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Lately, Bill Gates has been thinking about what he calls the “hard stuff” of climate change. He isn’t talking about the challenges that we usually discuss in this newsletter, such as how to generate zero-carbon electricity (use wind, solar, and some nuclear). Nor does he mean the associated political challenges of overcoming partisan opposition. No, he means the vital processes of industrial society for which we still have no zero-carbon alternative—the as-yet-unsolved engineering problems that are key to zeroing out global greenhouse-gas pollution.
Making concrete, for instance, causes 8 percent of the world’s carbon-dioxide pollution, and we have no way to do it cheaply in a climate-friendly way—that’s one of Gates’s hard problems. Heating and cooling buildings, which together emit 7 percent of greenhouse-gas pollution, are another. As is agriculture, responsible for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse-gas pollution each year.
These hard problems are at the center of Gates’s understanding of climate change and of his helpful new book, entitled How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. They’ve led him to found Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $2 billion investment fund for companies that want to solve difficult climate-change problems. A few weeks ago, when I had the chance to ask him about them, he expounded on a principle that I will, with journalistic presumption, now call “the Gates Rule.” I think it is a useful tool, though not a perfect one, for understanding climate policy.