I Beg to Disagree, Mr. Gates
By: Chandu Visweswariah
Bill Gates’ book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” was published two weeks ago (Knopf, 2021). An easy read, an informative read, a well-written read, but having been immersed in climate-related literature for over a decade, my overwhelming response was, “Yawn, nothing really new here.” Nonetheless, pulling all the elements of climate stabilization into a single book with rational judgment calls on various tricky issues is an impressive accomplishment.
Since the title of this blog probably got your attention, in the interest of full disclosure, there is much more in this book with which I agreed than disagreed, which is where I will begin. More on the disagreements in just a minute.
On some basics, there should be no disagreement whatsoever (but of course it is an ugly stain of intellectual dishonesty that we still have climate deniers in positions of power). In the early chapters, Gates makes it clear that we need to go from 51 billion tons of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions per year to zero – and yes, the target should really be zero. The difference between 1.5oC and 2oC of warming is absolutely profound. Early on in the book, Gates paints a vivid picture of how fossil fuels are like water (and often less expensive than water). He tells of a commencement speech in which the speaker told the story of two young fish meeting an older fish swimming the other way. “How’s the water boys?” asks the older fish. After swimming on for a while, one of the young fish turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” We sometimes don’t even realize how ubiquitous fossil fuels are – in the energy we use, the buildings we run, everything we make, everything we move, everything we build and everything we grow!
Congruent with CURE100’s philosophy, Bill Gates encourages quantification of carbon and the solutions thereof. He preaches a “1% philosophy” – when you have big problems, don’t assign scarce resources to solutions that will move the needle 1% or less. Taking the village of Croton on Hudson, New York as an example, the average household emission is 52.6 metric tons of CO2e annually, and 1% of that amount is 0.526 tons. The following changes have a chance of making a ½ ton difference: changing your car, changing your electricity source, flying less, improving the insulation of your house, swapping your furnace for a heat pump, modifying your diet. Unfortunately, the following probably don’t have a chance of making a 1% difference: composting, recycling, gardening or even planting trees. You would need to plant 25 trees and wait 20 years to achieve the ½ ton annual threshold!
One of the main themes of the book is to divide our challenges into easy and hard problems. The easy problems, where we have ready-made solutions and where we must adopt acceleration are:
1. 100% clean electricity
2. 100% clean light- and heavy-duty transportation
3. 100% clean building energy use.
The “hard” problems where we still need innovation are listed below, and these solutions will probably have to wait till the 2030s for mass adoption:
1. Manufacturing, especially steel and cement. Cement is particularly troublesome because it not only takes energy to make but also inherently emits CO2 as part of the process (calcium carbonate is thermally decomposed, producing lime and CO2). Innovation is under way to invent low-carbon cement, zero-carbon plastics, and the like, but more progress is needed.
2. Shipping and air travel – here we will likely rely on hydrogen, ammonia or some other “clean fuel” that is manufactured using clean electricity.
3. AFOLU (Agriculture, Forestry and Land Use) challenges including emissions-free fertilizer and plant-based meat substitutes. It is interested to note that Bill Gates, a cheeseburger lover, has personally invested in both Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods.
The above items have a higher “Green Premium,” which is the
incremental cost of embracing zero- or low-emission alternatives. A Green Premium
is a strong damping force in adopting new solutions and part of the innovation
required is to find ways to drive Green Premiums to zero or even negative values.
Gates is clear that Government has a crucial role to play. At one level, they can establish goals and policy for a country, state or region. Government can fund innovation and incubation of risky ideas (think about how generous DARPA funding led to the invention of the Internet). Government can offer subsidies and rebates to speed up the adoption of new technologies. Finally, they can use their purchasing power to influence markets such as Joe Biden’s announcement to procure over 600,000 electric vehicles for the United States Federal Government.
While I was nodding in agreement 90% of the time, I found a few discordant notes in the book. Gates focuses quite a bit on Direct Air Capture (DAC) whereby expensive machines (that in turn need energy) suck GHGs out of the atmosphere. Gates cites a National Academy of Science study that predicts DAC of 10 billion tons per year by mid-century and 20 billion by 2100. The one useful aspect of this analysis is that it gives us an upper bound on what fighting climate change will cost — $5.1 trillion per year, or 6% of the world’s GDP. On the one hand this gives me hope: will we be willing to spend 6% of global GDP to save the globe? On the other hand, there is something unseemly about emitting wastefully and then creating complex machines to suck that CO2 out of the atmosphere. I know I’ll get criticized for the analogy, but this is a bit like gluttonous ancient Roman emperors throwing up in a vomitorium so they could eat more.
Gates declares that grid-scale energy storage is an open challenge, while my previous blog on this subject and this follow-up classify it as “solved” by the continuing cost curves of lithium-ion batteries and the advent of “super power.”
Bill Gates obsesses about how carbon intensive it is to feed meat to a growing population, and how we need tremendous innovation to imitate the taste and texture of meat with plant-based products. As a vegetarian for 58 years, this struck me as much ado about nothing, but of course we aren’t going to convince 92% of the global population to give up meat overnight.
And, perhaps most important in the disagreements column was Gates’ repetition of what has become a mantra by now: “We should achieve net zero by 2050.” This is a wrong and dangerous notion! Waiting till 2050 will more than likely exceed 1.5oC of warming, putting us at risk of irreparable environmental harm. Besides, there are three tremendous benefits of achieving net zero by 2040 as advocated by the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and by CURE100: a) We reduce environmental risks all around; b) We can be leaders in the new technologies and energy systems of the world by leading the way in fast decarbonization; c) We will have time in the 2040s to replicate this success in all parts of the world.
All in all, when I finished the last page and put down the book, I agreed with more than I disagreed, and I was once again in awe of the massive challenges we face! And Mr. Gates, thank you for all you do.