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Bill Gates - How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Is Technology the Only Answer?

I’m a huge proponent of sustainability and over the last year of COVID induced lockdown I’ve had a chance to consume a lot more literature on the subject in order to equip myself with the knowledge required to ensure that I am playing my part in helping to heal the planet. When Bill Gates; someone I hugely admire both as an innovator and more importantly as a philanthropist announced that he was writing a book on all the things that he and his wife Melinda have learned about Climate Change through the work of the Gates Foundation I couldn’t wait to read about what they’d uncovered & what potential solutions he’d offer.

There are many sources available for comprehensive reviews and summaries of high profile books like this so I will leave that to the professionals and instead in this post I will offer some opinions of my own on just three of the many recurring themes that I identified throughout the book and wanted to look in to further as well as conflicting theories of other notable authors on these subjects in relation to Climate Change based on what I’ve learned through my sustainability journey to date.

The Core Concept

What Bill Gates does commendably well in this book is to simplify the whole concept of the climate crisis down to one number (albeit a big one); 51 Billion to be precise. 51 Billion tons is the average amount of greenhouse gases that we emit worldwide into the atmosphere each year & 51 billion tons is the amount of greenhouse gases that we therefore have to simultaneously remove from the atmosphere in order to reach net zero by 2050 and thus stop the human caused increase in global temperature and the many subsequent disaster scenarios that will ensue as a result. In his book Gates emphasizes that there is no one size fits all fix and notes that instead we’ll have to work on various solutions that contribute their own individual proportion of the 51 Billon ton reduction required without inhibiting industrial progress particularly in the developing world.

1. Going Nuclear

Delving straight in to arguably the most divisive of subjects, Bill Gates promotes the use of nuclear energy as the only energy source which is ‘clean’ & reliable 24/7 in any region and in any season. He insists that just as in the manner that we have made driving cars safer through continuous innovation & improvement that nuclear energy should have received the same attention following accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. He further debates that burning coal and other fossil fuels has contributed to more deaths than any nuclear related accident to date.

There’s no doubting the potential of nuclear and the fact that it will have a role to play in target net-zero, given as Gates has pointed out, countries like France currently get 70% of their energy from nuclear sources. I can’t however negate the feeling that Gates is not painting the full picture here and critics such as Naomi Klein (the author of the best climate change related book I’ve read to date; This Changes Everything) will argue that Gates has ulterior motives given that he’s the founder & chairman of the nuclear reactor design firm TerraPower.

France does indeed get 70% of its energy from Nuclear but what Gates fails to mention is that they have also committed to reducing this to 50% by 2035 due to safety concerns resulting from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Anyone who has watched the HBO series ‘Chernobyl’ or the opening and closing scenes of David Attenborough’s Netflix film ‘A Life on Our Planet’ will know that the immediate deaths are not the only consequence of nuclear disaster and I do feel it’s negligible of Gates not to comment on this in his book given that this same process has resulted in cities such as Pripyat, Ukraine in which 50,000 people used to call home now being completely inhabitable by humans. Another of my favorite reads of the past year ‘Midnight in Chernobyl’ by Adam Higginbottom recounts in fascinating detail the incompetence and technological flaws of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear program so while Gates’ argument for greater research and innovation on the subject is absolutely valid his perceived lack of concern for the environmental risks associated with it are equally questionable.

2. Lack of Natural World Solutions

It should probably come as no surprise that given his software development background that the proposed solutions to reduce carbon emissions by Gates are mostly technology orientated, however, I did not expect Gates to pour cold water (excuse the pun) on the concept of re-forestation as a key method of achieving our collective goals. Gates essentially points out that when we chop down trees they release the carbon dioxide that they’ve been storing as well as that buried in the soil beneath them back in to the atmosphere, thus suggesting why plant trees to capture carbon only to release it again. Usually I wouldn’t be one to question the infinite wisdom of a person such as Bill Gates but the benefits of restoring our forests are too numerous and obvious in terms of increasing biodiversity, wildlife habitat and air quality among others to go in to detail here which begs the question why would we plant them again just to chop them back down? The invention of carbon capture technologies is one also promoted (& rightly so) by his peer Elon Musk but I am a firm believer that for any sustainability approach to be successful it has to also involve resolving our negative impact on the natural world in the process. Shout out to the twitter user below for coming up with the $100m answer.

3. Cap and Trade Carbon Markets

One method of trying to incentivize a reduction in carbon emissions among both countries and private corporations referenced throughout Gates book as beneficial are carbon cap & trades, however he doesn’t go into any detail as to what they are or why they would be successful. I imagine that this is partly because their use and success has been hotly debated ever since Europe’s initial flaw ridden implementation of the approach back in 2005 which was designed with the idea of limiting pollution by making the polluter pay. The cap is in essence where the government sets a carbon emission limit across a given industry and issues permits allowing companies to emit a certain amount of carbon up to that limit. It issues financial penalties to those who go above their allowance. The trade aspect of the process is generally where controversy develops as it creates a market for companies to buy and sell their allowances thus letting larger polluters emit further when demand dictates while supply and demand sets the price of these permits. While these programs were in their infancy many of these permits were simply issued for free. Carbon Markets have since been implemented in many nations and states such as China, California (& 10 other states throughout the US) and Mexico who kick started a pilot program in 2020. The Carbon markets have been proven to reduce emissions but as with many aspects of climate policy the main criticism is that they don’t go far enough; for companies that use fossil fuels, the cost of converting to renewable resources can be very high as a result of the green premium that Gates does focus on throughout his book. The emissions credits, offsets, and even penalties and fines for exceeding a cap limit are all cheaper than going through a conversion to a new source of energy. This means there is no real incentive for those industries to change their practices without governments doing more to level the playing field for renewable energy through financial stimulus and fiscal options to incentive the deployment of renewable energy.

Final Word

‘How to avoid a climate disaster’ is a an excellent read and Gates has done a phenomenal job at making complex science, technological advances & regulatory policies understandable to anyone that doesn’t have a Bill Gates’ size brain. The very fact that he has written a book on climate change in the middle of a global pandemic when the primary focus of the Gates Foundation is public health shows how very real & time sensitive the climate crises is. Gates has always been a self-professed optimist and I hope his spark and enthusiasm can help affect real change and innovation in the energy market in particular which requires massive amounts of modernization to the grid in order to be able to handle new energy sources and would be a massive step in the right direction. His book calls for innovation and technological advance in other industries also; transport, construction and agriculture among others which are very much required and I hope he can inspire the next Elon Musk amongst us to develop the life changing technologies we need in these domains. My only piece of advice for Bill Gates and others like him would be to not forget the power of mother nature and the role we play in the future of all inhabitants of this planet, human or otherwise. Animals and plants are facing extinction at an alarming rate yet this book does not include solutions that are directly aimed at solving the issues facing these innocent victims as a result of human action on planet earth.

The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.” (David Attenborough)

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