Preview: Bill Gates makes the case for optimism

Exclusive extracts from Bill Gates' column on the wonders of innovation. in this week's NS.

The Christmas issue of the New Statesman, guest-edited by Richard Dawkins, includes a column by Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, about the positive shift towards innovation in the field of development.

In it, he draws on his own experience, saying: "my whole career has been inspired by the conviction that breakthroughs can make the impossible possible."

He explains how development has traditionally been lacking in innovation:

When my wife Melinda and I created our foundation and gradually started learning more about global development, we were stunned by the underfunding of innovation targeted at the needs of the poor. In information technology, the challenge was to see 20 or 30 years into the future. In development, the task at hand was very different: to catch up with the present.

. . .

What explained this shocking lack of innovation? When I was born, the world was roughly one-third rich and two-thirds poor. The rich portion had an amazing capacity to innovate, but it didn't have tuberculosis, or harvests destroyed by flooding. The poor had the disease and the hunger, but they didn't have the technological capability to develop solutions. And so most of the world's innovation was directed at the world's least pressing problems, relatively speaking.

However, he expresses optimism that this is changing with the ascendancy of developing nations:

Now, however, that tragic misallocation of resources is changing, because the world has changed. The number of dynamic, healthy and highly educated countries is much higher. In the past 20 years, China has grown by an incredible 9 per cent annually and slashed its poverty rate by 75 per cent. In the past ten years, Brazil has lifted 20 million people out of poverty. This group of rapidly growing countries, which also includes India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey, can drive innovation for the poor in ways we never imagined, because they provide a bridge between what used to be the rich and poor worlds. These countries have both a sophisticated understanding of the challenges that developing countries face and the technical capacity to innovate to spur development.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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