Why read another book about climate change? Haven’t we heard enough on the topic? Bill Gates is ill placed to talk about climate change. He admits his personal carbon footprint is massive, his background is about technology and his foundation is focused on health. Is he just buying himself a conscience late in his life?
In his own words, the world has no shortage of rich guys with an opinion. Though, you should probably spend a few hours with Bill. He is a no-nonsense guy who would not risk his name on something stupid. Indeed, his book is practical and smart. If you are tired of reading about why we should change, try this one about what to do.
Here is a synthesis. Consider reading it in full. It is short and interesting.
Make it economically attractive to be green
Bill Gates is a technologist and a believer in the free market. He does not advocate economic regression. He suggests making green solutions more attractive than our current alternatives if we want it to work. Consider these three quotes from his book:
“It would be immoral and impractical to try to stop people who are lower down on the economic ladder from climbing up. We can’t expect poor people to stay poor because rich countries emitted too many greenhouse gases, and even if we wanted to, there would be no way to accomplish it. Instead, we need to make it possible for low-income people to climb the ladder without making climate change worse.”
“We should be glad that more people and goods are moving around. The ability to travel between rural areas and cities is a form of personal freedom, not to mention a matter of survival for farmers in poor countries who need to get their crops to market. International flights connect the world in ways that were unimaginable a century ago; being able to meet people from other countries helps us understand our common goals.”
“When somebody wants toast for breakfast, we need to make sure there’s a system in place that can deliver the bread, the toaster, and the electricity to run the toaster without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. We aren’t going to solve the climate problem by telling people not to eat toast.”
Ask 5 questions when you hear about plans for the planet
Bill Gates suggests we use 51 Billion Tons CO2 equivalent as the global baseline. For sure it is more complex than this. There are different gases and they have various life spans int the atmosphere. He thinks we should aim to reduce this starting point to zero. It is hard but not impossible.
So, how can we save the planet? Let’s start with asking the right questions. After all the research he has done, he shares 5 questions we should ask when discussing the topic as they helped him make is mind.
- What percentage of the 51 Billion Tons are we talking about? He found that other mental images such as “equivalent to 100,000 cars” are confusing
- What is your plan for cement? It is a reminder to account for more than the obvious as we all tend to focus too much on energy and cars
- How much power are we talking about? Bill believes cheap green electricity is the best answer we have, it helps him to think in Gigawatts
- How much space do you need? Many solutions tend to be impractical at the global scale as they would require too much land, this helps to identify them
- How much would it costs? We cannot expect people to pay significantly more than now, the green premium should be negative if possible
After asking these 5 questions to lots of people and making many investments, he formed several convictions. Here they are
Push for cheap clean electricity to move us to zero emission
The reason the world emits so much greenhouse gas is that—as long as you ignore the long-term damage they do—our current energy technologies are by and large the cheapest ones available. Fossil fuels are everywhere because they are inexpensive. We may not think that way when we refill our cars at the gas station. Though it is a hard truth.
In Bill Gates’ mind, the short answer to our problem is cheap clean electricity. Bill Gates advocates that a big part of the problem can be solved by electrifying almost everything and supplying cheap energy with no carbon impact.
As we will talk about electricity, here is a good reminder from Bill: a megawatt is a million watts, and a watt is a joule per second. Bill suggests that whenever you hear “kilowatt,” think “house.” “Gigawatt,” think “city.” A hundred or more gigawatts, think “big country.”
Thus, Bill Gates believes that once everything is electrified and electricity is clean, we have solved a large chunk.
Push the solutions we already have
The 51 Billions Tons baseline is growing each year. Bill Gates splits it in 5 rough categories:
- Getting around (transportation): 16%
- Growing things (agriculture): 19%
- Plugging in (electricity): 27%,
- Making things (manufacturing): 31%
- Keeping warm and cool (heating and air conditioning): 7%
Here are a few ideas about the items beyond “plugging in” and “keeping warm and cool” where the suggested answer is essentially cheap green electicity.
The solution for transportation
Bill believes we can make all cars electric. Though, it may be harder for long distance trucks, airplanes and international cargo. Thus, he concludes:
“It’s rare that you can boil the solution for such a complex subject down into a single sentence. But with transportation, the zero-carbon future is basically this: Use electricity to run all the vehicles we can, and get cheap alternative fuels for the rest.”
