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Bill Gates wants you to step up on climate

He was just a boy with a dream of putting a computer on every desk. Now the Microsoft co-founder wants businesses to heed his call toward solving the greatest challenge of the time.

Bill Gates addressing GreenBiz 21

Bill Gates addressing GreenBiz 21

When you’re one of the world’s richest people, it’s hard not to make a global impact. Fortunately for the climate cause, Bill Gates for the last half-decade has invested considerably toward innovations to push the planet toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

"Getting to zero is one of the most difficult challenges people have ever taken on," he said in a keynote address broadcast at the GreenBiz 21 virtual event Tuesday. "We’re going to have to change the way we make and consume basically everything, and we’re going to have to do it many times faster than energy transitions have happened in the past."

Weaning the world from its annual release of 51 billion tons of planet-changing emissions is the subject of Gates' latest book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster," being released this month.

"It's going to take significant investment and bold innovation," he told the GreenBiz virtual crowd. "So we cannot only invent new solutions but commercialize them and then scale them up quickly."

What does it mean for you? It means thinking about climate breakthroughs across every area of your business.

To that end, Gates' Breakthrough Energy Coalition, launched in 2015 with its billion-dollar venture arm a year later, has backed some 30 startups in a variety of low-carbon plays, including in greener metal, energy storage and even cultured breastmilk. In January, the star-studded fund — with the likes of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Jack Ma onboard — said it will double to $2 billion and target 40 more emissions-slashing startups.

As one of the world's foremost techno-optimists, Gates was central to the improbable advances of the personal computer and the recent rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. In his view of a global climate revolution being bigger than the moon landing or eradicating smallpox, cooperation from the business world is pivotal.

"It's about the future we leave for our grandchildren, it's about the future success of your business," Gates said in the GreenBiz 21 address. "To meet this challenge, we need your business to join in, and you can be the champion inside your business to create these breakthroughs. Make no mistake, the challenge ahead of us is unprecedented. But I believe we can come up with a plan to overcome it."

What does that mean for your company? Here are clues, gleaned from Gates' GreenBiz 21 address and other recent statements.

Eliminate the green premium

Fantastic innovations alone can't lead to zero emissions unless they reach mass affordability. So Gates seeks to rally people behind wiping out the "green premium," the high cost of sustainable products and services over polluting ones.

Electric vehicles are driving in this direction, marked last month by General Motors' disclosure that it will stop selling internal combustion passenger cars by 2035; and solar energy is already cheaper than burning coal in many places.

Yet a long path is ahead before the green premium disappears across other systems, notably for steel, cement, air travel and buildings. Gates recently noted, for instance, the Swiss firm Climeworks' success with direct-air carbon capture to improve cement-making, but its processes are 10 times more expensive than needed to erase the green premium of traditional cement-making.

Today's global emissions breakdown (Credit: Gates Notes)

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition names five "grand challenges" representing an outsize share of the global emissions pie: manufacturing; electricity; agriculture; transportation; and buildings.

Elevate the developing world

Gates has shared on his podcast how a personal urgency about the climate crisis built over time as he flew to developing nations for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's global health and poverty-reduction efforts. As he landed over bustling Lagos, Nigeria, the ubiquitous nighttime fires illuminated to him the need to address how 1 billion people live without electric power.

It's the duty of the developed world not only to develop innovations but also to fine-tune them in such a way that they become affordable to the poorer regions of the world, the philanthropist has said. "We need to be at the point where we can call up India and say, 'Hey, we have green cement now; don’t use the dirty stuff,'" Gates said in a December episode of the podcast "Bill Gates and Rashida Jones Ask Big Questions."

Support climate-smart policies

Gates recently praised President Joe Biden for re-joining the Paris Agreement: "Now the United States can build on that step by adopting a concrete plan that checks several boxes at once: eliminating emissions while adapting to the warming that is already happening, spurring innovative industries, creating jobs for the post-pandemic recovery, and ensuring that everyone benefits from the transition to a green economy," he wrote on the Gates Notes blog recently.

In December, Gates called for the U.S. to create a National Institutes of Energy Innovation to centralize efforts that are spread out across the National Aeronautics and Space Agency as well as the Energy, Defense and Transportation departments. When it comes to research, clean energy only receives about a quarter of the federal funding as medicine does. Gates would like that to change, too. 

Think about climate breakthroughs across every area of your business, and invest in clean energy research and development that aligns with your goals

As already mentioned, manufacturing, electricity, agriculture, transportation and buildings are the five major areas Gates repeatedly has identified as needing rapid innovation now. They represent the major sources of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. 

There are opportunities in most of these categories for every company to reduce emissions from the top office to the farthest reaches of a supply chain. The Google X "moonshot factory" tinkers with renewable energy and more. Nestlé's labs cook up plant-based proteins. It's up to each business to customize and commit to the opportunities for innovation.

Support accelerators and incubators by being willing to pilot and demonstrate new technology

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, for one, seeks to invest in "neglected areas and enterprises we believe are critical to explore," according to its website. In addition: "We will only invest in technologies with the potential, at scale, to reduce greenhouse gases by at least half a gigaton every year, about 1 percent of global emissions."

In that spirit: Back innovations that go big.

Set a target to become net-zero enterprise, reimagining procurement and supply chains

Microsoft, which Gates co-founded, is a best-in-class example. Thirteen months ago, the tech giant set forth the goal of net-zero emissions by 2030. The icing on that cake: removing by 2050 the equivalent of all emissions it has released. As the tech giant reported last month, so far it has purchased the removal of 1.3 million metric tons of CO2 from 26 projects around the world, representing diverse solutions. Companies hoping to reach a meaningful net-zero commitment should proceed with caution and make sure to invest in significant and measurable improvements, not relying heavily on hard-to-verify, potentially low-quality offsets.

Develop innovative financial vehicles to scale green technologies

"Because energy research can take years — even decades — to come to fruition, companies need patient investors who are willing to work with them over the long term," Gates wrote in 2018.

Beyond traditional venture capital, creative tools to accelerate sustainability are gaining hold, including green bonds and special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACS. (There's a whole new GreenBiz event in April for the emerging green finance space.)

"Most of all, it's going to take courage to see beyond the way things have been done for decades, to identify new opportunities and to build creative partnerships to take advantage of them," Gates told the GreenBiz 21 audience. 

The "green premium" in transportation (Credit: Breakthrough Energy Coalition)

Illustration of the green premium.

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