Bill Gates thinks Americans' lives have to change to save the world. Here's where to start.

Bill Gates calls for eliminating emissions
Bill Gates calls for eliminating emissions 32:02

Last Updated Feb 16, 2021 4:50 PM EST

Bill Gates doesn't expect everyone to stop eating beef to fight climate change — though it would help. So the billionaire philanthropist is investing in plant-based alternatives in hopes that one day meat-eaters won't be able to tell the difference. 

Gates, who has invested in plant-based Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, acknowledged that it will be an uphill battle convincing meat-eaters to forgo beef, but said that the quality of meat imitations are getting better as demand grows. Some restaurants, such as Burger King, are already selling versions of their burgers using the fake beef. 

"A lot of Americans will be eating burgers forever. So we need a way of making that that's not a lot more expensive and not inferior. So it's very similar to the electric car learning curve that a little bit of subsidy, a little bit of consumers driving up the volume because they care about climate, will get us to the point where I believe that green premium will also be zero, that you just won't be able to tell the difference," the Microsoft founder told "CBS Evening News" anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell on Tuesday. 

Norah O'Donnell and Bill Gates
"CBS Evening News" anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell talked with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates on Tuesday, February 16, 2021, about looming climate change and his new book on the subject. CBS News

The effort Gates called "bigger than anything humanity has done to date" involves reducing the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases produced each year — from producing things such as cement, steel and plastic, making electricity, farming and agriculture, transportation and keeping warm — to zero.

"Unless we can make the cow zero-emission — which I'm not sure we can — we do need to get rid of those emissions. It's not going to happen overnight. The scale-up and innovation still required there is quite large. But yes, zero is a very demanding number, and it doesn't allow you to say, 'Well, all but that 6% comes from cows.'" 

Other aspects of American life will also have to drastically change within the next three decades, which Gates said is the deadline to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions to save the planet. Among the things everyday Americans can do to help, he said, are changing the cars they drive and pressuring public officials to do something about the crisis. 

"The global car industry is now saying that the gasoline engine's days are numbered," he said. "The most important thing is your political voice — convincing people of both parties, figuring out who they might trust to listen on this topic, that's your biggest role is to get this consensus about the goal and then we can debate the tactics to achieve the goal." 

It's not just individuals. Gates said that corporate America needs to make buying green a priority. Purchasing green aviation fuel and construction products are some of the steps companies can take to be more environmentally friendly, he said. 

As Texas, which gets a portion of its energy from wind turbines, faces power outages caused by a winter storm, Gates pushed back on critics who have said that wind energy is not sustainable during weather-related events. It can be reliable, he said, if the energy is stored and also paired with other alternative energies. 

"We need more sources like offshore wind, which would not shut down at the same time because it's very far away," he said. "We need to connect Texas and the rest of the country together with a lot more capacity so that you use that diversity of sources as one of the ways you deal with reliability. For the remainder, you're either storing it, which isn't easy, or the nuclear reactors are running 24 hours a day." 

Gates also warned of massive unrest across the globe if greenhouse gas emissions are not eliminated on time. In some countries, people who farm won't be able to work outdoors during the day, and tens of millions of people will migrate, causing civil wars and great unrest, Gates said. 

Gates writes in his new book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need," that the loss of life and economic misery caused by the coronavirus pandemic are comparable to what will happen regularly if much more is not done to combat climate change. Nearly half a million Americans have died thus far from the disease.

"The death toll would be even worse near the equator," Gates said. "And the unrest would be global in nature." 

Gates also said former President Trump stepping back from the Paris climate agreement and other environmental priorities allowed other countries to do the same, especially as "the innovation power of the U.S. is the greatest of any country."

"When we don't participate the other countries are like, 'OK this isn't going to happen. Why should we even try?'" he said.