Bill Gates: ‘Carbon neutrality in a decade is a fairytale.


After putting $100m into Covid research, the billionaire is taking on the climate crisis. And first he has some bones to pick with his fellow campaigners.

Bill Gates appears via video conference – Microsoft Teams, not Zoom, obviously – from his office in Seattle, a large space with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Lake Washington. It’s a gloomy day outside and Gates is, somewhat eccentrically, positioned a long way from the camera, behind a large, kidney-shaped desk; his communications manager sits off to one side. If one had to stage, for the purposes of symbolism, a tableau of a man for whom a distance of 3,000 miles between callers still constitutes too intimate a setting, it might be this. “As a way to start,” says Gates’ aide, “would it be helpful for Bill to make a couple of comments about why he wrote his new book?” It is helpful, and I’m not ungrateful, but this is not how interviews typically commence.

There is an urge towards deference, when speaking to Gates, which attends few other people of commensurate fame. Celebrity is one thing, but wealth – true, former-richest-man-in-the-world wealth – is something else entirely; one has a sense of being granted an audience with the Great Man, a fact made more surreal by his famously muted persona. The 65-year-old has the lofty, mildly longsuffering air of a man accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room, leavened by wry amusement and interrupted, on the evidence of past interviews, by the occasional peevish outburst – most memorably in 2014, when Jeremy Paxman questioned him about Microsoft’s alleged tax avoidance. (“I think that’s about as incorrect a characterisation of anything I’ve ever heard,” he said, practically squirming in his seat with annoyance.)

Unlike the Elon Musks or Larry Ellisons of this world, however, Gates is perceived to be sensible, uxorious, modest, vowing not to ruin his children with boundless inheritance or to waste energy trying to send things to Mars. In the late 1990s, the US government brought an antitrust suit against Microsoft, accusing it of maintaining a monopoly in the PC market; a final settlement in 2001 overturned an earlier order for the company to be broken up. Since then, Gates has enjoyed a reputation as the Good Billionaire, dispensing a fortune through his foundation and overshadowing what his detractors would say is his biggest shortcoming: his unquestioning belief in progress as a function of capitalist growth.

All of these aspects come together in Gates’ new book, How To Avoid A Climate Disaster, which, as he tells me, grew out of two things: his interest in the sciences and what struck him as an irresistible challenge – the fiendishly difficult problem of how to further global development while reducing emissions. For the past few decades, much of Gates’ focus has been on expanding access to electricity in the remotest parts of the world. “And yet,” he says, “the idea of adding new electricity capacity – you can’t just go build coal plants. And understanding how expensive it needs to be, and how this is going to work, had me doing a lot of reading.”

There’s another, greater obstacle to reaching zero emissions, which is the political challenge – part of which involves climate activists limiting their exposure to accusations of hypocrisy. Gates loves private jets; he calls them his “guilty pleasure”. He loves hamburgers and eating grapes year-round. A few weeks after we speak, it is reported that he is involved in a bid to buy Signature Aviation, which handles ground services for 1.6m private jet flights a year. Today he says, “I get sustainable aviation fuel that I use when I fly,” and mentions another, vaguely futuristic-sounding service: “I’ve paid to offset my carbon footprint – there’s this group Climeworks that does direct air capture up in Iceland.” On the subject of imported food, he says: “Well, growing food locally is often worse, because you’re putting things in greenhouses that have an insane climate imprint. I’m not the only one who eats out-of-season food, as far as I know. But if that’s people’s main objection and they’ll adopt my plan, then” – Gates smiles, in a rather glittering way – “I’ll cede my grape-eating.”

For Gates, this focus on grapes and private jet travel is, relatively speaking, like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. “What months of the year do I have to stop eating hamburgers?” he says sardonically. “I don’t need the tomato. Or the lettuce. Just the bun and the meat will do.” There is no suggestion that using “direct air capture” to offset one’s flights, where such a service is even affordable for regular people, would make the slightest dent in the problem. But by using a private jet, Gates makes it easier for others to undermine him. It’s not, one imagines, the strongest tool in his skill set, to play dumb in order to win lesser mortals over.

Instead, what he does is bombard us with data and expertise. His book encompasses wisdom from sources that range from less well-known climate scientists, such as Vaclav Smil and Ken Caldeira, to John D Cox, author of Weather For Dummies, which, says Gates, remains one of the greatest books about weather ever written. Yet Gates’ book is compulsively readable. His ambition was to “cut through the noise” and give consumers better tools for understanding what works, an ambition he meets admirably. It’s more than that, however. Gates can get an audience with anyone, can marshal almost limitless resources, and is dogged in the detail. The result – particularly in the wake of the Trump presidency – is thrilling.


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