Bill Gates appears to think he is the hypocrite the world needs. He’s got big ideas about how to tackle climate change (or rather, he’s got a book out containing other people’s big ideas about how to tackle climate change), but he’s also not going to stop eating hamburgers or flying by private jet.
Gates, whose personal net worth remains well north of £100bn, calls private jets his “guilty pleasure”. He spends many millions of pounds a year on that pleasure, a figure that has increased since he started powering them with biofuels and offsetting their use via some kind of air capture technology based in Iceland (though he has also just purchased a private jet services company for £1.6bn).
He has a sharp answer to claims of hypocrisy, which principally involves admitting that they’re true. But also, to an extent, that they don’t matter.
In the introduction to his new book, he explains that there are, still, in 2021, almost a billion people in the world with no access to electricity. Humanity, quite rightly, has a moral obligation to do what it can to advance the living standards and life chances of those people, and empowering those people, quite literally, cannot be offset by restraint on the part of the rich. And that does not mean Bill Gates; it means, in all likelihood absolutely everybody reading this article.
What is needed, he says, is massive innovation in every area of human life, how we generate power and produce food. We need this massive innovation urgently, and it will be up to governments to make it happen.
He is, probably, right. Eighteen months ago, Greta Thunberg very publicly travelled by catamaran to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York. Her actions were inspiring, but also revealing. Through the act of attending, she confirmed that attendance at actual events was important, that global summits do matter, and that travel by catamaran is not wholly practical. The world needs other solutions.
Gates points out that the only target that matters is achieving net zero emissions. In 2019, humanity released 51 billion tonnes of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and this number must be reduced to nothing. Only 16 per cent comes from transport, so that’s no good. Covid-19, and its grounding of almost all global flights, has cut global emissions by just five per cent. (Only five per cent of the human population are estimated ever to have even travelled in an aeroplane on a single occasion, a far smaller number than live without electricity.)
A vast chunk of global emissions, perhaps 30 per cent, are the result of cement and steel production, two areas in which Gates is fixated, and the book talks at great length about his visit to various steel and cement production facilities around the world (having flown by private jet to get there).
New processes, new methods are needed, and there is some optimism that they might be achieved. But there are problems, too. Human beings have a remarkable knack of analysing problems and coming up with solutions that absolve them of personal responsibility, or require them to make sacrifices.
Gates mocks the suggestion, put about by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others, that net zero must be achieved within 10 years, on the basis that it’s impossible, it can’t be done, and to claim that it can is “false science”.
But if he’s right about that, he is at the same time wrong that restraint is not the answer. It is, for example, now very clear that vaccination is the only viable route out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Technological innovation has come to the rescue, just as it will have to in the climate crisis.
But there is no government, anywhere in the world, that did not buy time for rescue by means of technological innovation through locking down society in some form or another. Without the harshest of sacrifices, the solution that has now been found would not have been as effective as it looks like it very well may be.
It is true that grounding flights, banning meat, and general hairshirtedness on the part of rich, developed countries can’t solve the problem on its own. The numbers don’t add up. The sides of the ledger don’t match.
But if the solutions are decades, not years, away, hard choices may very well be needed in the meantime. It is not an either/or. It is both. If Gates wants to be taken as seriously as the situation is urgent, he will need to make personal sacrifices that, frankly, are not that big.
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