Bill Gates: Asking People to Stop Eating Meat Won't Fix Climate Change

Justin Tallis | Pool | Reuters
  • It's unrealistic to expect climate change to be meaningfully mitigated by expecting global demand for energy to drop significantly or people to stop eating meat, Bill Gates said at an event in India earlier in March. Instead, innovation of new and better solutions is a more likely and productive outcome.
  • Gates also brought up air conditioning, which, as the world gets warmer, is going to be used more and more. If that air conditioning is powered by electricity which generates emissions that cause climate change, then you have created a counterproductive positive feedback loop.
  • Gates also addressed nuclear energy. He's an investor in both nuclear fission and fusion and says both would be "good for humanity" if they can be executed well.

Climate change is an urgent issue, but it won't be solved by asking everyone to become vegetarians — or any other similar calls for consumers to cut back, Bill Gates said at a recent event in India.

"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, speaking with Anant Goenka, the executive director of the Indian Express Group, an Indian media company.

Meat has a notoriously high climate footprint. Food systems in the world are responsible for about 35 percent of total global anthropogenic greenhouse gasses, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Nature Food, and of that, 57 percent correlates to animal-based food and 29 percent to plant-based foods.

"In climate movements, you can get this, 'Hey, we've been consuming too much,' and 'Hey, maybe we shouldn't travel anymore,'" Gates said, speaking at the 5th Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture delivered on March 1.

These de-growth arguments have limited applicability, though. While Americans could use less energy than they currently do, Gates said, it would be "completely unjust" to ask people living in India to continue using the same amount of energy.

"I don't think we can count on people living an impoverished lifestyle as a solution to climate," Gates said.

In fact, "most of the demand for more energy, more cement, more steel is coming in from middle-income countries like India," Gates said.

Recognizing that it is a fool's errand to ask consumers to restrict their demand for energy significantly, or to eliminate their consumption of meat, does not mean that Gates is encouraging frivolous and excessive use of energy.

But, climate change is creating more need for energy used in air conditioning, he said, and that's only going to keep increasing. "As India gets warmer and warmer, I am betting demand for air conditioning is going to skyrocket," Gates said.

Currently, the United States "has the most air conditioning by far," also surpassing what is demanded in Europe, Gates said. As it gets hotter, increased air conditioning use, specifically if the energy used to power the air conditioning generates greenhouse gas emissions, can create a "positive feedback loop," Gates said. A positive feedback loop is where one outcome accelerates another.

Gates reiterated that global warming is happening very slowly, which makes it much different than a fast-spreading pandemic.

"It just gets worse and worse slightly every year. But it's one of the hardest things to fix, because modern economies throughout the globe are based on energy intensity, and over 80% of those energies come from burning hydrocarbons," Gates said. Hydrocarbons are fossil fuel-based energy sources, like coal or oil.

Gates said rich countries are mostly responsible for the heating caused by emissions, but that lower-income and middle-income countries near the equator experience most of the damage. "It's in an incredible injustice," Gates said. "And so even though it kind of creeps up on you, we need to act now we need to act in a very big way."

Nuclear energy

Gates also addressed nuclear energy during his talk in India.

"What happened with nuclear energy is that, unlike computers, where the prices kept going down, the complexity of the nuclear reactors kept going up. And so by the time they got to what we have today, as it's called third generation, they really priced themselves out of the market," Gates said. "The overruns, the costs were just incredible. And then cheap, natural gas came in and made it very tough. And so the nuclear industry didn't invent a new design. What's necessary, is to start from scratch."

Gates admits he is "very biased" on nuclear energy because he has founded the nuclear innovation company, TerraPower, which is working on advanced fission reactors, among other things. And Gates is also invested, to a lesser extent, in a number of fusion startups.

Nuclear energy can be generated either by splitting up atoms, with fission, or by slamming neutrons together forming larger atoms and releasing energy, or fusion. Fusion can generate nearly unlimited clean energy without the long-lasting radioactive waste that fission creates, but it has so far proved elusive to recreate fusion, the way the sun generates energy, here on earth.

"I'm actually an investor at a lower scale in about 4 of about 16 companies that seem to be making some progress there. We can't count on it," Gates said of fusion being commercialized. "There's a few of them that say, in 10 to 15 years, if everything went perfectly, they think they can make cheap electricity. And so, we have to keep an open mind: Will nuclear fission solve its problems? And nuclear fusion come into existence? It would be great for humanity if those solutions worked well."

Gates understands the skeptics of nuclear energy because the industry hasn't been able to deliver cost-effective results on time, but he's still optimistic about the potential.

"So that ... as the climate damage gets worse, we have as many options as possible to build this new energy system. And nuclear, because it's not weather dependent, it's very nice, you can mix that in," Gates said. "I mean, I'm a big fan of building solar and wind as fast as you can, build more grid as you can, that is super good."

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