The co-founder of Microsoft became obsessed with developing clean tech through his philanthropic work. With a new book, ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,’ and a cadre of billionaire partners, he now has an action plan for ending the world’s carbon dependency.
By Christina BinkleyFeb. 15, 2021 8:30 am ET
A day before the inauguration, as Lady Gaga rehearsed “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Washington, D.C., wildfires burned in Sonoma, Santa Cruz and Ventura counties in California, shocking climatologists who had never witnessed the state’s fire season extend into January. NASA had just announced that 2020 tied with 2016 for the warmest year on record. As the Covid-19 pandemic drove city dwellers to search for places that felt surer, safer—Vermont, Kansas, Idaho—the FBI began arresting Americans who had rioted in the U.S. Capitol. Online sales of “prepper” gear (gas masks, food preservation kits) were brisk.
Bill Gates was at his lakeside compound in Seattle, gearing up for his next effort to save the planet from mass extinction. For 20 years, Gates has been studying the twin global afflictions of disease and poverty. These efforts led him to consider climate change and its vexing impact on civilization. This month, Knopf will publish his latest book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Remarkably, given the state of the world, it is an optimistic, can-do sort of book, chock-full of solutions for a problem President Jimmy Carter began warning about in 1977.
Last month’s inauguration of President Joe Biden had a big influence on Gates’s outlook. An earlier draft of the book included measures for a second Donald Trump term. In November, after the election, he edited these parts out, including provisions for how U.S. state and foreign governments could account for an absence of federal support. Another Trump win, Gates says, would have left us “holding our breath for four years and trying not to turn blue.”
“I hope Joe Biden stays healthy,” he had told me during our first virtual interview in December, while seated in a glass-walled conference room at Gates Ventures known as the fishbowl, where he has been taking meetings and relying on the Microsoft Teams platform during the pandemic.
Seattle’s Lake Washington glints over his shoulder, where far below a distant motorboat leaves a wake as Gates slips into his preferred posture, slouched with an ankle across a knee in an ergonomic conference-room chair. Gates, who is 65, has already confronted intractable problems, from trying to eradicate polio to epic rivalries with Steve Jobs and Google. The co-founder of Microsoft also sounded the alarm early about the need to prepare for a global pandemic. Climate change is yet another challenge Gates has served onto his own plate.
Although he has confidence in our collective ability to avoid the earth’s descent into a landscape of scorched rainforests and liquefying glaciers, his prescription is daunting: The planet must reduce the amount of greenhouse emissions being pumped into the atmosphere, currently about 51 billion tons per year, to zero by 2050. Nothing less, he says, will prevent a catastrophe, and he is calling for a full-scale technological revolution to make it happen.
“This is, you know, a harder problem than even ending the pandemic or getting rid of malaria,” Gates says. But the good thing, he adds, is that we have “all these idealistic people who are really pushing the cause forward, so 10 years from now they can see concrete metrics of the right progress, which is not just the low-hanging fruit.”
The crux of his argument is that, as helpful as innovations like electric cars, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries and plant-based burgers are to the effort, they don’t go far enough. There isn’t enough land on earth to plant enough trees to offset our carbon dependency. “The key point in my book is that a serious climate plan—which we don’t have yet—involves counting in your head all the different sources of emissions,” Gates says. This reckoning has to go beyond agriculture and electricity to encompass all carbon-spewing processes (transportation; concrete and steel production) so that we can develop green alternatives. So, for example, Gates believes we must invent green steel.
During an interview from the fishbowl a few days after the Capitol riot on January 6—a day he spent glued to the television even as the congressional vote counting continued well into the night—Gates says we are already on the cusp of a revolution. Climate change, he notes, went nearly unmentioned in the 2016 presidential debates. By the 2020 primaries, after Greta Thunberg had chastised Boomers for fiddling as frog and bee populations collapsed, Democrats were fighting over who would spend the most to fix the problem. “We got innovation on the climate agenda,” Gates says. The next United Nations Climate Change Conference is coming this November in Scotland. “In Glasgow, we’ll do even better.”
