Alex,

Not a single comment on his nuclear power ambitions? Kind of a big thing to leave out of a summary, don't you think?

I'd love to know your thoughts on Bill's wild 'TerraPax' or whatever 'green tech miracle madness' his tech-focused mind is envisioning will save us.

Yes, his speech is important, but I'd say that every time Lester Brown, for example, gives a talk, his info is more accurate and his plan for the future more all-encompassing and 'important' than Bill G's wild 'tech will save us' rah-rah delivery.


Posted by: Tod Brilliat on 15 Feb 10

I've talked quite a bit about how I don't think nuclear power is a smart (or necessary) way to go, so obviously I differ with Gates on that. For that matter, I think CCS "clean coal" technologies are a crock, too.

But I really don't think that's what's important here. I think the goal of zero emissions is much, much more significant than choice of energy path (or even whether to emphasize clean energy generation or a more holistic approach). If we can agree on that goal as a society, all sorts of changes will tumble forward.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 Feb 10

What got me about the ZERO goal is that it seemed like a Seth Godin moment, so to speak, from a marketing standpoint.

It's got the makings of a "sticky" idea and message (see "Made to Stick") -- simple, unexpected, credible, concrete, emotive (wow!), etc.

I look forward to watching for Bill Gates' next steps...

P.S. As I view solutions to climate change and Peak Oil as opposite sides of the same coin, I'm curious if he mentioned the current state of the world's oil supplies in his talk...


Posted by: Jon Gelbard on 15 Feb 10

Terrific article, though I agree that Gates' discussion of clean nuclear energy generation by utilizing the latent power within spent uranium rods deserved mentioning.
If I'm not mistaken, the topic occupied a significant part of his speech. Indeed I am in complete agreement with your feelings regarding CCS...it's like sweeping dust under the rug. Must admit that you hit the nail on the head with the following comment:

"Gates, whatever else he did Friday, just made the most important idea on the planet mainstream credible. That's a big, big deal."

Indeed.


Posted by: Nick Cope on 15 Feb 10

"When We Talk Zero, We Sound Crazy. When Bill Gates Does It, Bankers Pick Up the Phone."

True enough, and that makes this a big step, however unoriginal (the "Gates Equation" is a modification of the Ehrlich/Holdren Equation, I=PxAxT, Impact = Population X Affluence x Technology) and inthrall to the unneeded nuclear option it might be.

Glad to have him aboard. Now let's educate him. (And all those bankers! ;-)


Posted by: Gil Friend on 15 Feb 10

I haven't seen the speech yet, but I agree this is significant. As momentum gains towards zero emissions, however, we must also be sure that the transformation is empowering to those that have been oppressed and disadvantaged from the original industrial revolutions. This is a massive opportunity, but equitability and self sufficiency are just as important as cutting emissions. I resonate with Alex's point though, "If we can agree on that goal as a society, all sorts of changes will tumble forward", we just have to make sure that with these changes, power and control are in turn shifted from corporations and banking structures to communities and 'the people'.


Posted by: Erick Boustead on 15 Feb 10

Atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett has done an interesting analysis of the "Gates equation" (as heard on ecoshock.org). If he's right, Gates is correct to concentrate on the rate of decarbonization. (Energy efficiency just leads to further economic growth.)

Garrett estimates we need to decarbonize our energy at 300 GW/yr. That's equivalent to a nuclear power plant a day. And that's just enough to stabilize, not reduce, emissions. In this sense, Romm is also right to emphasize immediate and massive deployment.


Posted by: Colin Wright on 15 Feb 10

Alex.

Thanks for posting this. I read his blog post a couple weeks ago on how it would take more than insulation to get us to zero, and look forward to seeing his full presentation once it is loaded.

In response to your quip on why he can get bankers on the phone when you cannot, I would disagree in so far as this is a zero sum movement where he can get X and environmentalists cannot, and I would argue that where the average environmentalists would be to highlight issues and solutions, it would be the role of business leaders like Gates to bring his "people" to the table... and without the work of environmentalists (historians, economists, lawyers, activists, etc) Gates would not have the data or popular support needed to make his pitch in front of his peers.

r


Posted by: Collective Responsibility on 16 Feb 10

Thanks for taking Bill Gates talk some steps further, I certainly share your hope his call for 'zero' might create a cultural turning point. As to the nuclear question, I wonder if Gates factors in, for instance, the massive CO2 embodied in the mere concrete cooling tower of a nuclear reactor? As an earlier post determined, now that 'he's here', education is in order.

I will remain sadly befuddled that Gates did not assign the task of 'zero' to his own forces, when first I arrived in Seattle in 1981, to find the potential 'Ben Franklin's' of my generation tucked away, at the big M's (sub)urbanistic disaster of an office park. Thirty years later, the commuting and sprawl continue, but thankfully Bill himself has changed his focus.