The solution for manufacturing
Bill Gates believes we will need some innovation in manufacturing. Read it in full for the exhaustive content. As a synthesis, here are the last sentences of the chapter.
“to sum up, the path to zero emissions in manufacturing looks like this:
- Electrify every process possible. This is going to take a lot of innovation.
- Get that electricity from a power grid that’s been decarbonized. This also will take a lot of innovation.
- Use carbon capture to absorb the remaining emissions. And so will this.
- Use materials more efficiently. Same.”
The solution for agriculture
Read the book for a full view. Some points you probably already know, like the need to eat less meat and to use less fertilizers. Some points you may discover. For instance you will also hear great stories about the unsung heroes of the 20th century such as Norman Borlaug, Haber, and Bosch. Bill Gates is convincing about the topic and it is too complex to be summed up in a few sentences.
What to do about it
Whether you’re a believer in the private sector, or government intervention, or activism, or some combination, there’s a practical idea you can get behind.
Beyond activism that tends to have more impact than we think on the long term, Bill Gates believes we should aim at 2050, harness the power of the State, act as individual and develop the nuclear energy. Here is why.
Aim at 2050 (2030 may be a mistake)
“Making reductions by 2030 the wrong way might actually prevent us from ever getting to zero. Why? Because the things we’d do to get small reductions by 2030 are radically different from the things we’d do to get to zero by 2050. They’re really two different pathways, with different measures of success, and we have to choose between them. It’s great to have goals for 2030, as long as they’re milestones on the way to zero by 2050.”
So if you want a measuring stick for which countries are making progress on climate change and which ones aren’t, don’t simply look for the ones that are reducing their emissions. Look for the ones that are setting themselves up to get to zero. Their emissions might not be changing much now, but they deserve credit for getting on the right path.
Harness the power of the State
Bill Gates believes only the State has the power to force the market to think differently. In particular, he thinks the State should
- Create incentives that lower costs and reduce risk.
- Build the infrastructure that will get new technologies to market.
- Change the rules so new technologies can compete.
- Put a price on carbon.
- Clean electricity standards.
Overall, Bill believes that the solution is making the green premium negative. This means that the green alternative should be less expensive than the non-green option. Everything the State can do to favor the decarbonated option will help.
Get better at nuclear power
This one is bound to create a debate: Bill Gates favors nuclear power. He believes it can be improved significantly and that we should accept the risk it bears. All considered, it is far less dangerous than the carbon options. All considered, it kills far less people, though its failings are more spectacular. To quote him:
“Here’s the one-sentence case for nuclear power: It’s the only carbon-free energy source that can reliably deliver power day and night, through every season, almost anywhere on earth, that has been proven to work on a large scale. And it’s hard to foresee a future where we decarbonize our power grid affordably without using more nuclear power. What’s most important is that the world get serious once again about advancing the field of nuclear energy. It’s just too promising to ignore.”
“For instance, we should also be exploring nuclear-powered container ships. The risks here are real (for example, you have to make sure the nuclear fuel doesn’t get released if the ship sinks), but many of the technical challenges have already been solved. After all, military submarines and aircraft carriers run on nuclear power already.”
“Although a few manufacturers in a few industries might be willing to bear the cost for the right to say they’re doing their part to fight climate change, at these prices we’ll never drive the kind of system-wide change we need to get to zero. Nor can we count on consumers to drive down the prices by demanding more of these green products. After all, consumers don’t buy cement or steel—large corporations do.”
Act as a citizen
Bill believes our citizen duty is to push the government to act. To do this, we can put the topic at the top of the agenda. He says:
“Make calls, write letters, attend town halls. What you can help your leaders understand is that it’s just as important for them to think about the long-term problem of climate change as it is for them to think about jobs or education or health care. It may sound old-fashioned, but letters and phone calls to your elected officials can have a real impact.”
Finally, he suggests we pay the green premium anytime we can afford it. It will help create a market and signal the world that some people are ready for change. It would not be fair to ask you to pay if you cannot afford it. But if you can, please do.