SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Significantly cutting carbon emissions over the next century will be extremely difficult but might be possible with planning and innovation, Bill Gates told energy leaders here yesterday.
To shrink carbon levels, the world will have to accomplish a feat that's never been done, the former Microsoft CEO said. In modern history, people have produced more climate pollution every year.
"There's not a single year where we've put out less, even when we had the economic recession, because China and India are moving ahead," Gates said. "So this is very tough. The likelihood of us meeting any of the goals we've set seems very daunting."
Gates spoke on his aim for a zero-carbon future at The Wall Street Journal's ECO:nomics Creating Environmental Capital conference, where energy company leaders, entrepreneurs and environmental groups share ideas.
You will never reach absolute zero carbon, Gates said, "but if you want there not to be increased warming every year, you have to get to extremely low numbers."
Gates during a 45-minute talk was by turns both pessimistic and full of ideas for how the world might fix its carbon problem. He said that doing so is urgent but that the obstacles are immense. One of the biggest mistakes of recent years, he said, was the government's not attaching a cost to greenhouse gas emissions. That would drive the development of technologies like carbon capture, he said.
"That's the greatest failure in our energy policy is not to have out there -- at least 10, 15 years out there -- a carbon tax," Gates said. "It's what should happen, because it drives both conservation and innovation."
And while the recent boom in natural gas helps cut the cost of electricity, Gates said, it is not a solution for limiting climate change. Although the fuel's carbon emissions are half those of coal, there can be problems with leakage of methane.
Additionally, he said, "getting a half reduction doesn't help."
"You're just going to keep warming and warming and warming," Gates said. "We're on this experiment that in natural history, that's a faster warming rate than ever's been seen in the history of the planet."
Fossil fuel domination
Alan Murray, The Wall Street Journal's deputy managing editor and online executive editor, asked Gates his views on when fossil fuels might fill less than half of the world's energy needs, compared to the 80 percent they make up today.
In an earlier session at the conference, Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said he thought that point might come by 2050. Vinod Khosla, managing partner at Khosla Ventures, said it could occur within 25 years, although he added, "I'm definitely more optimistic."
Gates said both those time frames were unrealistic and that it would be longer. Looking just at the electrification sector, Gates said, there is too much carbon-emitting infrastructure that will be around for decades. Power plants built over the next two decades will have a minimum 30-year life span, he said.
"The notion that that sector will be 50 percent non-hydrocarbon in 50 years, it's not possible," Gates said.
There is the potential for innovations that could come starting in about 20 years, he said. It would still be many years after that before big changes are seen, Gates predicted.
"If you took a period like 75 years, if we really fund basic research at a reasonable level, which the U.S. does not, other countries do not," Gates said. "If we have policies to encourage experimentation ... if you do the right thing, there is a chance to meet very aggressive goals in a 75-year time frame."
Looking for miracles
Gates said there are "five miracles" that also could factor in. The first would be success in capturing carbon emissions, Gates said, which would work well with natural gas if prices of that fuel stay low.
"All you need to do is put carbon capture on that and be willing to pay for it," Gates said. "You can imagine a future where you're just using a lot of natural gas and you're able to do the capture, extremely good capture, like 95 percent capture, which means some innovation.
"That miracle alone would get you a long ways."
There could also be a miracle in nuclear energy, he said, although it currently is controversial. Gates has invested in new technology for nuclear, a fourth-generation design (Greenwire, Dec. 7, 2011). It could become part of the world's energy mix comparatively soon, Gates said.
"If everything goes perfectly, by 2022, the demo reactor will be in place," Gates said, and by 2028, it would be a design that could be replicated in many places.
"How often does everything go perfectly?" Murray asked.
"In nuclear?" Gates said. "If you ignore 1979, 1986 and 2011, come on, we've had a good century."
The industry's long-term safety record is good, he said, compared to deaths in coal-mining accidents.
Solar, wind or biofuels could grow in the future, he said, but because they are intermittent, there would need to be advancements in storage and transmission.
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