It's a shame that the new Gates Foundation campus is barely urban, not to mention ecologically designed. The lavish parking garage (!) itself lacks any amenities for those walking, biking, or awaiting a bus (shade or rain awnings, benches, bike racks, water fountains, trees, natural habitat) outside, along 5th Avenue.

My comments may seem off topic and mundane in pointing out the trivial or obvious. I feel, however, Gates is obliged now to walk his talk, which must begin at his own front door. Ideally he will decide it's past time for all of us - and especially those of 'us' with the very largest footprints - to finally pay attention, and 'act local'. Fancy equations or no.

My hope is he'd stroll over to seriously discuss these matters over lunch with Paul Allen.


Posted by: Genevieve Vayda on 16 Feb 10

Yeah right!

We are talking here about the guy that predicted that internet would never be much. He couldn't have been more off ever. What a visionary person...

Are we really going to hang on to his words?

Perhaps it's better to look at the IPCC-gate instead for direction.


Posted by: Martijn on 16 Feb 10

There is no such thing as "zero-carbon" in living systems. Carbon cycles in dynamic nonequilibrium.

We'd be better acknowledging natural realities, than writing and innovating to human fictions.


Posted by: Josh Stack on 16 Feb 10

Zero Emissions is a good standard. It would certainly be a start to being healthier in our cities. I've been talking about it for a while on my website: http://unpollute.ning.com. Maybe I should give Mr. Gates a call... I debated, mostly with myself, if Zero Emissions wasn't too tough a standard when I wrote the Unpollute Bill! But it is the way to go, the way to aim, to the way to lead.


Posted by: Emett Stasiuk on 16 Feb 10

there is no ippc gate

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/02/ipcc-errors-facts-and-spin/

I agree that Bill Gates is not exactly a visionary, but it is good to have influential people from all walks of life on board


Posted by: hugo on 17 Feb 10

It's good that Mr. Gates is finally on board. Now he must realize that we already have available the technologies needed for zero-emission energy: nuclear, wind, and Solar (both PV and thermal, and both ground- and space-based). There is no need to delay deployment while searching for improvements and breakthroughs; these will come in time, and we have no time to waste.

Of course purists and idealists will continue to disdain and try to shred every position that is not identical to their own. The perfect is the enemy of the good enough.


Posted by: richard schumacher on 17 Feb 10

My previous comment picked up the period at the end the sentence in the link, killing it. So please try http://unpollute.ning.com

thanks, Emett Stasiuk


Posted by: Emett Stasiuk on 17 Feb 10

Thanks for this post.

"Gates, whatever else he did Friday, just made the most important idea on the planet mainstream credible. That's a big, big deal."

I couldn't agree more. When Bill Gates talks, people sit up and listen.

I had not heard of his speech, so thanks for bringing attention to it.

I live in the Seattle area and just passed by the Gates Foundation's new building on Sunday night. It is not in the heart of downtown, but at the base of Queen Anne, an area of Seattle that is very much part of the city. It is very close to the downtown hub and lots of public transportation. I suspect he built a large parking garage for his facility because as a people were are not "there" yet.

Genevieve, you are correct, the main Microsoft campus is a huge area in Redmond, Washington. Microsoft is spread around the eastside of Seattle, but the company also has the largest private bus/shuttle service in the nation. If you were ever near the campus, it would blow you away to see all of the bright green and white buses, shuttles, and cars (Priuses) available to shuttle employees from campus to campus. The system not only is used from campus to campus, it extends its reach all through Seattle and to adjacent counties in an effort to keep Microsoft employees out of their cars as they commute to work.


Posted by: Debra Sinick on 17 Feb 10

Thanks Alex,
In the bricks and morter realm it may still be location, location, location, but in our media age it's exposure, exposure, exposure. Who is better to expose the simple truth of Zero better than BG? It may be hard to swallow for those allergic to PC's or big business, but size matters, and big size + big action = big influence. The Earth needs BG and so do we.

Whether he is visionary or not is a sideshow, as is whether or not he copped his formula from someone else or got the formula exactly right. The perfect moment is Gates in front of the Earth/Zero slide.

May it be touted from other podiums, race thru cyberspace and broadcast non-stop. Once that happens, I am as sure we will find the ways to make zero a reality as I am of the next traffic jam in Redmond.


Posted by: Terra Mar on 17 Feb 10

Bill Gates is way off the mark.
Emissions can be reduced but not to zero.

He has completely ignored the role of plants and biomass, they can mop up huge amounts of carbon.

More people eat more food, so more plants are grown, these absorb some of the CO2 emitted, due to other activities of these people.

Total CO2 in air is 691 billion tons and total biomass is 2000 billion tons.

If the goal is reducing carbon by 25% (about 175 billion tons) then a 10% increase in biomass may be adequate to achieve this.


