At Bill Gates’s climate conference, “amazing” progress and “depressing” trends

Bill Gates, John Kerry, and US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm all struck positive notes at an energy summit in Seattle this week hosted by Gates’s climate-focused venture fund, Breakthrough Energy. With caveats.

Government policy is accelerating clean energy projects. The cost of renewables continues to fall. Huge sums of private and public capital are pouring into climate technologies.

And yet, this progress hasn’t translated into steep reductions in greenhouse-gas pollution. Meanwhile, geopolitical conflicts and global economic headwinds are complicating efforts to keep rising global temperatures in check.

Gates was largely focused on the promising investment and industry trends he has seen. He said he and other investors in his initial $1 billion fund, which include the likes of Jeff Bezos and Kleiner Perkins chairman John Doerr, were concerned when they launched in 2015 that they wouldn’t find enough promising startups to invest in. But the firm has now backed more than 100 companies working on long-duration energy storage, meat alternatives, efficient buildings, clean steel, and other means of driving down emissions. 

Gates says he is “amazed” by the progress he’s seen on some of the hardest technical challenges of climate change in the past seven years. 

Breakthrough Energy closed a second $1 billion fund in 2021, and Gates said the firm plans to “do several more.” It has also expanded its mission beyond investments by pushing policies, creating fellowships, and supporting other climate efforts.

Gates noted that venture capital investments in clean energy, which were close to their ebb around 2015, have come roaring back and that wind, solar, and lithium-ion batteries have continued to plummet in cost.

In a subsequent session at the event, US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm trumpeted a trio of new US laws: the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

She described them as “game-changers” that will accelerate the nation’s shift to clean energy and boost the US economy, adding that they’ve already begun to spur billions of dollars’ worth of private capital investments into US manufacturing facilities. 

Granholm said the Department of Energy is now working to kick-start the construction of low-carbon hydrogen hubs, grid energy storage projects, and plants that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air, creating a “bridge to bankability” for these emerging industries.

But for all the progress that’s occurred, there are still major obstacles to slashing emissions rapidly enough to avoid the worst dangers of climate change.

Gates said that a hard look at nations’ progress toward near-term emissions targets under the Paris climate agreement would leave people “very depressed.” Indeed, global emissions set a new record last year and have continued to rise through much of 2022. 

Gates also called it “very laughable” to think that the US will build out a clean electricity grid by 2035, despite the tens of billions of dollars earmarked for wind and solar projects, and the fact that it’s a stated goal of the Biden administration.

He mainly pinned the blame on the significant challenges in permitting and approving long-range transmission lines, which studies find are crucial for weaving together a modern, reliable national grid powered mostly by renewables. It can easily take more than a decade to approve such projects, since they may cross the jurisdictions of multiple cities, counties, and states. Many are rejected outright, even when they promise to drive down emissions or deliver more affordable electricity to households. 

A recent federal bill that included provisions to streamline such approvals failed to move forward in Congress.

John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, echoed these concerns at a media briefing at the end of the day on Tuesday, stressing the need to pass permitting reform when Congress is back in session.

“There is no way we can meet our goals if it takes 10 years” to approve such projects, he said.

When asked how rising inflation, a weakening global economy, and the energy crisis sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine are complicating efforts for nations to meet and raise emissions targets ahead of the UN climate conference next month in Egypt, Kerry said: “Putin’s illegal invasion of another county has had an impact on the overall economic situation, globally.” That has boosted energy prices and exacerbated rising inflation, putting nations in a “tough spot,” he said.

As nations scramble to meet their immediate energy needs, the conflict has restricted natural-gas supplies and sent coal demand back to an all-time high set a decade ago. There are growing concerns about how Europeans will fare in the coming winter months as temperatures fall, and experts worry that rising costs and tightening supplies will slow progress on the European Union’s ambitious climate goals.

But Kerry said the crisis will pass and that he’s encouraged by the passage of recent policies and the vast amount of venture capital moving into clean energy. Like others, Kerry expressed optimism overall, albeit heavily qualified.

“I’m convinced we will get to a low carbon/no carbon economy, a clean energy economy,” Kerry said. “But I’m not convinced that we will get there in time to avoid the worst consequences of what may take place on our planet as a result of the climate crisis.”

Gates ended on a more squarely positive note. 

He remains hopeful, he says, that the world will begin to significantly accelerate emissions reductions in the coming years, as the private sector and government continue to drive down the cost of clean technologies. He added that to keep activists, entrepreneurs, researchers, and others engaged in solving big problems, it’s crucial to point out the progress we are making in areas that will pay off in real ways for the climate.

“You can’t have people giving up,” he said.

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