Updated: Jul 13, 2021
Former U.S. President Ronald Regan often remarked that government is not the solution to our problems, but that government is the problem. Accordingly, Mr. Regan reduced the scope of government to pave the way, instead, for what he saw as the development of free enterprise. And with Washington laying down that rule a few decades ago, a great part of the world has followed suit ever since.
A read through Bill Gates’ most recent book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and The Breakthroughs We Need, leads one to conclude that Mr. Regan’s maxim was 100% right… and 100% wrong. With characteristic entrepreneurial savvy, Microsoft’s business leader turned philanthropist goes a long way to prove the case by blending insights from the physical sciences with the potential promises of emerging technologies. But, surprising to some, for Mr. Gates, both business and government have crucial roles to play in addressing the climate crisis, together.
Bill Gates' Book on Climate Change: a Brushstroke
Earning him 4.5 stars from over 6,000 popular reviews on Amazon, Gates’ 300-pager is a needed addition to the wealth of (often boring) literature available on climate change. Not only does his work make the essentials of climate science familiar to the general reader; it also translates every solution into tangible numbers that are easy to visualize and compare.
The first three chapters provide an overview of the need and challenges around cutting down yearly greenhouse gas emissions from 51,000 million tons to zero. To get from here to there, Chapters Four to Eight then compare the way those of us in fossil-fueled societies move, build, eat, and heat ourselves today, with the alternative, carbon-neutral breakthroughs we’ll need tomorrow.
The size of such leaps is determined to a large extent by the “green premiums” (the additional costs) of producing various kinds of supplies without the resource of fossil fuels; chief among them:
Green Premiums for Alternative Energy Sources
Through figures like these, the book makes evident that a world of zero net greenhouse gas emissions will be a more expensive one — a reason why the author is adamant about forging a path forward to lower these premiums through “breakthroughs” and by placing a call for an increase in government-funded R&D.
But even more expensive will be the cost of inaction. For one, Gates rightly outlines that a 1,8-billion-dollar investment in climate-resilient infrastructure between 2020 and 2030 will have returns exceeding 380 percent while costing only 0.2 percent of global GDP. Conversely, not acting boldly will ruin entire ecosystems and coastal cities, to name just two well-known adverse effects.
In response, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster aims to lay down solutions through a blend of simple prose and welcomed pragmatism. Space forbidding, below I summarize what are likely the most critical ones.
Breakthrough Climate Solutions, Come Forward
1) Electricity as Master Resource
Gates begins his programme with what should become the underlying resource required to decarbonize all national economies. Electric power generation currently represents 27 percent of global emissions, with coal and natural gas accounting for 59 percent of that slice. However, should activities such as transportation, steel production, and heating go electric, the total demand for electricity would double or triple come 2050. The task will not only require all grids to go zero emissions but the ongoing construction of more grids, period. Hence for Microsoft’s former executive, (some kinds) of electricity will be the new kings and queens.
While solar and wind have taken customary center stage, the book questions the excitement. For one, solar photovoltaic electric plants require over 7 to 8 times more concrete, steel and glass to be built than their nuclear or natural gas equivalents. All the while, nuclear accounts for only 0.07 percent of deaths per TWh of energy produced, compared to 24,6 percent for carbon and 18,4 percent for oil alone. Panels and wind turbines also require expensive (and mineral-intensive) storage solutions — plus countless square miles for solar and wind parks, let alone thousands of miles of new transmission lines stretching out from sunshine- and wind-rich areas.
Conversely, Gates applauds nuclear for its ability to be used on/off on demand, bypassing the curse of intermittency. Just as automobiles used to be hazardous prior to safety innovations we now take for granted, he thus calls for stricter and better controls around nuclear fission (a highly toxic, non-renewable alternative), even as he places his greater mid-term hopes on plasma and fusion and other network-scale energy storage solutions.
This position, of course, is controversial in itself, even if the counterarguemnt is granted.