Posted by: Bhaskar on 17 Feb 10

Yes, it is good Gates is getting on climate in a public sense. Yes, it is excellent he is setting out the zero goal. It fits the emerging climate science. But he has a flawed understanding of technology deployment tracks. Holding back on climate action and adoption of existing technologies now is a little like telling a smoker, keep smoking, by the time you get lung cancer, we will have invented a perfect gene therapy that will fix you up just fine. Joe Romm, who ran the renewable energy/energy efficiency research and development program at US Department of Energy is far smarter than Bill on these matters, and he issues a hugely cogent critique at his Climate Progress site. The article gets to Gates' own strategy in releasing Windows. Let us say that waiting to deploy a technology until it is perfect has hardly been the strategy of the Microsoft Corporation, as early adopters of programs from Windows 95 to Vista can attest.

http://climateprogress.org/2010/02/14/bill-gates-ted-speech-innovation-energy-miracles/


Posted by: Fire Mountain on 17 Feb 10

Certainly, Bill's 2050 goal of Zero is important news. One of the primary trends in energy these days is towards decentralization. The centralized approach to Zero Carbon is what someone mentioned above, one nuke plant per day: total cost $3-4trillion/year. Who will insure them? Who will pay for them? We actually can't afford to keep the 104 existing nukes operating past the 2050 deadline (it will cost $1.4trillion in current dollars).

All of which suggests that local renewable community energy systems is the way to go. The situation is very much like the computer industry in 1980. Who would have believed then that in 30 years most people in the US would own laptops that are more powerful than mainframes at a fraction of the cost? The analogy breaks down somewhat since we're dealing with electrons instead of bits. However, through a combination of efficiency, smart grids/microgrids, renewables and new storage technologies, communities (and the people in them) can lead the way to Bill's giant Zero. This is *the* hot topic at the CADER conference 2010 in April. Be there!


Posted by: Cris Cooley on 17 Feb 10

Alex, Bill Gates makes some valid points, but zero isn't one of them. There are very few zero anythings in Universe. WE are not zero emissions as long as we eat analog food and poop analog poop. Every time anyone attempts to reduce emissions or any other pollution, the cost of doing so rises enormously as one approaches zero. Getting rid of the last percent is practically impossible due to the laws of entropy and Carnot, for instance. Thus, striving for zero is perhaps a high-minded goal, but it is not likely to help much. Worse, it is likely to encourage the mindless zealotry found in so many religions. Also, the attempt to achieve zero will soon lead to discouragement and "burnout" as the actors find futility. I think that zero should rather be a "direction". Any thoughtful action in the right direction will help. As I've been writing for many years, we nibbled our way into this mess, and it will take a lot of focused nibbling to get us back to a sustainable manner of living on this planet. And "us" is billions of people, each one of whom need to change the way they think. That's a lot of zeros.


Posted by: Jay Baldwin on 17 Feb 10

Jay, good point. It's not about a make-believe zero.

It should be about understanding the local, regional and global carbon cycles of the Holocene and designing for health and life within these boundaries.

How one defines the goal fundamentally shapes the process of "innovation" and problem solving.


Posted by: Josh Stack on 17 Feb 10

He did say *net* zero.


Posted by: Cris Cooley on 17 Feb 10

"Net" relative to what?


Posted by: Josh Stack on 17 Feb 10

Yes, folks: "zero" doesn't mean no emissions, it means no emissions above what the planet can absorb (usually defined by an equitable share per person, planet-wide). Increase the uptake of carbon (through reforestation, or biochar, or whatever) and you can, in theory, emit more GHG and still be at zero net emissions.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 18 Feb 10

Alex, I agree with all your criticisms of his talk, and also with your decision to focus on the positive aspects instead of the criticism... I think if he *had* gone whole hog, and advocated both ZERO and the additionally necessary massive culture-shift in the same breath, he might have freaked some people out... maybe next year he'll talk about bright green cities too. We can hope at least! Probably we just need to get him turned on to the technological aspects of sustainable urbanism, which are non-trivial, exciting, and very information based.

However, I think maybe it's at least conceivable that his (significant) focus on new and actually innovative nuclear power is not entirely without merit. The 100+ year complete breed-and-burn fuel cycle with in-place disposal of the high-level (but short lived) waste could, theoretically, deal with many if not most of the serious issues associated with nukes, but not the one you mentioned in one of your tweets from the conference... namely: the decades necessarily sitting between us now, and deployment of this power source on the tens-of-terawatts scale necessary to make a difference, and the carbon emitted in the interim. For that carbon, we have no choice but to deploy what we've got today, and then deploy, deploy, deploy some more.


Posted by: Zane Selvans on 18 Feb 10

Alex, good to finally meet you at TED.

Even though he now has an economic incentive for his position (regional / local nukes) I agree with him - energy is the #1 structural issue of our era - something I've been saying for many years.

At TED U a Shell-funded MIT prof (who worked for Shell most of his life) gave a typical "everything is rosy" energy talk. Within 30 seconds of his first slide, I saw the sneaky corporate agenda coming, and it only got worse. I pinged Bruno and Chris and told them I would be happy to give a 2011 TED U talk on how identical data can be used for good science, or for corporate agenda. It's a talk that needs to be given.

