This post was written by Bill Gates.
I get to learn about lots of different plans for dealing with climate change. It’s part of my job—climate change is the focus of my work with the investment fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures—but it’s just as likely to come up over dinner with friends or at a backyard barbecue. (In Seattle, we get outside as often as we can during the summer, since we know how often it’ll be raining once fall comes.)
Whenever I hear an idea for what we can do to keep global warming in check—whether it’s over a conference table or a cheeseburger—I always ask this question: “What’s your plan for steel?”
I know it sounds like an odd thing to say, but it opens the door to an important subject that deserves a lot more attention in any conversation about climate change. Making steel and other materials—such as cement, plastic, glass, aluminum, and paper—is the third biggest contributor of greenhouse gases, behind agriculture and making electricity. It’s responsible for a fifth of all emissions. And these emissions will be some of the hardest to get rid of: these materials are everywhere in our lives, and we don’t yet have any proven breakthroughs that will give us affordable zero-carbon versions of them. If we’re going to get to zero carbon emissions overall, we have a lot of inventing to do.
Steel, cement, and plastic are so pervasive in modern life that it can be easy to take them for granted. The first two are the main reason our buildings and bridges are so sturdy and last so long. Steel—cheap, strong, and infinitely recyclable—also goes into shingles, household appliances, canned goods, and computers. Concrete—rust-resistant, rot-proof, and non-flammable—can be made dense enough to absorb radiation or light enough to float on water. (People sometimes use the terms cement and concrete interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. You make cement first, and then you mix it with sand, water, and gravel to make concrete.)