Gates gave a TED Talk about climate change in 2010. It hasn’t received as much attention as his pandemic-warning talk, but it marks the point when he grasped that greenhouse gases were hampering the philanthropic goals of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In the early naughts, he was traveling frequently to sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to study child mortality, HIV and other problems. Traveling in Lagos, Nigeria, one night, he recounts in his book, he wondered at the city’s relative darkness and many unlit homes. Gates recognized a form of impoverishment that he hadn’t considered—energy poverty.
Globally, per-capita income rises with national energy use, meaning that cheap energy is critical to reducing poverty. “It’s hard to be productive if you don’t have lights to read by,” Gates writes in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. He cites the influence of Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil, who helped him understand how energy shapes civilizations. Gates has written that he looks forward to Smil’s books, which are dense with statistics, with the same gleeful anticipation fans have for a new Star Wars movie.
By 2006, the year An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s groundbreaking documentary about global warming, came out, Gates had invested in energy development. So-called clean tech had become trendy, with more than $25 billion pouring into solar power, battery companies and other new technologies from 2006 to 2011. Gates went all in, even investing in nuclear energy, which, unlike solar and wind, provides a constant, not intermittent, power source.
Clean-tech venture markets crashed in 2011. Fracking had cut the cost of natural gas, depressing demand for green alternatives. One heavily hyped solar-panel startup, Solyndra, illustrates the complexity of funding energy innovation. Solyndra’s thin-film solar cells, a promising technology subsidized with $535 million in federal loan guarantees, proved too expensive to compete with government-subsidized imports from China. The company went bankrupt in 2011, leaving taxpayers ultimately on the hook for the loan.
An analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that venture investors lost more than half of their money on Cleantech 1.0. Gates is unfazed by such losses. He says he has personally invested $2 billion in climate change innovation so far and expects to invest another $2 billion over the next five years. “I’m only going to lose money on this stuff,” he says, shrugging. “But that’s not in short supply.”
Gates’s current thinking about climate innovation galvanized in June 2015. While attending meetings in London, he was probed by an editor at the Financial Times about the lack of pioneering research into clean-energy solutions. The exchange bugged him. During a meeting the next afternoon in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel on Park Lane, he began pacing and mumbling, according to two people who were with him at the time, Larry Cohen, head of Gates’s private office, Gates Ventures, and Jonah Goldman, who runs Gates’s policy and advocacy, including climate efforts. “It’s just not enough of a focus, and the wrong people are organizing this,” Gates muttered.
As his group left the hotel and climbed into a black Mercedes van to head to another meeting, Gates and his team concocted a plan to vastly increase the amount of public and private money going toward energy innovation. By the time he emerged on the other side of London, Gates had decided to create a venture capital fund and to organize government leaders to invest billions of dollars in climate technology. “We could call it Breakthrough Energy,” Gates later posited.
“That was not what we expected when we landed in London,” says Goldman.
The speed of what followed reflects the magnitude of Gates’s reach. He pitched then–French president François Hollande the next day in Paris at the Élysée Palace. In September, he crashed a United Nations meeting between Hollande and India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, to pitch the leader of one of the world’s biggest carbon producers. Modi, enthusiastic about the idea, proposed his own name for the coalition, Mission Innovation, which Gates accepted.
“In another 20 years, you’re not going to be wondering if you got a return. You’re wondering if there’s going to be a planet left for your great-grandchildren.”— Larry Cohen, CEO of Gates Ventures
In Seattle, Gates’s team began to structure the $1 billion venture fund. When Gates laid out the plan to Rodi Guidero, managing director for strategic investments at Gates Ventures (who now oversees Breakthrough Energy Ventures), Guidero blurted, “That’s a terrible f—ing idea.” He argued the fund would lose money and embarrass Gates.
“Why do you think I care about that?” Gates replied.
(In retelling the story, Guidero now says, “I can’t believe I said a thing like that to Bill Gates.” Gates says he doesn’t remember the exchange.)
Gates’s team established unusual criteria for the fund. Any venture must feasibly eliminate a minimum of 500 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, with an investment horizon of at least 20 years, rather than the standard 10. That meant older participants might not live to see a payout.
“In another 20 years, you’re not going to be wondering if you got a return,” says Larry Cohen. “You’re wondering if there’s going to be a planet left for your great-grandchildren.”
Breakthrough Energy Ventures spurned institutional investors. “It’s easier to make these decisions when you don’t have to justify your lower investment returns to your boss,” says John Arnold, a Houston-based billionaire and former energy trader who invested in the fund and joined as co-chair.