Be well, JL


Posted by: John La G on 18 Feb 10

It's great to see someone of Gates' stature in the business world make a bold statement like this. It was a great and long-needed thing for him to do, and kudos to him, Melinda, and his foundation for making this step.

The only main critique I would offer is with respect to this notion that some sort of energy miracle is needed - an as-yet undeveloped for of power generation that is carbon-neutral and that can provide for all of our energy needs (which is hard to imagine, considering how much of energy consumption is not electricity itself, but rather direct combustion of fossil fuels).

Mostly, this goal is a rehashing of the dreams of something like nuclear fusion. But as others have said, I don't believe there is a lack of energy technology at this point, but rather the problem is the lack of financial and organization mechanisms to implement what we need to do with the technologies we have already developed - technologies which keep evolving in efficiency, reliability, and lower costs.

Clearly, Alex, the universe of bright green solutions is instrumental in achieving this objective, and I hope that people like yourself can be engaged with Mr. Gates and his people in helping him become a meaningful part of achieving the goal he just committed to so boldly.

This is very good news and really lifts my spirits about our potential as people to take on the big problems which need solving.


Posted by: J W on 18 Feb 10

We’re told that carbon is the problem. It isn’t. Fossil fuels just grease the wheels and set the pace for the real trouble in paradise.

The bottom line is that we’re mining all of ‘our’ resources. We’re digging deep into the capital of the natural world. We’re dirtying air faster than it can clean itself. We’re using up fresh water faster than precipitation falls. We’re losing soils faster than they replenish. We’re fishing faster than stocks can replace themselves. We’re logging faster than forests regrow. And on it goes.

We’re doing this on a planet whose bioproductivity is 2–3 per cent per year. The living world produces that much over-all real growth annually – quite astonishing, really. There’s simply no way to fool or cheat this guaranteed ‘interest’, or return, on life’s capital.

We can ramp up the return in some parts of it, but at the cost of others. Cut down a rainforest, put in fast-growing crops, divert a river to irrigate, add fertilizers, spray pesticides, build roads, truck and ship the harvest to processing plants, ports, stores, etc., and the cost of those locally huge returns are offset by massive losses overall.

Or do as India is doing, using 30 cubic miles of fresh water each year to grow its miracle economy, while precipitation supplies only five cubic miles per year (New Scientist, 2007). They’re mining all that extra water from groundwater and aquifers, and from rapidly melting glaciers. It doesn’t matter what kind of energy fuels this. It’s ridiculously unsustainable.

If humanity is to survive in perpetuity – this is what sustainability means - we have to live within nature’s means. Two to three per cent return on investments will have to do. There’s no other way.

We’ve been taking double-digit gouges into life’s capital for decades now, spending millions of years worth of stored carbon to do this. Ahah! many say. That’s the problem. The answer is to switch to clean, green fuels. Solar, wind, water, and geothermal power will save us all.

Uh uh. Using clean, green energy to dig into life’s capital is, ultimately, just as stupid as using the dirty stuff. The mining has to stop, in every sector.

This argument is one that big business can understand and, further, not refute. They keep books; they know how it works. None of them set up shop with plans to pay their stockholders by giving away and trashing the store. And they don’t expand their business by increasing such payouts and slip-shod practices. That would be nuts.

I wish that the collective cry were against this, not narrowly focussed against what fuels we’re using to create over-the-top returns on every production and investment, which in turn support our notions of the good life.

Corporations love the fight to get off carbon. The bullying back and forth about the reality of climate change suits them perfectly. They know it’s a mug’s game, and they’re going to win either way. By resisting, they stall for time while they keep mining the old way. When they’ve eventually, inevitably switched to non-carbon energy sources, they'll keep mining.

I’d like to hear loud calls to inventory every resource on Earth and chart sustainable levels of exploitation. I’d like to see people get outraged about waste of every sort, which factors hugely in corporate profits. I’d like to be in on some new environmental bookkeeping, where businesses come, not to deny and fight, but to share their savvy about how to prosper globally and indefinitely within a 2-3 per cent profit margin.


Posted by: Brenda on 18 Feb 10

While I am also very happy at Bill's finally coming to the table with his resources to work on climate change, the place where he is making a dreadful wrong turn is in his partnering with Monsanto and giving a green light to the whole GMO technology... This is horrific and he needs to be called on it. Monsanto is single-handedly trying to drive small family farms into the ground (and into bankruptcy) by intentionally allowing their seeds to "escape" and then whenever they find some of their little frankenmonsters growing in someone's field, they take them to court and beat the shit of them. And let's talk about about "prions" the trash 'folded proteins' that remain in the cells after their GMO operations. These are what has been implicated in bovine encephalopathy (mad cow disease), a horrifying way to die that takes DECADES to emerge - in the next 20-30 years an entire generation could easily wake up to find themselves senseless and slowly dying... OR how about the monster weeds (pigweed) which Monsanto is responsible for creating with their HT (herbicide tolerant) technology of inserting Round-up tolerant genes into plants. That technology has also "escaped" and now literally thousands of acres are across the US are being rendered un-arable because of weeds that are growing 1-2"/day, to 7-8', which are extremely drought tolerant and which will stop a combine in its tracks. All of these things are criminal, and yet Bill is throwing his $$$$$$ at partnering with Monsanto like there's no tomorrow (or maybe he just knows something we don't... yet) <:-(


Posted by: Julianne on 18 Feb 10

Climate denialist disruptive comments deleted as per site policy. There are other sites where you are free to make such comments: this is a site where solutions to sustainability problems are discussed.


