Bill Gates is not a climate scientist. He’s not a politician. He has a “lot” of money and investments that could be seen as conflicts of interest. Why on earth should we listen to him?
We have been talking about climate change for as long as any of us can remember. Yet how much progress has been made to address the issue? We have placed a lot of responsibility on the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP), and they have met every year since 1994, but they are still talking. But how much consensus is there? We must thank Greta Thunberg for her activism and evangelizing; and she and millions of schoolchildren have been brilliant at bringing the climate issue to everyone’s attention. But have we managed to even start reducing CO2 emissions or restoring biodiversity? The straight answer is that “we” have expended a vast amount of hot air.
Some disclosure here. I have met Bill Gates twice in the noughties as part of my tech research work. Notwithstanding all the scurrilous social media conspiracies about him, Gates is simply a very, very intelligent guy with huge experience and expertise in communicating, organizing and managing solutions. I found him willing to listen closely, able to operate at broad strategic level at the same time as dealing with fine grained detail. He’s highly opinionated, decisive and an effective communicator, without being confrontational. The book very much reflects these character traits.
He starts the book with a really good way of characterizing the problem that we need to fix. He starts out by saying there are two numbers we all need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion and the second is zero. Fifty-one billion is the tons of greenhouse gases the world adds to the atmosphere every year. Zero is where that needs to get to, to avoid some very bad outcomes. But he doesn’t dwell on the bad outcomes at all. He says it will be very difficult to achieve zero; the biggest thing our world has ever had to do, but it’s eminently possible.
Gates breaks the problem into 5 categories:
Getting around – (planes, trucks, cargo ships) – 16%
Growing things (plants and animals) – 19%
Plugging in (electricity) – 27%
Making things (cement, steel, plastic) – 31%
Keeping warm and cool (heating, cooling, refrigeration) – 7%
He introduces a very simple idea of the Green Premium, which I don’t believe is his idea, but he has certainly promoted heavily. The Green Premium is the differential the consumer or customer or user has to pay to adopt a green solution over a carbon emitting product or solution. So is it cheaper for the car owner to buy and run an EV compared to a conventional ICE vehicle? Or is it cheaper to generate electricity using solar than oil or gas? And what’s the end consumer impact? Gates admits that the answer is not always clear cut, for example the (low) price of gas in the USA makes EVs a difficult sale with a high green premium, whereas the reverse is true in Europe. But it’s an excellent model to start with.
Gates then spends time on each topic covering the solutions that either exist or those that it’s reasonable to assume we can innovate in the time we have. Note here, this total focus on solutions. Let’s look briefly at each of the five categories.
How We Plug In
Gates gives a good example where in the USA producing all electricity from non-emitting sources including wind, solar, nuclear, carbon capture etc is possible with a modest green premium of 1.3 to 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour. Roughly a 15% premium. The premium varies around the world and Gates discusses big issues such as China and Africa that are special cases, batteries, intermittency issues etc. He does make a fairly strong pitch for nuclear, referencing France that produces 70% of its power that way (yes really), but the key to his discourse is understanding different models for different countries with the green premium providing a good basis for developing strategy and solutions.
How we make things
For the sake of brevity Gates focuses on steel, cement, concrete and plastic. And how we use huge amounts of all of these which makes it the most polluting of all his five categories. Making steel you melt iron ore at very high temperatures in the presence of oxygen and coke (carbon). Making 1 ton of steel produces 1.8 tons of CO2. And this way we make a lot of steel very cheaply. There are other methods (generally referred to as green steel) but they are more expensive. So there’s considerable innovation needed here.
Concrete is even more difficult. In all these areas Gates covers opportunities for innovation and shows how these may have a green premium (fig below). So there’s huge research and innovation required.
How We Grow Things
In this area Gates details the problem but this is the weakest of his sections. I detect a strongly US centric approach to genetic modification, synthetic, non-fossil fuel based fertilisers and laboratory grown meat. He makes a good case for the need for innovation, but his direction would not go down well in Europe. Strikes me we Europeans should rewrite this chapter.
How We Get Around
Very interesting analysis here because the USA has very low cost of gas (diesel or petrol).
He includes several green premium analyses and uses these to suggest areas for R&D. See example below.
How We keep Cool and Stay Warm
Gates makes a strong push for heat pumps; no surprise. Also makes the very good point that while advanced countries like the USA and Japan are big users of air conditioning, as the world becomes warmer this will become a necessity in many countries particularly those nearer the equator. And this just increases the priority to decarbonize the power grids. And this makes it easy to calculate the green premium. And maybe using US based examples this looks not so easy. (below)
So Gates looks at what the premiums mean for typical US families, and again makes the case for R&D to leverage new or improved technology to make green options practical commercial options.
Gates spends a lot of time focusing on the issues in developing countries. He has great experience through his philanthropic work in health. It’s worth reading his case studies and understanding the conflicts between development aid and support and climate change. As people rise up the income ladder they do things that cause more emissions. Gates makes the point that we need innovations so the poor can improve their lot without adversely impacting the climate. And he’s very strong on arguing that the world’s poor didn’t create climate change, the first world did, but the developing nations are the ones that will suffer most.
I was struck particularly by the work of CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). Experts at CGIAR have developed large numbers of varieties of (so called) climate-smart crops and livestock. For example, maize that will survive drought conditions; other maize varieties that are resistant to pests, diseases and weeds; also new varieties of rice that are able to survive during periods of flood; and many more. I wonder the extent to which these are GM products?
The final chapter covers some interesting guidance on policy. Having reviewed some of the EU, UK and Irish legal and policy statements recently, I can see how the authors of those documents might benefit by spending some quality time reading Gates work. For example, there’s a really good section that speaks to the need to coordinate market development together with policy and technology so they work in complementary ways. Simply adopting a zero-emissions policy won’t work if you don’t have the technology or the companies willing to manufacture and able to make a profit.
We should by now be well past the talking and evangelizing stage. That we are not is deeply worrying. In this book Gates has provided a template here for all stakeholders to use. This work is far from perfect. It is strongly US centric, albeit with good coverage of the needs of developing countries. The agriculture coverage is very weak. There are some excellent techniques which should be used by everyone, such as the Green Premium, and the five areas. The focus on the 5 billion etc.
A very good read and very thought provoking.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need
Bill Gates, Publisher : Allen Lane; 1st edition (16 Feb. 2021)