In the fall of 2015, Gates emailed a global cadre of billionaires who could afford to lose tens of millions investing in Breakthrough Energy Ventures. They included Jack Ma, Jeff Bezos, Vinod Khosla and Prince al-Waleed bin Talal.
It turned out to be an appealing club to join, and a model of global billionaire diversity (although female members are scarce). Other investors include Michael Bloomberg, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son, South African mining businessman Patrice Motsepe, Mukesh Ambani (India’s wealthiest person), Richard Branson, Bridgewater hedge-fund founder Ray Dalio and Beijing real-estate developers Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi.
John Doerr, the legendary venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins who made early bets on Netscape, Amazon and Google, says the $50 million he put into the venture was his biggest-ever personal investment at the time. “The idea that we would gather entrepreneurs and business leaders from around the globe…I found exciting,” Doerr says. “I think it’s one of the most remarkable pieces of fundraising I’ve ever witnessed.”
Doerr is a believer. He says the climate crisis is the next big investment opportunity. “This is the mother of all markets,” he says.
“It was stunning to me how easy it was to raise the money,” Gates says.
In November 2015, just five months after the London van ride, Gates stood sandwiched between U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the only private citizen onstage at the launch event for Mission Innovation at the Paris climate summit.
Gates looked sheepish in group photos, having been stranded for about an hour in an awkward situation for an introvert. “Our press conference was delayed because [Modi] and Obama were talking one-on-one,” Gates recalls. “And so I’m standing there with all these other leaders of all these other countries waiting for Obama and Modi to come.”
At last Gates arrived at center stage, wearing a dark suit and a too-short blue tie, to announce his initiative: Twenty-eight billionaires had opted in, and 20 countries had committed to double clean-energy R&D spending in an effort to curb climate change.
Last year’s global average temperature was 1.84 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the baseline 1951 to 1980 mean, according to NASA. Melting permafrost has spit out human cadavers and a woolly mammoth that had been locked in the frozen earth for more than 40,000 years. Residents of Tuvalu, an island nation in the South Pacific, are jockeying for space as their archipelago is swallowed by rising seas.
How much will it cost to halt this trajectory? Gates employs simple formulas. Removing carbon from the atmosphere, for example, currently costs at least $200 a ton, and he thinks it’s possible to quickly get that down to $100 per ton. To remove 51 billion tons of emissions per year at $100 per ton would require spending $5.1 trillion per year, or 6 percent of the world’s GDP. Which is much cheaper, Gates points out, than shutting down whole sectors of economies, as has happened during the pandemic.
What’s more, there is a precedent for this sort of radical innovation on the part of the government. In 1973, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as DARPA, began a program to network computers called the Internetting project. By 1986, the National Science Foundation had launched the backbone of what would become the Internet, a system capable of carrying large volumes of information across its networks. NASA and the Department of Energy contributed. Europe joined, and eventually so did commercial and private network providers, followed by several generations of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, many of them the same people now putting their Internet-derived riches into climate innovation. Gates suggests the same approach can work for climate change research and development. But, he argues, we no longer have decades to make it happen.
“Nobody’s gone back and done a complete redesign of a nuclear energy plant since those early days of the ’50s….You really have to start from scratch.”— Bill Gates
Gates proposed in December that the U.S. create a National Institutes of Energy Innovation, and fund it along the lines of the existing National Institutes of Health, which is the largest biomedical research agency in the world, with an annual budget of more than $40 billion. The NIEI should focus on research fields such as low-carbon fuels, energy storage and renewables, he says.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster presents ideas with the methodical approach of a college textbook. In addressing how current solutions fall short, Gates puts forward some tree-planting arithmetic on page 129:
“[T]he math suggests you’d need somewhere around 50 acres worth of trees, planted in tropical areas, to absorb the emissions produced by an average American in her lifetime. Multiply that by the population of the United States and you get more than 16 billion acres, or 25 million square miles, roughly half the landmass of the world.” An intervention of this scale would be enough to cover only the United States. (Gates nonetheless buys carbon offsets for his own footprint, paying, he says, $400 per ton—more than 40 times the price of typical offsets.)