Posted by: Moderator on 20 Feb 10

Yes, solutions are important, however that the talk ended up seeming like a product launch for renaissance nuke technology was troubling. No one has mentioned that this talk was sponsored by a corporation that has a financial interest in nukes.

As Amory Lovins or Dr. Thomas Cochrane have pointed out, the economics of theoretically fast breeder nukes misdirects precious expenditures and research away from decentralized, distributed feed-in technologies (renewables, demand management, co-gen, ESCOs), and low carbon urbanity. Besides the huge capital and technical investments which need public largesse, the full life cycle of fission reactors is not an environmentally benign pathway and serious risks remain from mining to siting and plant closure. Sustainability is about the long, long-term.

While Gates is correct that myriad innovations are needed in the battle against carbon emissions, we also need to consider the many voices of people who will bear the long-term costs of all major energy pathways taken. Scenarios, roundtables, forums, technology and full life cycle environmental assessments and so forth are needed for major tech trajectories, not just "shock doctrine", cheer-leading for unproven and potentially risky megaprojects.

Why is that we are so unwilling to let go of the myth of power benignly and perpetually emanating from mysterious external 'black box technologies' and not look closer to our community and homes for solutions to the energy/carbon conundrum?


Posted by: david sadoway on 20 Feb 10

Nuclear energy is NOT low carbon because an enormous amount of energy and CO2 are expended in extracting and processing the ore into uranium. If those figures are factored in, then the GHG emissions of nuclear are not significantly lower than gas fired power stations. Clearly it is important to include the life cycle figures of CO2 for every energy system in order to have an informed discussion. An authoritative study by Swiss researchers measured the energy inputs and CO2-eq outputs from several different kinds of power stations in Germany, France and Switzerland.

For those interested, the research is published in Engllish by EcoInvent Centre (Swiss Centre for Life Cycle Inventories) http://www.ecoinvent.org as: Life Cycle Inventories of Energy Systems: Results for Current Systems in Switzerland and other UCTE Countries (Data v2.0, 2007). Authors: Roberto Dones, Christian Bauer, Rita Bolliger, Bastian Burger, Thomas Heck and Alexander Roder, Mireille Faist Emmenegger, Rolf Frischknecht, Niels Jungbluth, Matthias Tuchschmid.


Posted by: policywonk on 21 Feb 10

The alternative equation offered by Alex was CO2 = P x S x E x C ÷ N (Eq. 1). I would like to instead argue for CO2 = P x S x E x C - N (Eq. 2), where N in both cases stands for Nature. On the 18th, Alex used the terms reforestation and Biochar - obviously in his sense of N=Nature. But Alex did not emphasize that we need any CO2 equation to yield negative values if we are to attain CO2=350 ppm, as promoted by Hansen and McKibben. Mr. Gates had it only about half right. Alex was a lot closer; carbon negativity, reforestation, Biochar and the revised Eq. 2 are all needed.


Posted by: RonalLarson on 21 Feb 10

Gates is absolutely 100% spot-on. Not surprising, from such a savvy individual. The world is finally starting to wake up to the fact that ONLY nuclear power can save the planet from not just climate apocalypse, but imminent peak oil shocks. According to Richard Heinberg, the world only has enough fossil fuels to take us to 471 ppm, but even that is far too high. The advanced fast reactor has an EROEI of 300:1 which is about a hundred times higher than the EROEI of photovoltaic solar. In fact, the EROEI of photovoltaic solar is negative, like ethanol, if lead-acid batteries are used to store it. Wind has a pretty good EROEI, but still the intermittence problem, and making a single wind turbine requires 700 pounds of neodymium-- and 97% of supply is in China, which will soon halt exports. And to think that it takes 300 square miles of wind farm to equal a single nuclear plant.

It isn't global warming that's forcing us to change. It's peak oil. France never had much of an environmental movement, and thanks to that they now enjoy the cleanest air of any nation in the industrialized world, and the cheapest electricity prices of any nation in Europe. In Germany, thanks to its strong green party, they're building lignite plants. lignite is, amazingly, even dirtier than ordinary coal.

More greens are favoring nuclear all the time: James Lovelock, Patrick Moore, Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Barry Brook, and even James Hansen. These men are rational individuals with training in the natural sciences, who are able to realize that what most greens have been saying about nuclear just isn't true.

