Bill Gates believes that climate change poses an environmental and human crisis of epic proportions — and he wants to stop it. His new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the BREAKTHROUGHS WE NEED, argues that the way to do so is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to ZERO by the time 2050 rolls around.
His book opens with a powerful call to action:
“To stop the warming and avoid the worst effects of climate change — and these effects will be very bad — humans need to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
“If nothing else changes, the world will keep producing greenhouse gases, climate change will keep getting worse, and the impact on humans will in all likelihood be catastrophic.
“I believe that things can change. We already have some of the tools we need, and as for those we don’t yet have…we can invent them, deploy them, and, if we act fast enough, avoid a climate catastrophe.”
Gates co-founded Microsoft and is a billionaire many times over, so “acting fast” to him means investing millions of dollars in developing new technologies that will enable society to stop using carbon-intense coal, oil, and natural gas to power everything from our cars to our clothes dryers. He also supports replacing actual animal meat with “meat” made from plants and chemicals because raising cows, pigs, and chickens generates so much methane, another climate culprit that doesn’t get as much attention as CO2. Methane doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as CO2, but it is at least 84 times more potent over two decades.
After a clear and highly readable overview of climate science and why greenhouse gases are so deadly, Gates explains how new non-fossil fuel “breakthrough” ways of generating electricity could eliminate the carbon footprint of manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and heating and cooling. In a chapter titled “This Will Be Hard,” he acknowledges that the goal of zero emissions is doable but difficult because “fossil fuels are embedded in every single aspect of our lives,” not just the obvious, like transportation and heating, but the manufacture of everything from a plastic toothbrush to toilet paper.
However, for a visionary, Gates doesn’t seem to envision a world that looks different from the one we have, other than that it is completely electrified.
He acknowledges that manufacturing “things” generate nearly a third of the total carbon emitted in a year, but says, “It’s not an option to simply stop making things.” But couldn’t we make less, especially given how much we throw away every year?
He rues the fact that 40% of food is thrown away, noting, “When wasted food rots, it produces enough methane to cause as much warming as 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year.” His solution? Coat fruits and vegetables with a substance that extends their life, or install “smart bin” technology in refrigerators to track how much food a household or business is wasting. What about investing in the growing number of entrepreneurs who are setting up systems to get waste food to food banks or eager consumers?
The most glaring omission in Gates’ prescription for a zero-carbon future is his lack of focus on energy efficiency. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) reports that we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050 — Gates’ same timeline — by taking advantage of existing and envisioned technology to reduce how much energy we need in the first place. One simple change that could be made today would be to replace the more than 68 million refrigerators in the US that are over 10 years old and cost consumers $5.5 billion a year in wasted energy. I’d love to see Gates collaborate aggressively with programs like the one my utility already has in place to provide rebates to consumers who recycle their “dirty” fridges in favor of current, low-emissions models.
Criticisms aside, Gates’ book is deeply researched and full of interesting vignettes and analogies that will keep readers turning the pages. For example, to make the case for eliminating not just some but ALL greenhouses gases in the next 30 years, he compares the climate to “a bathtub that’s slowly filling up with water.”
“Even if we slow the flow of water to a trickle, the tub will eventually fill up and water will come spilling out onto the floor,” he explains. “That’s the disaster we have to prevent. Setting a goal to only reduce our emissions — but not eliminate them — won’t do it. The only sensible goal is zero.”
Gates fittingly concludes his book by comparing the looming climate disaster to Covid-19.
“The loss of life and economic misery caused by this pandemic are on par with what will happen regularly if we do not eliminate the world’s carbon emissions,” he warns. “By mid-century, climate change could be just as deadly as Covid-19, and by 2100 it could be five times as deadly.”
The economic consequences could be similar, as well. “In the next decade or two, the economic damage caused by climate change will likely be as bad as having a Covid-sized pandemic every 10 years. And by the end of the 21st century, it will be much worse if the world remains on its current emissions path.”
Gates hopes his book charts a far more optimistic path.