The Current

Bill Gates on tackling climate change and why Canada and U.S. must take the lead

American entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates says Canada and the U.S. must set an example for the rest of the world in the fight against climate change in an interview with CBC's Matt Galloway.

Microsoft co-founder lays out his own plan for climate change in new book

Bill Gates's new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, is set to be released on Tuesday. He tells The Current about how he thinks the world can tackle climate change in a Canadian broadcast exclusive. (Mike Cohen/Getty Images for The New York Times)

Story Transcript

American entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates says Canada and the U.S. must set an example for the rest of the world in the fight against climate change.

"Historically, we have had a lot of emissions, and we're well-off countries. So all the other countries look to us," Gates told The Current's Matt Galloway in a Canadian broadcast exclusive airing Monday morning on CBC Radio.

"Unless the U.S. and Canada do their part, the rest of the world won't."

Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, lays out his plan for achieving greenhouse gas targets in his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, which will be released Tuesday.

It's a cause he's invested in in recent years. In 2015, he spearheaded an initiative to fund clean energy technologies, and in 2019, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation poured hundreds of millions of dollars into helping farmers in developing nations adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Gates stepped down from Microsoft's board of directors last March to dedicate more time to the challenge he considers one of the biggest to face the world. And he's impressed with some of the work that's already being done.

Amazingly, young people are more interested in climate than ever. No matter what their political affiliation is ... we see a lot of energy around this.- Bill Gates

He said he applauds activists who have been able to put climate change on the political agenda.

"I wouldn't know how to do that," he said. 

"What I do know how to do is say, OK, given that you politicians are listening, what exactly are the steps? What would a real plan look like so that 10 years from now, all these idealistic people are not saying, 'Hey, you know, this really isn't going to come together.'"

Aiming for 0 emissions in 2050

As the world starts to allocate funding toward the pandemic recovery, Gates says, it's the perfect time to think about long-term climate challenges.

"The pandemic reminds people we count on government to look ahead [to] avoid terrible things happening," he said. 

"And amazingly, young people are more interested in climate than ever. No matter what their political affiliation is, certainly in Canada, the U.S., Europe, we see a lot of energy around this. And of course, we've got this goal to get to zero [emissions] by 2050."

In 2018, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world would need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic damage. As part of that effort, the Paris Agreement on climate calls on countries to help limit global warming to just 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.

A flock of geese fly past a smokestack at a coal power plant in Kansas. The UN has said the world needs to get its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 if it wants to avoid the damaging impacts of climate change. (The Associated Press)

For its part, Canada has committed to reaching net-zero emissions within the next three decades. It's working to phase out the use of coal power, has implemented a carbon tax and has introduced an electric vehicle strategy.

However, federal governments have set many climate targets in the past — and failed to meet them.

The UN says the world is not on track to meet its current climate goals either. And the impact of global warming is already being seen in the form of more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and diminishing Arctic sea ice. 

Electric vehicles are one way Gates says the world could tackle emissions in the short term. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Gates said it's important to have short-term goals for reducing carbon emissions, such as getting more electric vehicles on the road, and ramping up wind and solar power. Electric vehicles typically create fewer emissions over their lifetime than gasoline vehicles, although it can take more carbon dioxide to produce an electric car because of the battery required to power it.

But, Gates said, to reach the 2050 goal, countries will also have to tackle more difficult problems. For example, the world relies heavily on cement for construction, but it is among the most difficult areas in which to feasibly reduce emissions, Gate said.

"We need to look at those hard areas and actually look at how expensive making green steel is or green cement," he said.

WATCH | Bill Gates on making 'green' cement

Why Bill Gates says we should make cement 'greener'

2 years ago
Duration 2:08
The philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder explains how the production of cement contributes to carbon emissions, and how we could change that.

To do that, governments need to invest in research and development, and companies must focus on innovation, Gates said.

That goes for Canada, too. 

The parts of Canada's economy that contribute to carbon emissions will need to transition away from doing so, Gates said, citing GM's recent commitment to go all electric by 2035. And that opens the door to developing green industries that will create new jobs.

"Bringing in those workers and talking about what those new opportunities are and are they going to be prepared for them — that's got to be part of the dialogue here," he said.

Matt Galloway, host of CBC Radio's The Current, speaks with Gates by video call. Gates says governments should be investing in research and development aimed at addressing climate change. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

The cost of going green

Making changes to address climate change isn't cheap.

Gates said he spends more than $7 million a year to offset his own carbon footprint.

That's where tax credits could help, he said. They might encourage Canadians to buy greener products even when they're more expensive.

"We need to bring that cost way, way down — what I call the overall green premium," Gates said. 

"And that's where innovation comes in, because if we can get [the cost] down by 95 per cent, then it is affordable and the world can get to zero. But without innovation, it's going to be impossible."

While everyone remains focused on ending the pandemic right now, Gates says he is optimistic that the world will get back to addressing challenges such as climate change soon.

However, he knows it's a monumental task.

"It's going to be hard," he said. "Anyone who thinks this is easy is missing the scope of what we have to change." 

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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