Lauding India for doubling its funding for research and development of climate change technology, the former Microsoft CEO and co-founder of the world’s biggest charitable foundation, Bill Gates, says technological innovation is the only way to fight climate change. “If we are going to make the cost of clean energy as inexpensive as hydrocarbons, or coal energy today, which will need innovations. That will mean you won’t have to think about this huge trade-off between ‘Should I be clean’ or ‘Should I electrify’?” he told The Hindu in an exclusive interview.
Mr. Gates was in Paris for the COP21 summit, where he launched a multi-billion dollar 20-nation ‘Breakthrough Energy Coalition,’ and has met Prime Minister Narendra Modi twice this week, both in Paris and in Delhi on Friday.
Backing India’s stand on ‘climate justice’ or the need for the developing world to be financed for cutting emissions, Mr. Gates said that unless clean energy was made cheaper, it put countries like India in an “impossible” situation. “I can’t comment on climate justice, I don’t know what the definition of that is. I think while the premium cost of clean energy is very high, you force an almost impossible trade-off between two very important goals. My belief is that if you increase the R&D that will lower the price of energy,” he said.
However, Mr. Gates indicated that solar and wind energy, which forms the bulk of India’s clean energy mix, may not be the most viable sources of electricity in future. In its latest plans, the government has announced it will raise its renewable energy production from the current 38 Gigawatts to 175 Gigawatts by 2022, 100 GWs of which would come from solar energy alone.
But Mr. Gates said the “intermittency” of solar and wind makes it unviable, compared with other sources like nuclear energy and new technologies for storage. “Energy has to be reliable, and when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, you still need energy. So the whole system designed in terms of storage and transmission gets quite complex. Wind and solar can be a part of your mix, but you can’t do much with them without a storage miracle.”
Mr. Gates words are significant as it runs counter to the solar alliance of countries with hot climates, which Mr. Modi launched at the Paris summit
To the criticism of “philanthro-capitalism” that the Gates foundation funds programmes tied to technologies and companies wherein Mr. Gates has interests, including intellectual property rights, he said he finds the allegations “amusing”. “If you think the way to make money is to come to India and help people get healthcare, that is one strange way to make money,” he said. “The healthcare system in India is under-funded , and we give money away to it, not make money. We give hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to help children get nutrition. We don’t get some benefit back from that.”
Text of the interview
We will start with a question from one of our readers to ask, why Climate Change. The Gates foundation has gone from HIV to vaccines, and now taken up funding Climate Change…
The main focus of my work is on health and that’s the area in which were investing a lot of money, we have expertise, partnerships. We also do work in agriculture, in finances, but the biggest work remains health. If you want to uplift the poor then you have to ensure agriculture is not impacted, and that climate is conducive for farming. But my main focus, as you can see through our funding remains on malaria, diaorrhea,pneumonia. Climate change could interfere with uplifting the poorest so everyone should care a little bit about that too.
This week you have launched the Breakthrough Energy Coalition in Paris, spoken to world leaders about Climate change. How optimistic are you that there will be a sustainable, binding declaration out of COP21?
I’m no expert on whats going on in Paris. My whole life has been about innovation, from my work on personal computing to the IT sector, and even health and agriculture has been helped by people getting together [to innovate] and use that little miracle. In health, like inventing new vaccines, that’s innovation. In energy, I feel whats best is strong innovation and that’s why I was so excited that 20 countries including India and US and China agreed to double their energy R&D budgets. If we are going to make the cost of clean energy as inexpensive as hydrocarbons, or coal energy today, which will need innovations. That will mean you won’t have to think about this huge trade-off between “Should I be clean” or “Should I electrify”?
We do want to speak about your focus on innovation, but you mention this trade-off. That is the basis for India’s position at COP21, when it calls for ‘climate justice’, the idea that the developed world wants the developing world to cut emissions, while it is desperately trying for economic growth. Do you then support the Indian position? Can your coalition be a bridge for this?
I can’t comment on climate justice, I don’t know what the definition of that is. I think while the premium cost of clean energy is very high, you force an almost impossible trade off between two very important goals. My belief is that if you increase the R&D that will lower the price of energy. A poor person is buying fertilizer, fuel, materials. The price of energy is affecting their life in so many ways, we need to find anything that can bring the cost of that down.
The Breakthrough Energy Coalition (BEC) you have set up says: Technology will help solve our energy issues. What kind of technology and what kind of energy has the best chance in your opinion?
The beauty of the commitment at BEC is that a diverse set of things will be tried. We can try hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon sequestration, there is nuclear fusion and fission. There’s wind energy, but that’s very high up. Instead of solar energy to make electricity we want to look at making gasoline directly, so we don’t have the storage problem. So I would say we have about 15 different paths, so we should back all of them between the various countries.
But India has made it very clear. They want to increase renewable energy to 175 GW, of which atleast 100 GW will come from solar energy. Is India going down the wrong path then?
Well, wind and solar energy will be a big part of the mix, but the intermittency makes it unviable. Energy has to be reliable, and when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, you still need energy. If youre running a factory 24 hours a day. So the whole system designed in terms of storage and transmission gets quite complex. You still have other substantial sources of energy that are reliable. So wind and solar can be a part of your mix, but you cant do much with them without a storage miracle.
Many also feel that the push for technology as you have spoken off is the wrong path…that it is in conservation, emission cuts that the world has to push instead of waiting for some elusive miracle, as you term it?
I don’t think you can say to somebody who doesn’t have lights or a refrigerator that they should cut down on energy usage. We want people to have these services, basically the world will use more energy in the future. Even if the US used 1/3rd of the energy it uses today by some…’virtuous behaviour’…the increase in energy demand out of Asia will be far greater than a 2/3rds reduction by everyone in the US. So yes, we shouldn’t waste energy, but we should also be realistic. When you speak of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero, you cant conserve your way there, you have to have new energy innovations in order to make up for it.
I do want to ask about a term your critics use, which is philanthro-capitalism…where they say that whether it is climate change or health, your foundation funding is tied to technologies or companies that you have an interest in…how do you respond to that?
The notion that we do what we do out of self interest is….you know somebody should and see if that’s legitimate. We don’t benefit in any way from this. If you think the way to make money is to come to India and help people get healthcare (laughs) that is one strange way to make money. I find it amusing someone can say that. The healthcare system in India is under-funded , and we give money away to it, not make money. We give hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to help children get nutrition. We don’t get some benefit back from that.
Mark Zuckerberg says you were his hero… and looks like he is following with you his philanthropic announcement 99 per cent of his shares… you haven’t always been complimentary about his priorities… what do you think of the announcement?
It’s fantastic! Mark is starting at a younger age than I did, he will do things smarter because he wont make the mistakes I did. He is younger than me, but we do partner on many things, his commitment is phenomenal, he is a great person.
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