On March 10, Bill Gates addressed a U of T audience on the defining challenges of the climate crisis at an event hosted by the Rotman School of Management and Indigo Books. The event aimed to promote Gates’ new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.

Gates — the world’s fourth wealthiest person, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the founder of Breakthrough Energy — sat down with Canadian writer and filmmaker Ariel Bissett over a livestream featuring audience interaction. The pair were introduced by Professor Kenneth S. Corts, interim dean of the Rotman School of Management, who also spoke briefly on U of T’s own sustainability efforts.

Over the hour-long conversation, Gates and Bissett discussed important points raised in the book and explored Gates’ journey from working in the software industry to becoming a prominent voice in the climate crisis movement.

The power of renewables

One of the first points that Gates addresses in his book is the importance of drastically decreasing our annual greenhouse gas emission from the current 51 billion tonnes to zero. Gates recognized the ambition of the goal during the talk, deeming that “avoiding a climate disaster will be one of the greatest challenges humans have ever taken on.”

Bissett probed the feasibility of Gates’ plans by claiming that the world’s electricity supply will need to double, or even triple, by 2050 to support the growing population. In response, Gates stressed the importance of energy transmission development. “We’re lucky that in North America we have lots of solar and lots of wind, but we don’t have much transmission to move it around,” Gates explained.

Completely changing the processes — and manufacturing systems reliant on fossil fuels — required to reduce emissions can seem daunting to the average person in Canada. To facilitate the transition, Gates advocated for “broad knowledge” and encouraged people to support government leaders pursuing climate crisis initiatives. He also encouraged the audience to evaluate what their employers are doing to fight the climate crisis and to ‘vote with their dollar’ by being conscientious of what they spend their money on.

The power — and insufficiency — of innovation

Making an impact against the climate crisis at the corporate level starts with innovative change. Specifically, Gates said that “the pipeline of innovation starts with [research and development].”

He highlighted companies that he believes embody this concept. These included CarbonCure — a Canadian company that discovered a way to insert carbon dioxide back into the cement that it creates — and Quidnet Energy — a hydropower company that discovered a way to store hydroelectric power by pumping water into ground formations.

Gates also stressed that innovation on its own will not be enough to fight the climate crisis, saying that the world’s wealthiest countries and largest producers of carbon emissions must also cooperate and do their part to foster this innovation.

He explained that “the rich countries have had the greatest emissions historically. Per person, the US and Canada and Australia are among the worst.” According to Gates, “We drive more miles, we have to heat our houses a lot, [and] our houses tend to be bigger. And so by rights, because of our wealth, our past emissions, that priming this innovation pump, that should be our responsibility.”

However, in response to a question from the audience, Gates also highlighted the importance of China’s involvement in any global climate movement. “China, in present day numbers, is the largest emitter,” Gates said. 

“They passed us partly because they export a lot of steel and cement, but they also use a lot. Remember, they’re 20 per cent of the world’s population, so their share of emissions almost matches exactly their share of the global population.”

Gates continued, “They need to participate in every way — they need to help with the innovation; they need to help with the deployment.” 

The power of ordinary people

According to Gates, getting more young people involved in efforts to fight the climate crisis requires driving “interest in climate to derive interest in science and interest in science to derive interest in climate.” He believes that building science courses focused on climate is a great way to pique students’ interest and “motivate them as they go into politics or science to be part of the solution.”

Regarding his own personal use of resources as the world’s fourth-richest person, Gates said, “I wouldn’t take any credit for the quantity of my giving because I’m lucky to have so much money that I’m not making some huge sacrifice as I give it away.” He encouraged people to direct their praise to those who, when they give, sacrifice luxuries in order to support their communities.

Gates expressed hope that as time passes, people as wealthy as him will become more generous and more resources will be donated to fight the climate crisis. “We fund the philanthropic sector… but I still think ‘okay we should have twice as much,’ ” Gates said. “How do we innovate, even in that space?”