Bill Gates: Innovation, China, and the environment

“When you think about the future, many things come together,” said Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and billionaire philanthropist, at the 2011 Climate Solutions Breakfast, held on Tuesday, May 10, in the Westin Seattle. The event was hosted by Climate Solutions — a Northwest-based environmental organization — and supported by Grist Magazine.

The Climate Solutions annual breakfast is a place where business leaders, elected officials, and clean energy advocates gather to discuss challenges in environmental issues.

Seated onstage, wearing a red baseball hat and casual business attire, Gates spoke about the role of innovation, the environment, and China.

“China is not the boogeyman,” said Gates. “China can be part of the solution here. If you look at how much additional energy capacity China needs, they are a much bigger potential customer than the U.S.”

While American energy needs will show “a modest increase,” China’s needs are expected to grow by a factor of four. Ultimately, it’s cooperation that will lead to the real solution. “One-upmanship will not get us where we want to go,” said Gates, adding that he has little patience for politicians who focus on fighting and delaying.

“We need to keep the pressure up, the lip service paid to energy innovations in the last decade has been disappointing,” Gates stated. He believes that a cleaner environment means jobs and increased national stature. “I’m stunned we can’t get bipartisan agreement.”

Gates recently met with President Barack Obama and other key leaders in the environment sector. He described the politicians as nice and well-intended people who ultimately have fallen short. Gates said, until government policies and regulations are more predictable, investors will hesitate to make large-scale capital investments, specifically citing the decades-long commitment needed for nuclear projects.

“The energy sector is under-invested. Investment is hard, but very, very important,” he said.

However, Gates was optimistic about the state of American innovation. “Of every 100 companies working on energy solutions, 70 percent of them are U.S. based.” The United States also has top universities doing research work and a will to invest in research and development, which many other countries lack.

Gates, well-known for his charity in global healthcare, has another compelling personal interest among environmental issues. When asked of his hope for the next 50 years, Gates answered quickly, “Clean energy at half the price.”

For him, obtaining clean and low-cost energy is challenging. That’s why Gates believes that the United States should take the lead to push Europe and China to innovate.

Thus, China will continue to use coal, which is cheap, while it also ramps up solar, wind, and nuclear power. “Chinese nuclear energy is going from 10 to 80 gigawatts in the next decade. That’s phenomenal, but it represents only two to four percent of the total Chinese energy market. The net effect on CO2 emissions could be zero,” said Gates.

Ultimately, the cost of energy drives everything, from remote farms in Africa to urban centers. The challenge is real, but so are the possibilities. “Uranium can produce a million times more energy than coal. The amount of sun that hits the earth is gigantic,” said Gates. “If we can get energy improvements, it’s deeply empowering.”

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