Speaking at a session on ‘Rebalancing sustainable development’ at the World Economic Forum, Gates lent a new dimension to the discussions by saying that while grand plans to cut energy use was fine, innovation was far more important and impactful.
“The fact of the matter is that with population growth, more energy is going to be used. Can we ask, for example, a poor person in India to consume less energy when he is already using the minimum?” Gates asked.
“We don’t want to sustain a situation where the bottom two billion use very little energy. For every year for the next 100 years, more energy will be used,” Gates said. “You can say people should cut back, but it is not a solution and it is not going to happen. We want people to have better lives. You can’t have the world telling those people in other emerging markets to use less energy than in Europe,” he added.
Before his intervention, the discussion was largely going along conventional lines: Need for recycling efforts; cutting emissions; labeling products as earth friendly; reducing waste etc. No one referred to the need for a lifestyle change for 6 per cent of the world — the rich — who use 75 per cent of the world’s energy.
Gates said the way to sustainable growth was through fostering innovation generally and through investments in health. Things such as improving reproductive health, vaccines, and taking better care of infants are what is required. “Slowing population growth and making lives healthier will have much bigger effect on sustainable development than conventional energy savings plans,” Gates said, adding the world wasn’t tracking innovation in these areas strongly enough.
Gates is clearly walking the talk. For example, in an attempt to eradicate tuberculosis in countries such as India, his Foundation, which is trying to halve the 9 million children under five who die every year, has offered $100,000 grants to those who believed they had a “good idea”. The ideas were assessed based on a simple two-page proposal.
In his speech, the CEO of Walmart Stores, US, Mike Duke said in relation to emerging markets around the world, he was pleased that there were people living in middle class and living better. “With this though will come great challenges. Expect energy costs to rise continuously over time. The demand for food will double and create immense challenges. It will require business and governments to work together. Business has a great responsibility and should not be seen as a conflict with serving shareholders,” he said.
Walmart, he said, has devised a sustainable product index so that the retail chain and its associates offered products in a more responsible way.
Research in Motion’s CEO Jim Balsillie said the nexus of issues was unambiguous: GDP growth, the number of people, energy consumption… anyway you look at it, it is going up four or five times. “Anyway you look at the math, it’s way way worse. We make about eight times the food we need to feed the world. Until you rethink economics, there is no chance. We have to be radically ambitious,” he said.