How to Avoid a Climate Disaster – Bill Gates

Bill Gates realised at least publicly around 2015 that climate change was the big problem that needed addressing beyond all others. Since 2006 he has been investing in many new technologies to help solve the climate disaster and lobbying governments to fund the research for the new technologies that he believes are needed. In 2020 he published “How to avoid a climate disaster” with his plan to solve it.

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The book is a tour be force going through a wide range of the issues that need to be tackled to get to zero carbon, presenting Bill Gates’ holistic plan to zero carbon, however it comes with some (incorrect?) assumptions of Bill Gates’ which aren’t explained …..

and, there is a danger that Bill Gates’ plan would delay us taking action now as it relies on novel technologies may not deliver or may deliver too late.

The book is well worth reading to make you think, but it isn’t THE answer in itself.

Bill Gates has thoroughly researched the area coming to the conclusions, while he feels that pressure on governments needs to be increased by their citizens, he does not feel that citizens need to alter their behaviours much, rather that technology can do the heavy lifting. Many of these technologies don’t yet exist and none exist at the necessary state of development to be scaled up for global use now, hence his identification of the need for government research investment.

In order to understand why this approach is dangerous, you have to think about the problem in a different way or at least complete way. The current climate problems are not caused by the CO2 being emitted today, the climate problems are caused by the CO2 already in the atmosphere from the emissions over the last 100 years. The longer we keep emitting CO2 the higher the concentration of CO2 will be when we get to net zero and so the more extreme the damage to the climate will have been. Bill Gates does advocate more rapid roll out of existing technologies but does not advocate rapid behaviour change as a major part of the solution. He is looking for the great solutions, but while he looking for those the problems we will need to tackle are just getting bigger and bigger. Others argue we largely have good enough solutions which combined with behaviour change allow us to get to net zero a lot sooner than waiting for the perfect technologies. Here “great is the enemy of good enough”.

The earth needs not just to get to net zero carbon, but to get to net zero carbon AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

However, if we have altered behaviours, adopted existing technologies at scale and reduced carbon emissions, then Bill Gates’ technologies deliver then we would be below net zero carbon emissions, possibly even removing carbon from the atmosphere which would over the long term reverse climate change. Bill Gates’ approach is putting all our eggs in one basket, which we will get in future.

The book is interesting, but underlying it is the assumption that “business as usual” must continue, the biggest implication of this is that energy consumption will keep on increasing. This assumption then means that new solutions are the only way, as he is careful to point out current technologies can’t generate enough zero carbon energy due to lack of land area etc..

Bill Gates is a capitalist, perhaps this is why he is very keen on Green Premiums to incentivise the use of the lowest carbon technologies by businesses. He makes little mention of legislation or the problems which have beset similar payment systems in the past, where businesses find the minimum way to get the maximum benefit (payment from the system), undermining the spirit of many systems if not the laws.

Bill Gates realised that the important figure is zero not net zero, that many of the actions on the path to net zero have been detrimental to getting to zero (building gas electricity generation to replace coal leaves us with new CO2 releasing assets that should have been decommissioned before they start generating to get to zero) and that citizens need to ensure their governments make tackling climate change their number one priority.

Aside from his initial assumption and an over reliance on unproven technologies Bill Gates approach is very thoughtful showing he has obviously gone over many of the issues with experts in each area. For example trees aren’t a universal solution potentially bad in the tundra where trees cause more absorption of the sun’s energy, in peatlands where trees cause release of CO2, trees take years to capture back the CO2 released by their predecessors, …

He does stress that we need to look at mitigating the problems caused by climate change already being seen disproportionately in the developing world – improving global health care, ensuring food crops have been bred which can withstand the new climate, … More concerningly he recommends geoengineering to reverse the effects of climate change, this along with the big role he sees for nuclear energy have the potential to leave big problems for our children some known (nuclear fuel disposal) some unknown consequences of geoengineering.

While he is generally not keen on legislation he does see a big role for governments in providing leadership, investing in research, green premium/rules which will favour greener technologies and ensuring that legislation accelerates new products to market.

How to avoid climate disaster” is well worth reading, just don’t make it your only climate change reading. The “Centre for Alternative Technologies’ Zero Carbon Britain” is complete plan for the UK, so read alongside Bill Gates’ book, allows you to compare and contrast, which solution do you believe are realistic and can be achieved. Understanding “Friends of the Earth’s 6 Point Climate Action Plan” and the “UN’s Sustainable Development Goals” put these plans in a broader context.

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