When one of the biggest moments in climate history happened in Paris in 2015, Bill Gates was in the middle of it. The annual climate meeting was set to produce an agreement among every country in the world that it’s time to cut emissions and stabilise global temperatures. But Gates, a billionaire philanthropist and a private citizen, was there asking those world leaders to put money behind their new-found interest. Gates, one of the world’s richest men, made the case that if countries are serious about tackling climate change then they need to double energy research spending.

In return, however, some of the world leaders asked whether Gates would be willing to put his own wealth and ideally those of other billionaires behind commercializing the new technologies that government money might spur on. Without consulting his wealth manager, he agreed to it. When he returned to his home in Seattle, criticisms of his idea began almost immediately. “That’s a terrible fucking idea,” said Rodi Guidero, who at the time managed Gates’s personal investments in start-ups.

It’s one thing if Gates wants to risk his money – he had agreed to give all of it away within his lifetime anyway. But risking his co-billionaires’ cash on nascent clean energy technologies could end up in huge losses and cause Gates embarrassment, said Guidero. “Why do you think I care about that?” Gates replied. “If it wasn’t challenging, we wouldn’t need to do this.” That was the moment of creation for Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), which is now a multibillion-dollar fund that has invested in more than 100 climate start-ups.

It was also the start of Gates’s unabashed global campaign to get governments to spend on clean technologies. Since then, despite a climate change denier’s stint in the White House and a pandemic, Gates is more optimistic than he has ever been. “Innovation is going more quickly than I thought,” he said. “That’s why I’m confident that we will solve this thing.” With Breakthrough Energy, Gates created a framework for how private capital can bring to bear its power to tackle climate change and make a nifty return doing it. The story of how it was built is based on multiple conversations with Gates over the past few years and interviews with the people closest to executing his vision.

In January 2021, with the pandemic still raging across the world, I spoke to the co-founder of Microsoft from my home in London. Throughout the conversation, Gates spoke while rocking in his chair. The rocking, I later learned, is something he does quite often. There was the occasional pause when he listened to my questions, but the rocking started again when he spoke and it became speedier the more animated he became. Having made his wealth developing and selling software, Gates has turned his nerdy mind to improving human health, reducing poverty and tackling climate change. When he chooses a problem to solve, he devotes not just billions of dollars to it but a huge amount of time. He gets into the weeds while studying it, which gives him a good command of the subject and strong opinions about what’s missing.

He’s a voracious reader and carries around a suitcase full of books as he flies around in his private jet. He connects ideas across vast subject areas with ease. “Even getting a 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 will be super hard to do, because we’re currently on track to increase emissions the billionaire instead. We’ll end up with a whole generation of people who are very cynical,” he says. “But if we manage to achieve net-zero emissions, it will make the Covid-19 vaccine effort look like nothing. For this generation, it will be the equivalent of ending the Second World War or stopping Nazism.” Gates speaks passionately about what he sees as major challenges and solutions to climate change. There were two things that stuck out: his conviction that innovation has a huge role to play in tackling the emissions problem, and his frustration that few understand just how big a role innovation ought to have.

In February 2021 he published a book titled How to Avoid a Climate Disaster in which he distilled what he had learned over the previous decade as an investor in and advocate for climate solutions – much of it coming from his work building Breakthrough Energy, a growing organization with tentacles addressing all those problems. The big point: cutting emissions to zero will be hard, but it’s not impossible. The case he made was for the deployment of a combination of technological innovation, better government policies and greater private capital to make green alternatives cheaper. But it starts with innovation, and he is candid about his bias. “When somebody says ‘Hey, this is a problem . . .’ My answer: innovation,” says Gates. “And I’ll say that even if I don’t know the specifics.’ In the case of climate change, however, Gates knows the specifics.

Excerpted with permission from Climate Capitalism: Winning the Global Race to Zero Emissions, Akshat Rathi, published by Hachette India/John Murray.