Gates is a believer in free markets, and one of the key concepts in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is based on Keynesian economics. He proposes using a measure that he calls the “green premium” to understand how a zero-carbon technology can replace its carbon-spewing analog. The green premium specifies how much more that new technology costs. For instance, in his book Gates writes that green aviation biofuel is sold at an average cost of $5.35 per gallon. This amounts to a green premium of more than 140 percent over standard jet fuel, at an average of $2.22 per gallon.
Gates wants the world to jump-start zero-carbon technologies, which face far greater hurdles than developing new software. “You bootstrap those markets to get the scale, to get the green premium…down enough so that by 2050…you can say to [India] with a straight face: Buy clean steel,” Gates says.
In practice, this means governments stepping up with tax credits, loan guarantees and other supports. But Gates believes investors must play their role. He recently raised a second $1 billion Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund, largely with the same group as the first round. Investments will be guided by Breakthrough Energy’s in-house team of scientists and entrepreneurs, with two investment heads— Carmichael Roberts, a chemist and entrepreneur, and Eric Toone, also a chemist—deciding where to place bets and then acting as cheerleaders and mentors. “Everybody inside BEV is a company builder,” says Roberts.
Ramya Swaminathan is chief executive of the BEV-backed Malta, a battery company that emerged from X, Alphabet’s “moonshot factory.” After a setback involving another potential investor, she called Roberts. “Carmichael said something I’ve never heard from an investor before,” Swaminathan says. “ ‘Here’s how we failed.’ It seems subtle, the inclusion: we.”
A Breakthrough investment, an electric-car battery company called QuantumScape, already appears promising. Also backed by Volkswagen, it went public last fall. Its stock yo-yoed from $23.50 to more than $130 a share before leveling off around $50 in January.
Gates is particularly fond of TerraPower, a Bellevue, Washington–based developer of safer nuclear energy that Gates co-founded in 2008, with an investment that reports estimated at the time as more than $500 million. Gates, who declined to confirm the size of his initial investment, does not share most of the world’s terror of nuclear technology.
“Nobody’s gone back and done a complete redesign of a nuclear energy plant since those early days of the ’50s,” Gates says. “So the question is, in the digital age, can you build a nuclear reactor whose economics, safety potential and waste output are utterly different than the current generation of nuclear? You really have to start from scratch.”
TerraPower’s approach, designed after Gates paid for supercomputer modeling, stores heat in tanks of molten salt. Without high pressure, the technology will eventually be able to run on spent fuel rods, so that existing stockpiles of nuclear waste are reduced as they are recycled.
“Can nuclear be super safe?” Gates asks. “I say yes.”
After 10 years of developing a prototype, TerraPower was on the verge of building a demonstration plant in China in 2018, when the Trump administration pulled the plug amid rising tensions with the country. Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s chief executive, recalls taking the call from the U.S. Department of Energy in his office, his general counsel at his side. “It was October 11, 2018,” he says, the date fixed in his memory. “It was devastating…. It [was] really almost like the grieving process—first it’s disbelief, then it’s acceptance.”
Levesque faced what venture capitalists call the second valley of death—a low point when startups are likely to fail. While his nuclear-industry colleagues and employees wondered if TerraPower was done for, Gates stepped in. He turned to Capitol Hill. Six weeks after the China deal was rescinded, TerraPower pivoted to a plan to construct a prototype reactor on U.S. soil, with Gates later promising to contribute at least half the cost. The plant was funded by Congress last October and is one of two new nuclear reactors approved, each awarded $80 million in funding. Gates has committed to invest another $500 million in TerraPower, which Levesque expects will start generating energy in seven years. “We’ll push forward,” Gates says. “It takes kind of a long-term thinker.”
As a teenage prodigy in the 1970s, Gates wrote computer code to schedule classes for the student body of his Seattle high school (and later admitted that he hacked the system so that he could place himself in all-girls’ classes). After dropping out of Harvard to co-found Microsoft, he conceded in a 2016 interview he could be a nightmarish boss, memorizing employee license plates to keep tabs on who was working late or on weekends and employing a self-made management theory that no one should report to a manager with a lower IQ than their own.
These days, a half-dozen friends and associates describe Gates as a polymath who relentlessly tries to decipher puzzles. To keep him at peak productivity, his senior team at the Gates Foundation and Gates Ventures (he left Microsoft’s board in 2020) hold an annual meeting to determine how best to allocate his time over the coming year, says Cohen, who left Microsoft with Gates in order to establish what is now Gates Ventures.