Go to bravenewclimate.com for proof


Posted by: Zachary on 22 Feb 10

I apologize in advance for leavign a smart ass comment, but...

"Now, I'm not a member of the Cult of Bill myself (I'm typing this on a MacBook), but you don't have to believe that Gates has superhuman powers of prediction to know that his predictions have enormous power."

how much RAM dos your Macbook have? Is it more than 640k? if so take his predictions with a grain of salt.


Posted by: Mark Davis on 22 Feb 10

Wow, I'm so glad Bill has done this -- since so many of our politicians are afraid of offending the pollution-industrial complex.

But this must represent a huge dilemma for right-wing climate change deniers: Do they now have to give up their communist/socialist/America-hating PCs ... for communist/socialist/America-hating Macs?!?


Posted by: Paul Kotta on 22 Feb 10

Yes, we need to redefine prosperity. I'm willing to rent out my closet at a mere $2,000/month for anyone who want's to rent it. Small carbon footprint, big bill to impress others.. and that's it.

If you can convince people to rent closets for more than larger spaces; then you're good. Oh, while we're reinventing people lets make them inherently polite instead of the complete and utter b***ards they are now.

How exactly are we reinventing people? I may have missed that technology breakthrough.


Posted by: Ertdfg on 24 Feb 10

This is a far more positive spin than I've had re Gates, in part due to his (near) total dismissal of efficiency as even worth the bother in the interim.

Also, I've been sadly depressed by the near total absence of meaningful energy action within the Gates Foundation activities (solar power for remote health clinics, energy efficiency in agriculture, etc ... lots of 'win' on energy and their focu areas).

And, thus, I've put off actually watching the talk. Your post is letting me know that this is not the right choice. Thank you.


Posted by: A Siegel on 26 Feb 10

Nuclear while one can make technical arguments for nuclear -- it is not an option by economic and sociological arguments. It is again centralized control of energy that will end up increasing wealth stratification. Most people dont realize that a 120x120 square mile of southwestern desert get enough energy to power the country every year. Thus if the engineering (not science issues) issues of transmission losses and conversion efficiencies are addressed this is easily doable. Eg at 10% efficiency that would be about area of about 1/2 the big box stores in the USA.


Posted by: ray on 27 Feb 10

The goal should be not just to get to zero emissions, but rather get to zero emissions and give back to the grid.

Twitter @JohnBergdoll


Posted by: John Bergdoll on 28 Feb 10

There's a big contradiction in his philosophy here.

Of course it makes sense that this tech guru would be gunning for a big tech breakthrough. And yet, the irony: Microsoft itself was built on low-cost, un-dramatic solutions, deployed across the world at massive scale. It wasn’t built on leapfrogging other companies, on super inventions or on tons of R&D.

But Gates doesn’t seem to believe that that kind of thinking would work when it comes to energy. Instead of wind, solar, biofuels and smarter energy use, he’s putting most of his money behind controversy-soaked nuclear and more dramatic “energy miracles” that don’t quite exist yet.

I wrote more about this here:
http://www.motherboard.tv/2010/2/18/video-bill-gates-at-ted-i-believe-in-energy-miracles-sexy-things


Posted by: Alex on 2 Mar 10

I have heard rumors about Mr. Gates i.e. he recently said there are "Too many people" and openly linked his 10 billion dollar vaccine program directly as a route to reducing the population? And in the same paragraph pushed GMO seeds (that are known to cause organ damage and aptosis in the the placenta, and also supposedly contain glycophosphates that bind to sperm directly). With all this i.e his and his fathers history with planned parenthood, his association with Rockefeller ( an known purveyor of sterilants via vaccines), makes for a compelling "conspiracy theory". It would seem like Billy G looks on humans as undesirable sources of CO2? Does anyone have any feedback on these rumors? Thanks, if even some of this is true it gives me the willies....Ive heard this before somewhere??? oh yeah, it was the big Hister


Posted by: JayDee on 5 Mar 10

@Alex

"And yet, the irony: Microsoft itself was built on low-cost, un-dramatic solutions, deployed across the world at massive scale. It wasn’t built on leapfrogging other companies, on super inventions or on tons of R&D. But Gates doesn’t seem to believe that that kind of thinking would work when it comes to energy."

I'm very impressed by your analysis. This is absolutely true! Gates nuclear dream would be a good thing if everyone could invest a small share equivalent to his or her energy use in the plant. This would also resolve the financing problems.

But big nuclear only in the hands of a few is not the answer. Decentralized energy production or community models sound more like democracy to me.


Posted by: Diego on 29 Mar 10

And by the way, I wasn't very impressed by Bills TED speech. It was very inaccurate and very simple. Many, many others have had far better ideas/solutions and are way ahead of mr. Gates. He truly is a guy who's always picking up good ideas from others a lot later and then he is making big money with these ideas.

Same old story over and over again. What a sad world is this?


