After listening to Bill Gates delivering this year’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, ALEX LENFERNA believes that Gates’ approach is misguided and demonstrates a misunderstanding of the current energy landscape, as well as the urgency of transitioning to clean energy technologies. He says Gates’ view is dangerous and might lead to us missing a vital window needed to transition to clean energy and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
If a white man from the West came into town promising miracles that would save the planet and lift Africans out of poverty, you would be forgiven for thinking they were either a misguided preacher or someone suffering an acute version of the white saviour complexÂ -Â or both. Yet Bill Gates did close to that when he delivered the 2016 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at the University of Pretoria last month.
According to Gates, what â€œAfricaâ€ (and the world) needs is â€œa breakthrough energy miracle that provides cheap, clean energy for everyoneâ€. Thatâ€
The problem comes in when Gates asks us to wait for his so-called energy miracles, then downplays the need to deploy existing clean energy technologies, and spreads misinformation about the capability of current technologies.
Not only can we not afford to wait for Gatesâ€
Why we donâ€
During the Mandela lecture, Gates played up the role of large centralised energy projects like geothermal, hydro and fossil fuels. He then downplayed and even downright ignored the major role that wind and solar can and are playing in accelerating access to affordable, low-carbon energy. Gatesâ€
Evidence from right here in South Africa contradicts Gatesâ€
Across the globe,Â wind power is already one of our cheapest forms of energy, and solar is set to be one of the cheapest energy sources across 80% of the world by 2017,Â according to Deutsche Bank. With clean energy, batteries, and transportation, making such great headway, even the (deeply conservative) International Energy AgencyÂ has estimated that transitioning to clean energy in line with the 2-degree target is not only possible, but that it would result in net savings on fuel and energy costs of $71 trillion by 2050 â€“ no miracles needed or astronomical costs incurred.
Urgent action is needed now
Even back in 2011, the International Energy Agency warned that â€œdelaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.â€
Alongside increasing clean energy investments, the 2Â° Investing Initiative estimates that â€œdivesting from fossil fuels is an integral piece to aligning the financial sector with a 2Â°C climate scenario,â€ with reductions in fossil fuel investments of $4.9 trillion needed by 2035 if we are to achieve the internationally agreed upon 2Â°C target.
As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in their 2014 report delaying action could â€œsubstantially increase the difficulty of the transition to low, longer-term emissions levels and narrow the range of options consistent with maintaining temperature change below 2 degrees C.â€ The IPCC warned that further delay risks â€œsevere, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.â€
When are the miracles coming?
Given the need for urgent action, it is worth asking: â€œWhen are Bill Gatesâ€
To get a sense, we can have a look at some of the examples he has in mind. In a recent briefing authored by Gates, he highlighted three major technologies, namely, solar paint, solar chemical, and flow batteries. While each could maybe play an important role at some point, Gates admitted that none of those technologies would be ready to be deployed within the space of a decade. Still, Gates says he is optimistic that the next fifteen years will bring â€œthe big breakthroughs we needâ€.
The problem, in the words of UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres, is that the â€œinvestments that weâ€
While Gates asks us to wait 15 years for an energy miracle, which may or may not pan out, studies, such as a major new study from NOAA and University of Colorado Boulder, show that â€œa transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology and within 15 years.â€
So while actual energy experts tell us we can undertake the needed transition using predominantly the technologies we have, and climate experts warn that we need to act urgently within the next decade, Gates is telling us to sit back, hold tight, and trust him to develop an energy miracle sometime in the next fifteen yearsâ€¦ hopefully.
Editor’s note:Â A more comprehensive version of this article can be found here.Â