In our series on Global Warming the ideas by Bill Gates should not be missing. British newspaper The Economist praised Gates for the book’s “cold-eyed realism and number-crunched optimism ¨.
Here we take the summary of How to Avoid a Climate Disaster `The Breakthroughs We Need from Wikipedia as an introductory text. We will conclude with some reflections on his line of thinking.
The content of the book
The book is organized into five parts. In part one (chapter 1), Gates explains why the world must completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions (“getting to zero”), rather than simply reducing them.
In part two (chapter 2) he discusses the challenges that will make achieving this goal very difficult.
In part three (chapter 3) he outlines five pragmatic questions a reader can ask to evaluate any conversation they have about climate change.
Part four (the longest part of the book, or chapters 4 through 9) analyzes currently-available technologies that can be utilized now to adapt to and mitigate climate change (“the solutions we have”) and those areas where innovation is needed to make climate-friendly technologies cost competitive with their fossil fuel counterparts (“the breakthroughs we need”).
In the final part (chapters 10 through 12) Gates suggests specific steps that can be taken by government leaders, market participants and individuals to collectively avoid a climate disaster.
Gates thinks that decarbonizing electricity should be a priority because it would not only reduce emissions from coal and gas used to produce electricity but also allow an accelerated shift to zero-emission transportation like electric cars. He advocates increased innovation and investment in nuclear energy and warns against overly focusing on wind and solar generation, due to their intermittent nature.
Roles for government and business
Gates argues that both governments and businesses have parts to play in fighting global warming. While he acknowledges that there is a tension between economic development and sustainability, he posits that accelerated innovation in green technology, particularly sustainable energy, would resolve it. He calls on governments to increase investment in climate research, but at the same time to incentivize firms to invest in green energy and decarbonization. Gates also urges governments to institute a carbon pricing regime that would account for all externalities involved in producing and using carbon-emitting energy.
Get to zero rather than simply reducing emissions
The book describes strategies for achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and emphasizes that many efforts to reduce emissions are actually counter-productive. For example, one can reduce CO2 emissions in 2030 by replacing a coal-fired electrical power plant with a new natural gas power plant (since coal combustion emits twice as much CO2 as natural gas, per unit of electricity). However, the natural gas plant will still be emitting CO2 in 2050. Alternatively, Gates prefers we spend money on infrastructure that does not emit CO2 in 2050. Gates warns, “Making reductions by 2030 the wrong way might actually prevent us from ever getting to zero.”
Gates’ plan to get to net zero emissions
Gates introduces a plan for getting to net zero greenhouse gas emissions with several key points:
- The world needs to get to zero emissions, not just reduce them.
- The world needs to accelerate the development of technology that helps to resolve the climate change problem.
- The world needs to reduce the additional cost of green energy, which he refers to as the “green premium”.
- Federal, state and local governments can play a role in reducing emissions; in addition to private citizens.
Our comment on Bill Gates´ line of thinking
We used a tool from Direct Attention Tools by Edward de Bono to evaluate Gates’ thinking, the P.M.I. This stands for Plus, Minus and Interesting.
- + its emphasis on business-government collaboration, which in our opinion is quite unusual, especially for businessmen and Americans;
- + its business-like no-nonsense and to-the-point analysis based on facts, in contradiction to many governmental policy documents and moral calls to action
- + he points out that the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut by half in the last 20 years, due to an abundance of cheap energy
- + he takes in view that we cannot expect that poor countries will slow their economies for the sake of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions
- – he doesn’t wonder how the world got into this situation
- – he assumes that economic growth is necessary and inevitable
- – intermittent nature of wind and solar power are problems that have partly been solved, so why focus on nuclear power. See this Global map showing practical solar energy potential after excluding physical, environmental and other factors
- – the goal of zero-emission is outdated – we need to remove carbon and other greenhouse gases
- – heavily relent on technology and does not explore alternatives
- – assumes that growth in developing countries needs to follow Western models and rely on producing greenhouse gases
- – it is focused on business rather than moral responsibility towards the Earth – this approach ignores indigenous people’s wisdom and does not lead to any changes in our attitude to how we should look at the use of the Earth’s resources
- – the business-like no-nonsense is based on a selection of facts which leaves certain points out. An example of this kind of reasoning: Some experts have argued for stopping concrete use while it continues to be so carbon-intensive, while others have developed ways of using less concrete. An alternative: Algae-grown limestone.
- It would be interesting if Bill Gates with his team his practical problem skills – as shown in many other areas – could be used in changing the economic mechanics behind solutions, global warming, inequality
- In many developing countries improvements in living conditions have been made by opportunities to use electricity which in some cases have been possible by using solar energy
- Interesting that he has already decided what sort of solution there should be to this multifaceted problem
- Interesting that personal lifestyle choices are not explored
- Interesting that some facts are ignored! (See What gives billionaires such a massive carbon footprint)
- Interesting that he has not changed focus since he started Microsoft, i.e. technology is still the only solution.
- How high-tech solutions have consistently failed to reduce world hunger so why would it solve problems related to climate change – see An Open Letter to Bill Gates on Food, Farming and Africa. “ It is your preferred high-tech solutions, including genetic engineering, new breeding technologies, and now digital agriculture, that have in fact consistently failed to reduce hunger or increase food access as promised”.
Our thinking harvest
As part of our series on thinking about Global Warming and Sustainability, we highly recommend reading the Open Letter because it produces an extraordinary and completely different approach to those of Bill Gates, a change in perspective worth investigating.
On Food, Agriculture and Africa