Posted by: Diego on 29 Mar 10

I just feel that the best part of your article, Alex, was to remind us of the solutions: make all our processes efficient. Another set of people who advocate strongly for this type of solution are the Factor Ten Institute and the Club of Rome. There is a book that has just come out called "The Blue Economy: a 100 innovations" which introduces innovations based on nature-inspired physics and chemistry, for entrepreneurs to take up and create businesses in.

This is truly interesting work.

If I heard heads of state declare that they are going to look at re-designing cities to make them as resource and energy efficient and waste-free as possible, then I would feel we are advancing. The solutions are out there, and in part they are legal, educational, tax-related... the people we need to see with a vision are our governments, who would commission all businesses and entrepreneurs to adopt a cradle-to-cradle business model.

Many famous people pop up once in a while with a supposedly groundbreaking message, but really I believe that we need a groundswell of popular demand, and yes people like Greenpeace and the media have got the responsibility to inform people in a clear and objective way.

I believe it wouldn't be so difficult to paint a positive picture of a future that is more resource-efficient. Think about it: as a tenant some of our bills might be non-existant, if we lived in a passive-building. The food might taste nicer, and there would be more birds and insects and other animals to observe! We would have more friends, more to do, more access to learning skills and other assets like different transport options. There would be more jobs around, because (one idea) labour would be valued. Imagine paying tax on resources instead of on labour: imagine not paying tax! Imagine breathing air that tastes sweet. Imagine streets either tranquil or full of life like in the best mediterranean cities!

No really, I think we lack a picture of that future. Those of us visually-inclined or storyteller-inclined should produce this imagery, based on what innovators and scientists and alternative economists are coming up with.

Like science-fiction writers that invented modern technology less than a century ago.


Posted by: N. Tafelmacher on 6 Apr 10

I just feel that the best part of your article, Alex, was to remind us of the solutions: make all our processes efficient. Another set of people who advocate strongly for this type of solution are the Factor Ten Institute and the Club of Rome. There is a book that has just come out called "The Blue Economy: a 100 innovations" which introduces innovations based on nature-inspired physics and chemistry, for entrepreneurs to take up and create businesses in.

This is truly interesting work.

If I heard heads of state declare that they are going to look at re-designing cities to make them as resource and energy efficient and waste-free as possible, then I would feel we are advancing. The solutions are out there, and in part they are legal, educational, tax-related... the people we need to see with a vision are our governments, who would commission all businesses and entrepreneurs to adopt a cradle-to-cradle business model.

Many famous people pop up once in a while with a supposedly groundbreaking message, but really I believe that we need a groundswell of popular demand, and yes people like Greenpeace and the media have got the responsibility to inform people in a clear and objective way.

I believe it wouldn't be so difficult to paint a positive picture of a future that is more resource-efficient. Think about it: as a tenant some of our bills might be non-existant, if we lived in a passive-building. The food might taste nicer, and there would be more birds and insects and other animals to observe! We would have more friends, more to do, more access to learning skills and other assets like different transport options. There would be more jobs around, because (one idea) labour would be valued. Imagine paying tax on resources instead of on labour: imagine not paying tax! Imagine breathing air that tastes sweet. Imagine streets either tranquil or full of life like in the best mediterranean cities!

No really, I think we lack a picture of that future. Those of us visually-inclined or storyteller-inclined should produce this imagery, based on what innovators and scientists and alternative economists are coming up with.

Like science-fiction writers that invented modern technology less than a century ago.


Posted by: N. Tafelmacher on 6 Apr 10

At least people are sitting up and taking notice. If nothing else Gates gives the issues a platform with which to publicise the problems we face, and bring to light the importance of doing something soon.


Posted by: EcoGirl on 9 Apr 10

That is the way forward.
Infact, if FMCG companies could provide the home delivery of stuffs right in our containers, that would be great. Atleast we are getting rid of lot and lot of packaging.

These are the small small ways we develop green cities.

thanks,
navneet


Posted by: NAVNEET AGARWAL on 20 Apr 10

Proponents of nuclear power - some of our current president's advisors included - never address the true costs of plant construction (even averaged over the relatively short life of the plant) along with the always vast cost over-runs attending any nuclear energy project. Nor do they confess the environmental and financial costs of fuel extraction and refinement - not to mention the cost (again factored over the short life of the plant) of safely and perpetually locking away all the lethal waste. Also never discussed is the exorbitant cost of insuring the plant, nor is any factoring in of the averaged impact of plant accidents, down-time and failures.

As was just reported recently on Democracy Now:

"In a book published by the New York Academy of Sciences, a Russian author and a Belarusian author say nearly one million people have died from exposure to radiation released by the Chernobyl reactor. According to the book, the disaster’s radioactive emissions may have been 200 times greater than the initial estimate of 50 million curies, and hundreds of times larger than the radioactivity from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The authors based their findings in part on Slavic sources they say have never been available in English."

