Bill Gates Farmland

Can Bill Gates Do for the Climate Crisis What He Did for Tech?

Climate change may have met its match in the Microsoft co-founder.

“We need to get to zero emissions, and we’re going to need a lot of innovation to do it.” Bill Gates isn’t mincing words in his forthcoming book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need,” (February 2021, Knopf).

The world’s third-richest man is taking on the climate crisis just like he tackled tech: with exacting precision and an eye for solutions. Bloomberg published an excerpt of the book earlier this week.

“[I]nnovation doesn’t happen overnight, and it will take decades for green products to reach a big enough scale to make a significant difference,” the Microsoft co-founder writes.

“In the meantime, people all over the world, at every income level, are already being affected in one way or another by climate change. Just about everyone who’s alive now will have to adapt to a warmer world. As sea levels and floodplains change, we’ll need to rethink where we put homes and businesses. We’ll need to shore up power grids, seaports, and bridges. We’ll need to plant more mangrove forests and improve our early-warning systems for storms.”

Bat Forest
Photo by Vlad Kutepov on Unsplash

The Pandemic-Climate Connection

Gates warned of scenarios like the current coronavirus pandemic back in 2014. And according to recent research from Cambridge University, its roots may be tied to the changing climate. At a TED Talk in 2015, Gates warned again of the catastrophe a pandemic would bring. He said it would be worse than a nuclear war.

His warnings about future pandemics sync with the climate crisis, specifically, the impact livestock have on the climate. The more than 55 billion land animals raised for food every year produce a staggering amount of emissions. Livestock produce at least 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, about as much as all transportation combined. But some estimates put it even higher than that with the resources and transportation involved in livestock production.

The tech guru was an early investor in Impossible Foods, the Bay Area vegan meat company behind Burger King’s Impossible Whopper. Its goal is to disrupt the meat industry and make it obsolete.

“I think people are increasingly aware plant-based products are going to completely replace the animal-based products in the food world within the next 15 years. That’s our mission. That transformation is inevitable,” Impossible Foods founder Pat Brown told CNBC’s Jim Cramer last year.

Gates is vocal about the need to shift away from our current food production models. And as the largest owner of U.S. farmland, he’s also in a position to help change the food landscape.

“This is why we need innovations—so the poor can improve their lives without making climate change even worse.”

-Bill Gates

In “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster,” Gates tells the story of a Kenyan family, the Talams. They’re small farmers, living below the poverty line. This is not unusual; according to Gates, there are 500 million smallholder farms around the world. Approximately two-thirds of the world’s poverty-stricken population are agricultural workers.

“Yet despite their large numbers, smallholder farmers are responsible for remarkably few greenhouse gas emissions, because they can’t afford to use nearly as many products and services that involve fossil fuels,” Gates writes. “The typical Kenyan produces 55 times less carbon dioxide than an American, and rural farmers like the Talams produce even less.”

But he says what happens next for those Kenyan farmers is all too common.

“But the Talams bought more cattle, and cattle contribute more to climate change than any other livestock. 

“In that respect, the Talams weren’t unusual. For many poor farmers, earning more money is a chance to invest in high-value assets, including chickens, goats, and cows—animals that provide good sources of protein and a way to bring in extra cash by selling milk and eggs. It’s a sensible decision, and anyone who cares about reducing poverty would hesitate to tell them not to make it. That’s the conundrum: As people rise up the income ladder, they do more things that cause emissions. This is why we need innovations—so the poor can improve their lives without making climate change even worse.”

Gates, always looking for solutions, says this cycle is causing a “cruel injustice.” That, even though the world’s poor aren’t causing climate change, they suffer the most from it.

“The climate is changing in ways that will be problematic for relatively well-off farmers in America and Europe, but potentially deadly for low-income ones in Africa and Asia.”

solar panels

Can Bill Gates Solve the Climate Crisis?

We won’t know the answer to that until we know. But one thing seems certain: he’s hell-bent on trying. For Gates, solving the world’s malnutrition problems is intrinsically linked to solving the climate crises. His focus continues to be on the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Not only do we need to take steps to reduce illnesses beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, but Gates says we need to empower those smallholder farmers, too. They don’t need electric cars, he argues. They need sustainable long-term solutions that provide nourishing food with a lower carbon footprint.

“Africa is responsible for only about 2% of all global emissions. What you really should be funding there is adaptation. The best way we can help the poor adapt to climate change is to make sure they’re healthy enough to survive it. And to thrive despite it.” 

Gates calls for improved risk management for dealing with changing weather patterns — scenarios all but guaranteed as the planet continues warming. “[G]overnments can help farmers grow a wider variety of crops and livestock so one setback doesn’t wipe them out,” he says.

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Green Policy

Gates is also calling for policy decisions to reflect the immediate and long-term needs for the planet and the people most impacted by climate change. “Very little money is funneled into helping farmers adapt; only a tiny sliver of the $500 billion that governments spent on agriculture between 2014 and 2016 was directed at activities that will soften the blow of climate change for the poor. Governments should be coming up with policies and incentives to help farmers reduce their emissions while growing more food at the same time.”

He got a boost there last month when President Biden took office and rejoined the Paris Climate Accord in his first day in office. Like Gates, Biden sees the benefit in a government that invests in farmers and industries tackling the climate crisis.

Cities play a role, too, according to Gates. Many have already seen an influx of urban gardens — New York City boasts indoor hydroponic growers, like Farm One, underneath a Tribeca Michelin restaurant. But it’s also got rooftop gardens galore, including Gotham Greens atop Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn. This we need more of, Gates insists.

Paris recently revealed plans to green its iconic Champs Elysées and bring a focus to local businesses. Other cities are finding ways to bring green innovation and infrastructure into the fold. Gates says cities can do so much more for the planet from innovating advancements in cooling methods, adapting urban planning for the changing temperatures, and even preparing for floods when developing bridges.

Redwood Forests, Gulf Stream Waters

Gates also calls for urgent management and preservation of natural resources including old-growth forests and freshwater.

“Nearly nine million acres of old-growth forest were destroyed in 2018 alone, and when—as is likely—we hit 2 degrees Celsius of warming, most of the coral reefs in the world will die off.”

Tackling this, he says brings big benefits. So does better management of watersheds.

“Water utilities in the world’s largest cities could save $890 million a year by restoring forests and watersheds. Many countries are already leading the way: In Niger, one local reforestation effort led by farmers has boosted crop yields, increased tree cover, and cut the amount of time women spend gathering firewood from three hours a day to 30 minutes. China has identified about a quarter of its landmass as critical natural assets where it’ll make a priority of promoting conservation and preserving the ecosystem. Mexico is protecting a third of its river basins to preserve the water supply for 45 million people.”

With freshwater access one of the most urgent needs for the growing global population, Gates points to innovative technologies to assist beyond policy changes. From the expensive solar-powered dehumidifiers that filter and capture moisture from the air to the less sexy but necessary wastewater reclamation.

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The Cost of a Climate Out of Crisis

There’s no price tag, says Gates. It’s too many things all at once. But he says it’s an opportunity with great returns. He estimates a $1.7 trillion investment will yield more than $7 trillion in benefits.

“Whichever way you think about it, the economic case is clear, and so is the moral case. Extreme poverty has plummeted in the past quarter century, from 36% of the world’s population in 1990 to 10% in 2015—although COVID-19 was a huge setback that undid a great deal of progress. Climate change could erase even more of these gains, increasing the number of people living in extreme poverty by 13%,” he writes.

“Those of us who have done the most to cause this problem should help the rest of the world survive it. We owe them that much.”

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