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Accelerating innovation

4 signs of progress on climate change

All the promising developments I’ll be talking about in Paris this week.


I’m in Paris for the big meeting on climate change hosted by President Macron. Leaders from around the world are here to take stock of the progress the world is making on this urgent challenge.

This is a pivotal moment. We need to adapt to the climate change that is already affecting the planet, and develop new tools that will keep the problem from getting worse. Innovation is key to doing both. Scientific advances in crop science, for example, will help farmers deal with changing weather patterns. And energy research will make it possible to power modern life—the way we live, work, travel, and make things—without adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

The good news is that there’s a lot of progress to report on both fronts. Here’s an overview of the developments I’ll be highlighting in Paris.

More partners are chipping in on clean energy. The world needs to invest much more in energy research than it has been. Two years ago, 20 countries launched an effort called Mission Innovation in which they committed to doubling their spending on energy R&D by 2020. Today, Mission Innovation has grown to 23 members, raising the group’s total commitment to more than $30 billion.

The growing list of partners also includes the private sector. In 2015 we started the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of investors who are supporting entrepreneurs working on new sources of clean energy. Today the BEC is adding 15 companies, banks, funds, and institutional investors. The members of the BEC have committed billions of dollars to creating new energy companies and commercializing new energy products.

Just as important, we’ll also be working to speed up the pace of progress. The world can’t afford to wait the decades that it usually takes to develop promising technology, find investors, connect with governments willing to roll it out, and reach customers. Our goal is to bring ideas out of the lab and into the market much faster.

That’s why I’m excited that these partners are working together like never before. Public and private funding for energy research often isn’t coordinated, which is one reason some promising technologies never make it to market. The members of Mission Innovation and the BEC will bridge that gap. They’ll work together to match cutting-edge scientists in government labs with investors who can help turn their ideas into products. They’ll also partner with governments to make it easier to create and deploy new tools. As a first step, the BEC will work with four countries—Canada, Mexico, France, and the United Kingdom—as well as the European Commission on ways to coordinate public and private efforts.

Our $1 billion clean-energy investment fund is up and running. Breakthrough Energy Ventures has hired a staff of accomplished investors, company builders, scientists, and technologists. They have identified five areas that are especially promising but also underfunded. This is where we will focus our investments:

  • Grid-scale storage. One reason renewables haven’t been more widely adopted is that storing energy for later use—for example, when it’s dark or the wind isn’t blowing—is expensive. Breakthroughs in storage—for example, storing energy as heat or in flywheels—would make today’s renewable technology more practical and affordable.
  • Liquid fuels. We might be able to use sunlight to create fuels that could power airplanes, trucks, and other big polluters without adding more carbon to the atmosphere. (Earlier this year I wrote about my visit to one lab that’s doing exciting work in this area.)
  • Mini-grids. These networks can deliver electricity locally—say, to a neighborhood or village—without being connected to a centralized grid. That would make them especially useful in poor regions, like parts of Africa and India, where larger grids aren’t practical.
  • Alternative building materials. Making concrete and steel produces a lot of greenhouse gases. To construct all the buildings we’ll need by 2050, we need new carbon-neutral building materials for homes and offices.
  • Geothermal power. There is a phenomenal amount of energy stored up as heat under the Earth’s surface—many times more than we could get from all the known coal and oil reserves in the world. Tapping this source involves pumping steam or hot water from underground to drive turbines.

Small farmers are getting more help. Roughly 800 million poor people in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia rely on agriculture for their food and income. As the climate warms and the weather becomes more unpredictable, their crops will become dramatically less productive—and could be wiped out altogether. As many as 200 million people may be forced to migrate to regions where they can grow enough to survive.

Innovation can help prevent that kind of catastrophe. For our part, the Gates Foundation is investing in three areas that developing countries have said are especially crucial. One is improving crops—for example, developing varieties that yield more food, so farmers can get more for the work they put in. The second is protecting crops by making them able to resist diseases and tolerate the droughts and floods that will become more frequent. The third area is giving farmers more advanced ways to manage crops in a changing climate—helping them analyze their soil, for example, or use water more efficiently. And because progress depends on brilliant researchers contributing their talents, we’re also co-funding a fellowship program that will train 600 African and European scientists. All told, we will spend more than $300 million in these areas over the next three years.

Of course, our work is only part of the effort to spark innovation that helps farmers adapt to a changing climate. The European Commission is also committing more than $300 million over the next three years, bringing the total to over $600 million in new money through 2020.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on. I’m optimistic that if we keep up this momentum, we can stop climate change and help those who are being hurt the most by it—all while meeting the world’s growing energy needs.