‘I am not part of the problem’: Bill Gates says his private jet and climate activism are compatible

‘I am not part of the problem’: Bill Gates says his private jet and climate activism are compatible

Bill Gates has shrugged off allegations that he’s a hypocrite for climate campaigning while travelling by private jet.

In an interview with the BBC’s Amol Rajan last week, Gates addressed the accusation by saying he offsets his family’s carbon footprint and contributes to solutions.

“I buy the gold standard of funding - Climeworks - to do direct air capture that far exceeds my family's carbon footprint. And I spend billions of dollars on climate innovation,” Gates responds during the Kenya-based interview.

“I'm comfortable with the idea that not only am I not part of the problem… but also - through the billions that my Breakthrough Energy Group is spending - that I'm part of the solution…

“So, you know, should I stay at home and not come to Kenya and learn about farming and malaria?”

When asked why he can’t use Microsoft Teams instead of flying to the far flung destinations where his foundation operates, he argues, “I don't think you can understand this remotely.” Gates adds that he hopes to eradicate malaria in his lifetime.

Can offsetting really reverse the impact of flying?

Emissions from air travel are a significant contributor to climate change, accounting for around four per cent of human-induced global warming.

Private jets are 10 times more ‘carbon intensive’ than commercial planes on average per passenger and 50 times more polluting than trains, research by the European Federation for Transport & Environment (T&E) shows.

That’s because occupancy levels are typically low on private jets. They are also often used for shorter journeys. Although commercial flights use more fuel per hour, they have a far greater passenger capacity than a private jet and therefore produce fewer emissions per person. On longer journeys, private jets may need to land and take off more often for refuelling, which is highly polluting.

Carbon offsetting - paying into schemes such as tree-planting that are designed to make equivalent cuts to CO2 in the atmosphere - is a popular but problematic solution.

The carbon offsetting market is flooded with low-quality projects that make vague or inflated predictions about their potential for reducing emissions. In particular, by talking up saplings that will take decades to grow to maturity.

Forests planted on nutrient-poor land will not act as an effective carbon sink in the long term, researchers warn.

Projects that aren’t permanent risk all their progress being undone once their term is over. Also, they do not always contribute to additional climate benefits - for example they may promise to protect a forest that was not in danger in the first place.

Most importantly, carbon offsets do not address the root causes of climate change. Instead, they allow purchasers to avoid the harder work of reducing their flight and fossil fuel dependence.

Is Climeworks the ‘gold standard’ of carbon offsetting?

Climeworks - the Microsoft-funded carbon offsetting firm that Gates uses - relies on ‘direct air capture’ (DAC) to remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere.

While the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) acknowledges that DAC is an important technology for achieving climate goals, it warns that it is an energy intensive process and “not an alternative to cutting emissions or an excuse for delayed action”.

Climeworks combines carbon capture with underground storage. A major concern with this approach, according to the European Commission, is that CO2 could leak out of these underground reservoirs into the surrounding air and contribute to climate change, or taint nearby water supplies.

However, these approaches are more effective and quantifiable than other schemes such as tree planting.

What does Bill Gates think about climate reparations?

As well as investing in green technologies, Gates has been using his influence to encourage nations to achieve net zero emissions. In the interview, he says that rich countries “owe [it] to the entire world” to do this “as fast as they can”.

Gates adds that resources should be dedicated to reducing the cost of going green, for example by inventing greener ways of making cement, steel or EVs.

Along with health and agriculture education, he says these advancements could then be shared with lower income countries, empowering them to become richer and more resilient against climate change.

Asked whether he supports climate reparations, Gates responds, “Well, the rich countries have done the bulk of emissions and the countries near the equator are suffering the most. So, yes, the rich countries should be more generous.”

Does Bill Gates think capitalism can combat climate change?

Challenged as to whether capitalism supports inequality and destruction of the planet, Gates says, “I think we can use a form of capitalism and continue to get its benefits while solving climate change.”

He says that the opportunity to make money incentivises people to invent things.

“Yes, we could tax the rich more. Yes, more ought to go into climate mitigation and climate adaptation. But the idea that, ‘things were better 200 years ago’, you know, where 30 per cent of kids died before the age of five. I don't buy that,” he adds.

Since the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began improving healthcare systems in Africa in the year 2000, the number of children who die before the age of five in the continent has dropped from 20 per cent to 10 per cent.