“I’m not a natural like Steve Jobs, who could really get people riled up.”— Bill Gates
It isn’t helpful to interrupt Bill Gates. He speaks in circles, wending his way around ideas and unleashing a cascade of details that can be difficult to follow until its conclusion. “I’m not a natural like Steve Jobs, who could really get people riled up,” he says.
When I asked what makes him good at solving complex problems, Gates spoke without hesitation for six minutes and 45 seconds, touching on his approach to eradicating malaria, building strong teams, his understanding of concrete and cement, Americans’ generally more positive outlook about nuclear energy than the Europeans’, and much more. He concluded, “This is fun work.”
He paces, according to colleagues, and his voice gets squeaky when he’s excited, but he often fails to emote when faced with tragedy. “It’s actually hard to convey what it’s like to be there watching a kid who’s dying of malaria. I could get better at that,” he says. In a social setting, small talk is not his thing. Gates is the guy in the corner talking to another brainiac.
“Tony Fauci and I were quite obscure and would go to cocktail parties and nobody would talk to us,” says Gates of the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has taken a star turn during Covid-19. “Now Tony’s like the rock star and Saturday Night Live has women throwing bras at him.”
Gates sees his role in climate change falling squarely on the side of science. “I won’t be the biggest advocacy person. I will be on the innovation piece,” he says. “I do hope to mostly use logic as opposed to lobbying dollars.”
In February, as his book was about to arrive in stores, Gates was preparing to launch two new facets of Breakthrough Energy, the umbrella organization under which BEV sits, including a series of philanthropic fellowships in green industries for post-graduate technologists and business leaders. Another program, Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, will sell real carbon-offsets (not tree-planting credits) to help fund market-ready technologies such as aviation biofuel refineries while enabling high-net-worth individuals, companies and institutions to meet climate pledges. “You can’t buy your way out of your climate impact,” says Jonah Goldman. “You have to buy your way into the solution.”
Melinda Gates, whom Gates married in 1994, is often seen as a humanizing influence on her husband, a scenario neither of them appears to relish. (Through spokespeople she declined to be interviewed for this piece.) The couple has three children, Jennifer, a 24-year-old medical student; Rory, 21, and Phoebe, 18, both college students.
Melinda does offer social guidance, Gates acknowledges. She counseled against making too many references to cow farts, he writes in How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, attempting to limit his mentions of the methane produced by ruminant livestock.
Yet he thinks the popular view of Melinda as his alter ego is shortsighted. “Melinda and I are more alike than people think,” Gates says. “Yes, you can see her empathy more easily than mine—though I cry more easily than she does. Melinda’s very analytical—like top-1-percent analytical, though yes, I’m weirdly even more analytical.”
If the Gates approach works, a handful of billionaires could become vastly richer from taxpayer-backed technologies, which poses a question of equity. “These people are the winners of the system that is producing [these] problems,” says David Callahan, founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, which tracks trends in charitable giving.
Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive Washington, D.C., think tank, who also worked with Gates’s late father, Bill Gates Sr., would like to see the effort—and the rewards—spread around more. “I would rather have fewer billionaires and more broadly controlled venture funds funded by taxpayers, funded by pools of donors, but not by five or 10 mega-billionaires or centi-billionaires,” Collins says. “That’s where it becomes corrosive—concentrations of power.”
Gates says he understands those concerns, and today’s general societal distrust of billionaires, but this is really no time to quibble.
“I think you should attack billionaires who try and avoid the estate tax or billionaires who try and avoid paying capital gains taxes,” he says. “There’s a lot of things to go after billionaires for, besides their willingness to put money into a fund that’s super high-risk, and in the best case, they won’t get their money back for over a decade. And they’re doing it because they believe in climate.”
Gates is a little worried that people will get sick of hearing from him this year as he flies around trying to save the planet. There’s climate change, there’s the pandemic (not to mention Alzheimer’s research, another of his passion projects). “ ‘Boy, this guy sure is telling us what to do in two different areas. Who does he think he is?’ They’re going to get full of me,” Gates says.
He slouches and ducks his chin as he makes a joke. “I’m just trying to avoid kryptonite as much as I can.”