The writer is cofounder of Microsoft, founder and cochair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Innovation was not even on the climate agenda prior to the 2015 Paris COP. It will be the main topic at Glasgow this year. The Paris COP was a huge success in shifting the focus of the world to clean technology. It is possible to continue this trend, which is perhaps the biggest opportunity for the Paris COP in 2018. Innovation is the only way that the world can reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions, which currently stands at 51bn tonnes per annum. This will allow the world to achieve zero emissions by 2050.
There is more money available for basic research and development than ever before, and there is more venture capital to fund clean start-ups in difficult-to-decarbonise industries. Many important clean technologies such as sustainable aeroplane fuel and green steel are now available and ready for scaling up.
These breakthroughs are only part of the story if the world is truly committed to climate innovation. We need to discuss how we can make lab-proven products available to the masses that people love and can afford. It will take a huge effort to finance hundreds of demonstration projects for early-stage climate technologies.
Commercializing a product is extremely difficult for any start-up, but it is especially so for energy companies. We didn't have much infrastructure when I started Microsoft. Once we had written the code, we could produce almost infinite copies of it with perfect fidelity and very little money.
It is much more complicated to navigate climate-smart technology. After you've made green hydrogen in a laboratory, you must prove it works reliably and safely at large scale. This means that you need to build a huge physical plant, solve engineering, supply chain, and distribution problems, and then repeat them repeatedly, while also reducing costs. These demonstration projects are extremely complex, risky, expensive, and difficult to finance.
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Clean technology is not without its complications. After all the risky, costly, and complicated work has been completed, you will have a product that does almost the same thing as green steel, but it costs more.
It is difficult to find buyers so banks charge more for loans. High capital costs can lead to higher prices for products. Commercial demonstration can be a slow and difficult process because financing is hard to find. The key to climate innovation is speeding it up.
We can do it, I believe. Many companies and governments have made net zero commitments and have billions to invest. We can speed up innovation by creating incentives for them to finance these projects as well as to buy products like sustainable aviation fuel or green steel. We can avoid climate catastrophe by committing more money to demonstration projects, recognizing these contributions as the best way to meet net zero commitments, creating a system to track the impact of these investments, and giving ourselves the best chance of avoiding it.
Three questions are what I ask when I think about zero. The first is: Can the world retain public support for climate change action? This depends on ensuring that the energy transition does not cost too much for people to lose their patience. Can emerging economies such as South Africa, Brazil, India and Brazil which have contributed less to climate change than rich countries, but are most affected by it, continue to reduce poverty while reducing greenhouse gas emissions? This depends on the price of green material being reduced so that they don't have to choose between growing and maintaining a healthy climate.
Third, what happens during this time? Everyone will need to adapt to a warmer environment. Farmers will be particularly affected by higher temperatures, more frequent droughts, floods, desiccation, and the spread of crop-eating insects. These changes could prove fatal for low-income farmers, while being problematic for rich farmers. We must also make clean energy more affordable and invest in innovations such as improved seeds to help poor farmers grow more food.
The world should place scaling up clean technology innovation at COP26 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and adapt to them. This is the same as it did in 2015 when it placed R&D on it.