Climate & Energy
Spring 2021

The Race to Zero

Author: Rowlie Flores

Bill Gates’ climate work prompts a Georgetown visit

The founder of Microsoft and head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation merged his long-standing love for technological innovation with the global challenge that climate change presents. He explored this theme during a Zoom Webinar with Georgetown and fellow Washington-based universities in February. Georgetown Climate Center and the Georgetown Environment Initiative hosted the event, which Michelle Miller (co-host of “CBS This Morning: Saturday”) moderated. 

Gates argued that the climate crisis is the greatest challenge humankind will ever face. In his view, the world is in need of a new breakthrough to address the 51 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. How can these emissions be brought to zero, while still meeting basic human needs across the wide ranging sectors that needed? 

How can 51 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere be brought to zero, while still meeting basic human needs?

Gates answered this critical question in his webinar, which – like his new book, “How to Avoid a Climate Crisis”- dove into the role technology and innovations might in reduce carbon emissions to zero. 

Innovations in energy tend to summon images of the electricity and transportation sectors. Innovations that reduce emissions in agriculture, cooling and heating, and manufacturing, however, would be equally effective, if not more. Yet they are lesser known and less advanced. “We’ve almost put most of our effort into the easy stuff and kind of ignored the hard stuff,” he claims. 

Access to new climate technologies may be impeded by poverty and income inequalities throughout the world. Gates believes these financial barriers are the main challenge in the quest for net zero emissions. He worries that electric cars and other climate innovations are simply out-of-reach for non-wealthy people. “At the end of the day, affordability is the metric that we’ve got to win on.” Further innovation — as well as government policies such as taxes and subsidies — in these areas may lead to lower prices of electric cars over time.

While few may associate Gates with climate issues, he has been speaking publicly about the climate crisis since his TED talk in 2010. He explained, then, the powerful role that innovation can play in achieving net zero emissions, which his new book further pursues. “Almost every way we make electricity today, except for the emerging renewables and nuclear, puts out carbon dioxide,” Gates said in this talk. “And so, what we have to do at a global scale is create a new system. So we need energy miracles.” Gates also consulted with the Obama administration and pushed for climate technology innovation in the conversations of the 2015 Paris Climate Treaty.

Although Gates is known for his role in co-founding Microsoft, he began forming an interest in environmental issues and climate change during his travels to the African continent. There, Gates learned from farmers how climate change has affected the crop productivity and water supplies.

What we have to do at a global scale is create a new system. So we need energy miracles.


Indeed, developing countries such as those in Africa are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. Gates argues that the developed world must step up. For the United States, this means doing more than simply rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement after its departure from the accord under the Trump administration.

“The United States has the majority of the innovation capacity in the world,” argued Gates in the recent webinar, while recognizing the contributions from European nations, China, and others. This American leadership role – if further pursued – can benefit the United States through job creation and the development of new technologies. 

Throughout the webinar, Gates remained hopeful about the future of the planet and emphasized that the point of his new book is to show that slowing down the effects of climate change is a difficult task, but not impossible.

He encouraged the student audience to remain optimistic and engaged in climate advocacy and to continue pressuring government officials to do their part. “All of us need to engage, because it is so hard and we don’t have time to waste,” Gates stressed.

As of today, Gates has invested $2 billion of his own personal savings into climate technologies with an intention to invest another $2 billion in the next five years.


Bill Gates
climate change
climate innovation
climate technology
energy breakthroughs
environmental innovation
Georgetown and Bill Gates
Georgetown events
Michelle Miller
Paris Climate Agreement
Rowlie Flores