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Bill Gates explains why he’s backing companies that change how we build

The production of materials like steel, cement, plastic, glass, and aluminum causes enormous emissions, but it’s not going to stop being necessary. Gates wants to change how we make them.

Bill Gates explains why he’s backing companies that change how we build

Bill Gates loves to make solving complex problems sound fairly straightforward. Take the fact that the manufacturing sector accounts for roughly one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. To create the basic building blocks of urbanized society—steel, cement, plastic, glass, aluminum, and even paper—we are slowly destroying it.

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That’s a problem that will only grow as societies become more developed, as Gates has made clear before: One of his stats is that the world is projected to add the equivalent of one New York City per month for the next 40 years, with city space doubling by 2060.

Gates’s answer: Why not just reboot those old manufacturing processes? “If we’re going to get to zero carbon emissions overall, we have a lot of inventing to do,” he says in a new post on his GatesNotes blog. That’s in addition to rethinking how things get used.

“There are definitely steps we should take to use less by recycling more and increasing efficiency,” he adds. “But that won’t be enough to offset the fact that the world’s population is growing and getting richer; as the middle class expands, so will our use of materials.”

To speed the learning curve, Gates has invested in two companies through his own investment fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures. The first is Boston Metal, which uses electricity to make steel instead of burning coal. That electricity could be generated using renewable energy instead of burning dirty fossil fuel. It’s a complex process, so he shared a video about how it works.

For industrial processes that require more heat, he’s backed a second and more extreme fuel-switching company called TerraPower that’s tinkering with cleaner nuclear power generation. “[It] uses an approach called a traveling wave reactor that is safe, prevents proliferation, and creates very little waste,” he writes.

Hydrogen fuel is another potential answer, especially for steel making. He’s aware that many entrepreneurs may use these brainstorms as tip sheets, so he name-checks three companies working in the space: SSAB, ThyssenKrupp, and ArcelorMittal.

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Other innovations can work in tandem with each other, including carbon-capture technology. If companies can’t totally eliminate creating carbon, then they should consider ways to contain and sequester it. That might happen on-site at cement plants or through a more complicated process that sucks carbon emissions straight out of the atmosphere. One company working on the latter, using nano-materials, is called Mosaic Materials.

“I’m optimistic about all these areas of innovation—especially if we couple progress in these areas with smart public policies,” he writes. “Companies need the right incentives to phase out old polluting factories and adopt these new approaches.” That’s something that applies to all greenhouse-gas-generating sectors. While manufacturing makes up 21% of the emissions total, it’s actually in third place overall.

Gates previously identified five grand challenges in tackling climate change and has been breaking them into his own blueprints for change. Other game plans cover smarter electricity generation and agricultural production, which account for 25% and 24% of emissions, respectively. The other two major culprits are transportation and building operations.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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