Environment

Did Bill Gates Just Give the Most Important Climate Speech of the Year?

When we talk about zero climate emissions, we sound crazy. When Bill Gates does it, bankers pick up the phone.

On Friday, the world's most successful businessperson and most powerful philanthropist did something outstandingly bold, that went almost unremarked: Bill Gates announced that his top priority is getting the world to zero climate emissions.

Now, I'm not a member of the Cult of Bill myself (I'm typing this on a MacBook), but you don't have to believe that Gates has superhuman powers of prediction to know that his predictions have enormous power. People who will never listen to Al Gore, much to less someone like me, hang on Gates' every utterance.

And Friday, Gates predicted extraordinary climate action: zero. Not small steps, not incremental progress, not doing less bad: zero. In fact, he stood in front of a slide with nothing but the planet Earth and the number zero. That moment was the most important thing that has happened at TED.

What, exactly, did he say, and why is it so important?

Gates spoke about his commitment to using his massive philanthropic resources (the Gates Foundation is the world's largest) to make life better for people through public health and poverty alleviation ("vaccines and seeds" as he put it). Then he said something he's never said before: that is it because he's committed to improving life for the world's vulnerable people that he now believes that climate change is the most important challenge on the planet.

Even more importantly, he acknowledged the only sensible goal, when it comes to climate emissions, is to eliminate them: we should be aiming for a civilization that produces no net emissions, and we should be aiming to live in that civilization here in the developed world by 2050.

Obviously, that's a big goal. Because he is the world's biggest geek, to explain how he plans to achieve that goal, Gates put up a slide with a formula (which we can call the Gates Climate Equation):

CO2 = P x S x E x C

Meaning this: the climate emissions of human civilization are the result of four driving forces:

* Population: the total number of people on the planet (which is still increasing because we are not yet at peak population).

* Services: the things that provide prosperity (and because billions of people are still rising out of poverty and because no global system will work unless it's fair, we can expect a massively increased demand for the services that provide prosperity).

* Energy: the amount of energy it takes to produce and provide the goods and services that our peaking population uses as it grows more prosperous (what some might call the energy intensity of goods and services). Gates believes it's likely cutting two-thirds of our energy waste is about as good as we can do.

* Carbon: the amount of climate emissions generated in order to produce the energy it takes to fuel prosperity.

Those four, he says, essentially define our emissions (more on that later). In order to reach zero emissions, then, at least one of these values has to fall to zero. But which one? He reckons that because population is going to continue to grow for at least four decades, because billions of poor people want more equitable prosperity, and because (as he sees it) improvements in energy efficiency are limited, we have to focus on the last element of the equation, the carbon intensity of energy. Simply, we need climate-neutral energy. We need to use nothing but climate-neutral energy.

To do that, we need an "energy miracle." We need energy solutions that don't yet exist, released through a global push for clean energy innovation. That, in turn, demands that a generation of entrepreneurs push forward new ideas for renewable energy, unleashing "1,000 promising ideas." He described one of his own investments, but went on to note that we need hundreds of other ambitious companies as well, and he plans to put his own efforts into this arena.

Why is this important? The news stories focused largely on the clean energy aspect of the speech, and certainly the world's most successful businessman announcing that clean energy is the next frontier is a big headline. However, I think though that the real breakthrough was not Gates' answer to the problem, but his definition of success: zero.

Bright green advocates understand that we need prosperity without planetary impact. In many of the circles I run in, this is an uncontroversial idea, and, indeed, the conversation has moved on, to discussing how we decouple better lives from ecological footprints (or even go beyond, and build a society that restores the ecosystems on which it depends).

To say, however, that the standard of zero impact is not widely understood and endorsed would be a whopping understatement. Most people rarely see the things they do, buy and use as directly part of the living systems of the planet. Few people who do think of their connection to nature have ever conceived their lives designed to have no impact at all. For most people, a ten percent or twenty percent improvement sounds like a big deal -- in large part because the improvements they're most familiar with involve giving things up. When they do encounter it, the idea of "zero" looms like a giant wall of deprivation in front of them. The idea that zero might not be the end of the good life, but in fact the beginning of a much better way of life, is simply inconceivable to the vast, vast majority of them. When we talk zero, we sound crazy.

But when Bill Gates talks zero, he sounds visionary. Gates, whatever else he did Friday, just made the most important idea on the planet mainstream credible. That's a big, big deal.

Was his articulation ideal? No. In fact, I think it has some big flaws. The biggest flaw is that the Gates Climate Equation could lead to carbon blindness, a self-defeating willingness to destroy critical environmental systems in the name of saving the planet from climate change. Climate is not the only absolutely vital planetary boundary we're straining. The biosphere transcends the climate crisis.

What's more, protecting and healing the biosphere is essential to meeting the climate crisis itself. Logging our forests, over-burdening our oceans, converting land for agriculture and grazing, all these are huge contributors to our climate problem, and restoring the capacities of natural systems to absorb carbon dioxide is a critical part of the solution.

In order to truly succeed, we need to improve the quality of our natural systems at about the same rate at which we're converting the economy to clean energy. Properly, Gates' Equation would include a value for nature:

CO2 = P x S x E x C ÷ N

There's another big gap here, though: the prosperity represented by S.

Now we might start with the energy use to deliver those services (E in the Equation). The energy intensity of any given form of prosperity can, I believe, be improved quite a bit; but the idea that E can be dramatically improved without improving the kind of prosperity we're attempting to provide is the very definition of what I call The Swap. The Swap doesn't work.

And we don't need it to. The idea that contemporary suburban American lifestyles (the kind of prosperity most people around the world aspire to, thanks to Hollywood and advertising), the idea that McMansions, SUVs and fast food chicken wraps somehow represent the best form of prosperity we could possibly invent is, of course, obviously ludicrous.

We can reinvent what prosperity means and how it works, and, in the process both reduce the ecological demands of that prosperity and improve the quality of our lives. In most cases, this is a smarter approach than simply improving efficiency.

The answer to the problem of cars and automotive emissions, for instance, isn't designing a better car, it's designing a better city. The answer to the problem of overconsumption isn't recycling cans or green shopping, it's changing our relationship to stuff, so that everything we use and live with is designed for zero waste, and either meant to last ("heirloom design" and "durability") or to be shared ("product service systems") or both. The best living we've ever had is waiting beyond zero. What looks like a wall to many people from this side of zero, looks to like a trellis from the other side, a foundation on which new thinking can flourish.

Cities are the tools we need for reinventing prosperity. We can build zero-impact cities, and we need to. Any answer to the problem of climate change needs to be as focused on reinventing the future as powering it.

(Photo: Nancy Duarte. Make her famous.)

Alex Steffen is the executive editor of Worldchanging.