Bill Gates says private jet use doesn't conflict with his climate change philanthropy

Bill Gates makes an emphatic point against a green background.
Bill Gates, co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, at the Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit in New York in September 2022. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in an interview with the BBC, rejected accusations of hypocrisy for engaging in philanthropy and advocacy to address climate change, while generating outsized carbon emissions when he travels by private jet.

A British broadcaster, Amol Rajan, asked Gates in an interview that aired last Friday how he responds to criticism that he uses a private plane even though he has urged political and business leaders to act aggressively against climate change. Gates replied that he more than offsets his own greenhouse gas emissions by paying for the removal from the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas causing global warming.

“Well, I buy the gold standard, of funding Climeworks, to do direct air capture that far exceeds my family’s carbon footprint,” Gates said.

Collector containers at Climeworks' Orca direct air capture and storage facility under a gray sky.
Collector containers at the Orca air capture and storage facility operated by Climeworks in Hellisheidi, Iceland, in 2021. (Arnaldur Halldorsson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Climeworks is a company that sells carbon removal to individuals, companies and other buyers, with a promise that one of its plants will remove the amount of carbon purchased within six years, using direct air capture — a new technology in which carbon dioxide is sucked from the air and stored underground.

Gates went on to argue that his own investment in clean energy and other environmental and public health programs warrants his travel for those purposes. (Last year, Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, a fund backed by Gates, announced it will help to invest $15 billion in clean technology projects.)

“I spend billions of dollars on ... climate innovation. So, you know, should I stay at home and not come to Kenya and learn about farming and malaria?” Gates asked rhetorically.

The use of private jets has recently come under scrutiny from environmental activists, some of whom are calling on nations to ban them. Transportation is the world’s third-largest source of climate pollution after energy production and land use (such as agriculture and deforestation), and private jets are by far the biggest polluters per passenger mile. Last month, a study estimated that the carbon emissions from private flights to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — where business and government leaders discussed the importance of climate action — were equal to putting roughly 350,000 gasoline-powered cars on the road for a week.

A private jet above the clouds.
A private jet in transit. (Getty Images)

In a 2020 blog post, Gate identified climate change as a “crisis.”

“We also need to act now to avoid a climate disaster by building and deploying innovations that will let us eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions,” he wrote.

Gates disputes that his personal travel makes him part of the problem he seeks to solve. “Not only am I not part of the problem by paying for the offsets, but also through the billions that my Breakthrough Energy Group is spending … I’m part of the solution,” he told the BBC.

Direct air capture, or DAC, is still a relatively expensive and energy-intensive process, with very limited global capacity, but some climate change experts and activists say it will come down in price — as solar energy has, for example — and that it will need to be widely deployed to avert catastrophic climate change. The world’s largest direct air capture facility opened in 2021 in Iceland, where clean electricity is produced from geothermal energy and hydropower. Climeworks invested in Orca, the plant in Iceland, and is currently constructing another, larger plant — planned to begin operation in 2024 — also in Iceland.

In September 2022, the International Energy Agency wrote that “carbon removal technologies such as DAC are not an alternative to cutting emissions or an excuse for delayed action, but they can be an important part of the suite of technology options used to achieve climate goals.”