2) Drop-in, Liquid Fuels on Demand
But electricity won’t work for all needs. Should an 18-wheeler go electric, it would leave only 1/4 of its current freight space… for freight. The other 3/4 would be taken up by ion-lithium batteries, whose density makes them around 25 times heavier than a liter of diesel while supplying 35 times less energy.
Hence the book brings second-generation biofuels to the forefront. But read not ‘soil-disturbing’ and ‘fertilizer-intensive’ “ethanol”. Instead, the eye falls on fuels made from organic byproducts such as grass, corn stems, and even food leftovers. Likewise, Gates calls for greater R&D on electrofuels to lower their green premiums. These are currently expensive to produce given the need for (carbon-neutral) electricity, on the one hand, plus the challenges of hydrogen production, on the other. But they are the best promise.
Under the premise that industrial society can and should continue its course, for Gates, most other solutions hang on these two innovations: lower impact energy grids and carbon-neutral alternative fuels.
“If a genie offered me one wish, a single breakthrough in just one activity that drives climate change, I’d pick making electricity: It’s going to play a big role in decarbonizing other parts of the physical economy.”
3) New Paddies for New Burgers
Given the methane in their petulance and burps, the nitrous oxide in their poop, and the cutting down of trees to create new crop and pasturelands to feed their bellies, Gates does not find in pigs and cows great allies for the climate. He thus welcomes scientific developments in the feeding and breeding of livestock to reduce their GHGs, even if alternatives are to be found as well in vegan paddies and lab-grown meats. Likewise, faced with the 40 percent of food that is wasted in the United States, the author cheers for edible, 100 percent biobased wrappings to extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. For all Gates knows, entrepreneurial wit and good taste can go together.
While changing habits is a minor piece of his puzzle, Gates regularly evidences a preference for technological solutions instead of deeper cultural and lifestyle challenges. Regardless, the book is nevertheless on the right in highlighting carbon-neutral electricity and mostly plant-based food systems as the 101 master energy sources of a renewable future.
And here is where governments are called up the stage.
The Problem with (Most) Governments and
A New Kind of Government
Recall President Regan’s dismissal of government, warranted oftentimes (even if for reasons different from his own). Governments can become bureaucratic and misspend public funds. Governments can subsidize certain economic activities (not least pollution-intensive fossil fuels) at the detriment of others. Government officials can become myopic to entice the popular vote every four years while doing so at the expense of a natural environment’s ability to sustain a thriving society in the long term. Government is the problem in all such cases.
But shall one throw away all babies with that one kind of bathwater?
In his tenth chapter, ‘Why Government Policies Matter’, Mr. Gates makes the case for the vital role of robust public policy. From the Clean Air Act in Britain to its counterpart in the US, which has reduced N2O and carbon monoxide levels by 77 and 88 percent respectively since 1991; from the German government giving low-interest loans to those supplying the national grid with renewable electricity, to the gradual replenishing of the ozone layer following the Montreal Protocol ratified by 196 nations in 1987; from Denmark’s bold decision to reduce GHG emissions by 70% come 2030, to Costa Rica’s reforestation from 25 percent to 52 percent of its territory in only 30 years — history speaks for herself through demonstrable results of intelligent and sustained government intervention.
Notably, governments can be the main investors in scientific research. They can also create new rules and incentives to ease the speed of adoption of less-polluting alternatives. And, in Gates’ words,
“governents can help fix some of the problems that markets are not ready to solve”.
Specific to addressing the climate crisis, the 300-pager thus calls for three political strategies in particular:
Adopting a just transition through carbon taxes,
Funneling a greater portion of national GDPs towards R&D in advanced biofuels/electrofuels and renewable sources of electricity, and
Creating much more resilient climate-smart building codes (steel, concrete, and plastic amounting to 31% of current global GHGs).
Only governments’ ‘visible hands’, to borrow the idiom from US economist Joseph Stiglitz, will stand up to such a challenge and thus make globalization work.
What shall one say to these things?
Lovers, Foes, or Friends at a Distance?
