We Didn’t See This Coming – Jan/Feb 2019
Bill & Melinda Gates, 2/12/2019
How would you describe 2018? Was it what you expected?
We’d probably say no. From especially devastating natural disasters on the one hand to record numbers of women campaigning for office on the other, 2018 felt to us like a series of surprises. The world looking backward from today is very different from what we pictured a couple years ago looking forward.
A benefit of surprises is that they’re often a prod to action. It can gnaw at people to realize that the realities of the world don’t match their expectations for it. Some surprises help people see that the status quo needs to change. Some surprises underscore that transformation is happening already.
Twenty-five years ago, we read an article that said hundreds of thousands of kids in poor countries were dying from diarrhea. That surprise helped crystallize our values. We believe in a world where innovation is for everyone—where no child dies from a disease it’s possible to prevent. But what we saw was a world still shaped by inequity.
That discovery was one of the most important steps in our journey to philanthropy. We were surprised, then we were outraged, then we were activated.
There have been good surprises, too. When we first started learning about malaria, we thought the world would never make real headway on the disease until someone invented a long-acting vaccine. But thanks to bed nets and other measures, malaria deaths are down 42 percent since 2000.
In this year’s annual letter, we’re highlighting nine more things that have surprised us along this journey. Some worry us. Others inspire us. All of them are prodding us to action. We hope they do the same for you, because that’s how the world gets better.
We will build an entire New York City every month…
… for 40 years! The world’s building stock will double by 2060.
Bill: I wish more people fully understood what it will take to stop climate change.
You have probably read about some of the progress on electricity, as renewables get cheaper. But electricity accounts for only a quarter of all the greenhouse gases emitted around the world.
Manufacturing isn’t far behind, at 21 percent. When most people think of manufacturing, they picture widgets on assembly lines, but it also includes the materials used in buildings. Making cement and steel requires lots of energy from fossil fuels, and the processes involved release carbon as a byproduct.
As the urban population continues to grow in the coming decades, the world’s building stock is expected to double by 2060—the equivalent of adding another New York City monthly between now and then. That’s a lot of cement and steel. We need to find a way to make it all without worsening climate change.
Manufacturing isn’t the only big emitter. Agriculture accounts for 24 percent of greenhouse gases. That includes cattle, which give off methane when they belch and pass gas. (A personal surprise for me: I never thought I’d be writing seriously about bovine flatulence.)
The larger point is that if we’re going to solve climate change, we need to get to near-zero emissions on all the things that drive it—agriculture, electricity, manufacturing, transportation, and buildings. I call these five areas the grand challenges in climate change.
It’s not realistic to think that people will simply stop using fertilizer, running cargo ships, building offices, or flying airplanes. Nor is it fair to ask developing countries to curtail their growth for the sake of everyone else. For example, for many people in low- and middle-income countries, cattle are an essential source of income and nutrients.
Watch Bill’s Video: The Grand Challenge of Climate Change
Part of the solution is to invest in innovation in all five sectors so we can do these things without destroying the climate. We need breakthrough inventions in each of the grand challenges.
I can report some progress. The European Commission recently committed to invest in research and development on the five areas. And the $1 billion private fund I’m involved with, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, is using the five grand challenges to guide all our investments in clean-energy companies. (My BEV work is separate from what our foundation does to help farmers adapt to climate change.)
But we need to do a much better job of informing people about the challenges. It would help if media coverage matched the breadth of the problem. Solar panels are great, but we should be hearing about trucks, cement, and cow farts too.
Click Here to read the entire GatesNotes 2019 Annual Newsletter…