Bill Gates’s 5-Question Framework for Evaluating Energy Innovation and Social Impact

“It’s an all-out effort like a world war, but it’s us against greenhouse gases.” -Bill Gates

Bill Gates is not mincing words: To avoid a climate disaster the U.S. must lead the world in getting emissions to net-zero by 2050. This requires unprecedented cooperation to innovate around every aspect of modern life and economy.


“Without innovation, we will not solve climate change. Not even close,” Gates said in his 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper.

The need for solutions is daunting but not impossible. There is a wealth of opportunities for startups and companies to innovate around cleaner and cheaper energy because the key to ongoing success and adoption around the world will be that clean energy can beat the incentives of fossil fuels.

To vet new ideas, Gates says he asks the same 5-question framework in every climate conversation:

  1. How much of the 51 billion tons are we talking about? Everything needs to circle back to this main goal of eliminating 51 billion tons a year (the world’s current yearly total emissions in carbon dioxide equivalents). Essentially, is it a meaningful contribution? At Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures, they only fund technologies that can remove at least 500 million tons a year if they’re successful and fully implemented (which amounts to about 1 percent of global emissions).
  2. What’s your plan for cement? This is a shorthand reminder that a comprehensive plan for climate change must account for more than electricity and cars. Getting to zero means zeroing out the following categories: Making things like cement, steel, and plastic (31%); Plugging in/electricity (27%); Growing things (19%); Getting around/transportation and logist51BFm8NHCULics (16%), and Keeping warm and cool (7%).
  3. How much power are we talking about? This question mostly addresses electricity and its ability to power a house, city, or country. A “kilowatt” equivalent is a “house”; a “gigawatt” equals “city”; and a hundred more gigawatts is like a “big country.”
  4. How much space do you need? It is not the only consideration but it is important because it addresses how much space will be needed to power the energy source (e.g, solar, nuclear, wind, etc.).
  5. How much is this going to cost? Moving from carbon-emitting technologies to ones with zero emissions will cost something, which Gates refers to as “Green Premiums.” “Most of these zero-carbon solutions are more expensive than fossil-fuel counterparts.. because the prices of fossil fuels don’t reflect the environmental damage they inflict, so they seem cheaper than the alternative).” Green Premiums are a moving target but also a decision-making sense to evaluate the best use of time, attention, and money. In addition, Green Premiums act as a measurement system that shows progress toward stopping climate change.

Social impact and investments have been high on my radar throughout the past year with my ESG group Net Effect Ventures, and I believe that we can make meaningful contributions to Gates’s challenge of zero emissions by 2050. Companies and entrepreneurs can utilize the above framework to hone new ideas — driving innovations in a way that can help us avoid and outsmart a lasting climate disaster.