Bill Gates has weighed into one of the most fraught climate change debates by calling for a rethink of how rich countries can help poorer nations deal with the effects of global warming.
The billionaire philanthropist — ranked the world’s richest man — says a new $10bn Green Climate Fund about to start handing out millions of dollars must focus on the 1.5bn people in poor farming families who face some of the biggest risks from a changing climate
He has urged the South Korea-based fund to adopt the “super clear metrics” his Gates Foundation uses to assess aid requests and look hard at funding agricultural crop research.
He has also questioned the long-term impact of some of the first projects the fund is looking to support with the money that 37 countries have pledged for it since it was founded at UN talks five years ago.
“This fund is unique,” the co-founder of Microsoft said in an interview with the Financial Times, explaining it was the only sizeable source of money that could potentially help millions of people adapt to the heatwaves, droughts and flooding that scientists say will be more likely as the atmosphere warms.
He said one “mind-blowingly underfunded” area was research to make crop seeds more productive, heat resistant and drought tolerant.
“I’d put a huge percentage of the money into that,” Mr Gates said.
The Gates Foundation gives about $100m a year to agricultural research centres around the world and has met Green Climate Fund staff to discuss such work.
However, the centres are not among the first batch of eight projects the fund has shortlisted for approval. Its board is due to consider them at a meeting in Zambia next month.
The projects include a $23.6m plan to manage climate-induced water shortages in the Maldives, an effort Mr Gates said may mean “you’re going to have to spend this $23m again and again and again”.
Money spent improving a relatively small number of seed types used by poor farmers for crops such as cassava and sorghum would have an enduring global benefit, he said.
“Then you’re affecting literally hundreds of millions of farmers,” he said. “Once you do the R&D, that seed is there every year.”
Mr Gates said he was not proposing the Green Climate Fund back genetically modified crops, which are contentious in many countries. Rather, he wants more support for conventional breeding techniques that can significantly enhance farmers’ yields.
Héla Cheikhrouhou, executive director of the Green Climate Fund, welcomed Mr Gates’s suggestion, adding he and his foundation were “an inspiration”.
Because the fund is only just starting to operate, it is going to be “learning by doing”, but it does have a rigorous set of criteria for assessing applications, she said.
Although agricultural research centres have not yet been formally accredited for fund support, this is likely to change in future and vulnerable farmers are very much a focus of the fund’s work, she added.
They would be helped by some of the fund’s eight shortlisted projects, including an early warning weather forecasting system in Malawi and a salinised land restoration plan in Senegal.
Mr Gates, whose net worth is just under $80bn, declared in June he would double his personal investment in innovative green technologies to $2bn in the next five years.
That move raised eyebrows in the lead-up to the December UN meeting in Paris that is due to strike a new climate change accord, and his latest comments are likely to attract more attention.
The UN climate talks have been overshadowed by controversy over whether wealthy countries will meet a vow to deliver $100bn a year in climate funding from public and private sources to poorer nations by 2020.
The Green Climate Fund has been at the centre of the debate because it is expected to help channel much of the $100bn.
Poorer countries want the fund to help them adapt to the impact of global warming and half its money will be directed to such work.
The rest will go to systems that cut greenhouse gas emissions, such as renewable power or energy efficiency projects, efforts many rich nations favour.