How to avoid a climate disaster

A brief review of Bill Gates' book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

How to avoid a climate disaster
Photo by Marek Piwnicki

It took me a while to finish How to Avoid a Climate Disaster[1] by Bill Gates - not that it is poorly written or excessively boring, but it is not one of those lets go and do it books with an immediate call to action. In some ways this is not surprising - it will take hard work to get the emissions we humans generate under control, especially considering the rising global population[2]. Many of the ideas Bill proposes are more appropriately viewed as plans or solutions which still need to be developed in more detail. In other words, if you intend to pick up this book to take immediate action and avoid a climate disaster, then this book is not it.

By the same token, this book's target audience is not the scientific community either. Many chapters and topics are a mile wide and an inch deep. I found myself constantly referencing the footnotes and doing additional reading on various topics to get a better understanding, more background, other opinions, etc. One example are the green premiums, which represent the additional cost of choosing clean technologies over existing technologies that emit more greenhouse gases, and underpin many of the book chapters. While the number and sources are clearly stated, the details and calculations are scant, until you visit some of the related web-sites mentioned in the book.[3]

There are some interesting takeaways presented in the book in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For example, the book groups these emissions into the following categories:

  • Making things (cement, steel, plastics): 31 %
  • Plugging in (electricity): 27%
  • Growing things (plants, animals): 19%
  • Getting around (planes, cars, trucks, cargo ships): 16%
  • Keeping warm and cool (heating, cooling): 7%

Interestingly, transportation only accounts for 16% for all the GHG emissions. Although a lot of press and media is dedicated to electric vehicles, electrifying all of transportation will not get us anywhere close to where we need to be in the grand scheme of things. This is not to say that getting an electric vehicle has no purpose - as a matter of fact it serves a dual purpose: First, it helps getting the 16% down; And second but more important it sends a signal that consumers are willing to support more expensive alternatives, because they care about the environment and are willing to pay part of the green premium. However, while the transportation fraction is therefore improved, more strain is put onto electricity generation and construction, which are the two highest contributing categories for GHG emissions. Hopefully, this signal that was sent via the electric car purchase is loud enough that companies have courage to create products in the latter two markets, even if they are going to be more expensive at first.

Where Bill gets bogged down is whenever he discusses the delicate relationship between the required breakthroughs and the need for governmental action, assistance, and international cooperation. This will likely put the book at odds with various groups. First, with those who don't believe governments on a global, national, or even local level are remotely competent or capital efficient. They do have large budgets when it comes to procurement, but oftentimes their decisions may not favor the best solutions but rather those who employed the best lobbyist. Second, this approach may also run afoul with entrepreneurs who generally prefer building things and disrupting industries, and then wait for regulations to catch up. Asking entrepreneurs and startups to spend significant bandwidth up front in navigating the nuances of governmental bureaucracies and influencing incentives is a tall order. Finally, with the large percentage of startup founders who are foreign born, engaging with the government is not always a simple matter. In most states permanent residents are not even allowed to vote in local elections. Who do you think the local electorate will listen to more closely, voters or non-voters?

All this brings us back full circle to the aforementioned green premiums. Currently, the best clean solutions are much more expensive than those with more emissions. We need breakthroughs to reduce the green premium costs of the cleaner solutions. This too will be expensive and needs to happen fairly rapidly to avoid a climate disaster, hence the push from Bill to get the governments involved on the innovation side. If these cost gaps cannot be closed completely, he argues that governments need to close the remainder with subsidies and incentives in the short term. Thus you have government on the front-end, government on the beck-end, and innovation and product somewhere in the middle. When I contemplate governments having such a large influence over picking winners and losers in this space, well, let's just say I feel a bit uneasy.

To sum it up, not a bad book, but not a homerun either. Rather than spending hours reading the book, for many the Ted Talk between Bill Gates and Bruno Giussani on this very topic may be a better and more succinct option.

  1. Link in post is a direct link to the book with no tracking. If you want to toss a few cents my way for a coffee, consider using this affiliate link instead: ↩︎

  2. Even some of the more conservative population forcasts don't project the world population to peak before 2050: ↩︎

  3. A reasonable place to start looking for some background data is the the book related Breakthrough Energy data explorer section: ↩︎