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Microsoft founder Bill Gates reiterated his view last week in the contentious debate about whether individual sacrifice can make a tangible difference in the fight against climate change, casting doubt on the idea that living an “impoverished lifestyle” or becoming a vegetarian could put a dent in rising greenhouse gas emissions.
“In climate movements, you can get this ‘Hey, we’ve been consuming too much,’ and ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t travel anymore,’” Gates said last week in remarks delivered in India. “I don’t think we can count on people living an impoverished lifestyle as a solution to climate.”
Gates, who is estimated to be the fourth-richest person on Earth, went on to say it was not realistic to expect that the climate crisis could be addressed by personal choices such as giving up eating meat.
“Will all Indians become vegetarians? Will all Americans become vegetarians? I wouldn’t want to count on it. Anybody wants to evangelize that, they’re welcome to,” Gates said.
The notion that climate change is too big a problem to be solved by individual lifestyle decisions is commonly held by many, like Gates, who are working to address what they see as a crisis. Even John Kerry, President Biden's climate envoy, has signaled that new technology will need to be developed for the world to achieve emissions goals.
“Fifty percent of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero by 2050 or 2045 are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have,” Kerry told the BBC in 2021.
Kerry singled out TerraPower, a company backed by Gates that is working on developing advanced nuclear fission reactors, as one hopeful example.
“There are a lot of possibilities out there,” he said. “Bill Gates is pursuing a small, modular next-generation nuclear capacity. We’re going to find our way to zero emissions as fast as possible.”
Absent technological breakthroughs, individual actions regarding energy and emissions will ultimately fall short, the thinking goes. After all, a 2017 report by CDP, an environmental nonprofit, found that 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions were produced by just 100 companies, the largest emitters being oil giants ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron. While it’s easy to blame oil companies for rising global temperatures — a consequence they were well aware of for decades — the fact remains that they continue to have plenty of customers for their primary product.
Contrary to Gates’s view, the United Nations has long advocated basing lifestyle choices on how they affect rising global temperatures.
“Everyone can help limit climate change. From the way we travel, to the electricity we use, the food we eat, and the things we buy, we can make a difference,” the U.N. states on a website that highlights 10 actions individuals can take to address the climate crisis.
The Inflation Reduction Act also looks to change individual behavior on a scale that will add up to meaningful cuts to emissions by offering tax credits designed to wean the public off oil, gas and coal. The law, which was passed in September, includes $7.5 billion in electric vehicle tax credits meant to get people to stop driving gas-powered cars, and $24 billion in credits to help people switch from gas-powered heaters to electric heat pumps and from gas stoves to induction ranges.
In 2022, 27% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from the transportation sector, and 13% came from burning fossil fuels to generate heat for homes and businesses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The new law, however, will spur a 30% reduction in emissions due to consumers switching from gas-powered cars to electric ones, and away from gas-powered heating and appliances, according to data from researchers at Princeton University.
In other words, if enough people are incentivized to change their behavior, the collective result could indeed have an impact.
Can’t get an induction stove bc I’m a renter, but just got this portable one for $79. Pretty cool! Just boiled water for pasta 🍝 pic.twitter.com/Ol4jeYw2X4
— Nick Cunningham (@nickcunningham1) March 9, 2023
On the other hand, even a large-scale transition away from fossil fuels may help slow the rate of climate change but not solve the problem.
An analysis of the Inflation Reduction Act’s climate provisions by the Congressional Research Service found that the law was poised to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 24% to 30% by 2030, a worthy goal but still well short of Biden’s pledge of 50% to 52% cuts by that year.