Also see: http://2greenenergy.com/nuclear-power/2580/

The only safe and sane nuclear reactor is 93 million miles away, runs free of charge and needs no insurance, and it'll be around and around every day for another 5 billion years - we humans just need to learn that we need to plug into it.

It's been fairly solidly determined that all of the nation's current electricity needs could be supplied by a single solution: A group of 100 plants 10.5 miles on a side spread across the sunbelt and transmitting power over DC lines and using molten salt for energy exchange and nighttime storage. Combined with advances in EV and battery technology, this will solve our transportation emissions as well.

See: http://2greenenergy.com/solar-thermal-leader/2534/

...and: http://2greenenergy.com/utility-scale/2499/

If the cost of constructing such a project were weighed against an honest and holistic accounting of the long-term economic impact that existing fossil fuel technologies are already having on the delicate web and equilibrium that has long sustained us, we'd already be powered by modern sunlight from our skies instead of ancient sunlight sucked out from under another culture's feet.

My heartfelt thanks go to Worldchanging for providing excellent topics and a forum for public discussion - I believe venues like this constitute the only way into a livable future for our species and our world.

Craig Shields, Editor, 2Green Energy.com


Posted by: Craig Shields on 9 May 10

This is a greate analysis. Bill Gate Foundation is a good one and since he has come to relise that carbon emmission is a big challenege to the world. I think we need to support the idea and educate our poeple to go for green energy so as to save our wolrd. More can be read on energyreductionmagic.com
Thanks for this post.


Posted by: Sam ayus on 4 Jun 10

Good thing that influential people like him are putting their money and time into something worthwhile. Let's all work hand in hand in helping the environment. We can already feel the bad effects of what we have been doing.


Posted by: Mia on 5 Jul 10

I think you nailed it at the end of your article, if just one city were to radically change and re-invent itself as a zero impact city then we would and could have a model to follow, that seems to be how human nature works, we want to see someone else take the so-called risk, then if it works it becomes acceptable for the mainstream!


Posted by: how tasers work on 12 Jul 10

Alex and Friends,

Re-designing cities is definitely a great idea; but it would not be nearly enough. We have a billion people without access to modern forms of energy or clean water; 2.4 billion without access to basic sanitation; a billion that go to bed hungry at night; and most of these people live in rural communities in the developing world. We are not going to be able to move them to the city and provide the needed social services, food, shelter, and jobs there as well. It makes far more sense to provide such resources in the rural communities where they live now, using an ecovillage model (multi-sectoral community based approach) to sustainable rural development. Two of the Rio Earth Summit Conference 2012 topics are Green Economy and Emerging Issues - re the interface between all of our urgent sustainable development challenges. We thus ought to develop and support a campaign to restore the natural environment, ensure that all peoples basic rights and needs can be met, and roll out a major campaign for a global program to fund and implement a multi-sectoral, community based approach to sustainable rural development.

I am working with some organizations and networks that has the capability to develop or support such a campaign; if you would like to support or help to develop it please contact Rob Wheeler at 1-717-264-5036 robwheeler22@gmail.com. Thank you,

Rob


Posted by: Rob Wheeler on 13 Jul 10

I definitely agree with Bill Gates and others on the zero emissions goal, but I do NOT feel design is the key problem of the moment. Right now what we need MOST (while continuing innovation) is GETTING AS MUCH SOLAR AND WIND POWER GENERATED ENERGY INTO THE GRID to immediately reduce emissions, which in turn would spur innovation by demand and enthusiasm.

The importance of CURTAILING EMISSIONS AND THE ACCELERATION OF WARMING right now is far more important than thinking about curtailing future emissions.

If your out-of-control Toyota is accelerating past 90 mph at the moment, you better be doing all you can to stop the car NOW, not thinking what you'll do as it speeds past 120 mph.

The speed or emissions we pile on now will still be with us in accumulated effects later. Innovate yes, but USE what we have RIGHT NOW to stop emissions NOW.

I write this in mid July, when climate legislation may yet come to pass in the senate. What is really needed is the cap and DIVIDEND approach of the CLEAR Act, S. 2788, with it's "energy efficiency consumer loan program." This dividend system and a program allowing people to take advances on their future dividends to install solar, etc., means that ALL legal residents of the US would have access to capital for they THEMSELVES to become producers of clean energy through solar installations etc.

This is one of the fastest ways I can think of to create a rapid decline in emissions. If you are reading this in July, please consider telling your senators (capital switchboard: 202 224 3121). The other best way would be if Bill Gates took at least all his oil company investments and moved them into actual solar and wind installations right now. I hope someone will talk to him about this.


Posted by: Joanne Baek on 15 Jul 10

Currently we live in a consumer society, so I think it is very difficult today to reduce our pollution unless it takes a really important shift in our habits of consumers. Result, the impact on environment may not be until late, perhaps too late ... animals are still at risk of disappearing, such as: http://seotons.vegetablo.com example.


Posted by: Seotons on 4 Nov 10

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