Regardless of one’s political inclinations, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is to be applauded by the right and the left for its commitment to identify very practical solutions. Drawing on his philanthropic work to address global issues like malaria and world hunger, Gates’ manifesto aims to make the best of the business world and of governments to address the climate crises. Rich on updated stats, its comparisons are timely, as is its quest for promising alternatives. His call for authorities to step up to coordinate the markets also results in an unconventional voice that stands out amongst a choir of neoliberal suspicion of political authorities.
As per opportunities for improvement, the book could be amiss — not so much in what it says — but in what it leaves unsaid, and in what it takes for granted. Aside from Gates’ jaw-opening confidence on ‘safer’ modes of nuclear fission (there is simply no such thing as ‘safe’ fission power), space allows only four ways in which he could improve his proposal:
The book remains silent about financial markets and their unending pressure to grow. This alone is troublesome in the eyes of any sustainability specialist. (There is no point in clearing the Amazon to cultivate more organic cotton, nor in draining watersheds for carbon-neutral hydrogen production.) A word on ‘servicing’, industrial systems of neutral material throughput, or even alternative ownership and governance structures would have been welcomed. (Basic terms such as ‘steady-state economy’, ‘B Corps’, or ‘social business’ don’t appear in the book. Let alone ‘gratitude’ or ‘enough’. Instead, Gates seems to be at peace with the we-can-do-it-all ethos of modern societies.
Repeatedly, climate solutions are presented primarily as an economic opportunity for high-income nations to continue to take the lead. But there is no mention of the UN’s Green Climate Fund, let alone of the concept of climate justice, which reminds us that highly-industrialized nations host 20% of today’s global population but have been responsible for over 70% of global GHGs since the Industrial Revolution. Climate solutions should be collectivized and made accessible to all nations as a matter of human solidarity, not of greater profit.
Written by a specialist in technology, it is no surprise that the book risks being technocentric. In fact, reading between its lines reveals Gates’ preference for gadgets and solutions, instead of advocating for deeper cultural (and cosmological) changes. In fact, the book borderlines ‘carbon reductionism’, whereby reducing GHG emissions becomes the target, but often at the expense of other not-so-evident reverberations (not least the ongoing resource extraction that would be necessary to supply the demand for, say, electric vehicles). A more holistic approach to the climate crisis is needed. At its core, the task is fundamentally a feeding-our-cities-challenge and a population-decrease-type-of-challenge. The contributions of the food sovereignty, agroecology, and permaculture movements are welcomed here — let alone their immense carbon-sequestration potential.
Last, but not least: upholding alternative movements for climate democracy. While Gates places a slim call in Chapter Twelve for us all to contribute as citizens and employees in rather individualistic ways, effective government policies that actually work require sustained pressure from collective, people-powered movements and enlightened business coalitions. These are much likely to endure and overcome the often-flickering agendas of elected officials that come and go every four years. To name a few of such coalitions, here one could highlight the work of Ceres’ Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, or the Climate Action Network, or of the Citizens Climate Lobby. Government by the people, for the people.
* * *
All this said, Gates ends with a muchly needed warning, summoning all of us across the political and economic spectrums to work together despite our differences and limitations. Despite the gaps of How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, perhaps one of its greatest contributions is having a leading entrepreneur himself calling business, government, and civil society towards support and collaboration around what we agree on — far beyond criticism and opposition to what we don’t (important as that may be as well).
Business and government need not be blind lovers nor total foes, but good friends at a safe distance. And they need all of us to remind them equally of their role to serve humankind, instead of the other way around.
To be sure, avoiding a climate disaster is no small challenge. And arriving at a world of zero greenhouse gas emissions before 2050 is, likely, the greatest task faced during our 5,000-year experiment in urbanized human existence. We have built an entire civilization on the quicksands of fossil fuels; ironically — and, at times, tragically — a project in which free markets have sometimes served us well.
But there can be no good business on a dead planet. Leaving the market alone to solve the climate crises will in fact dwarf all other and much lesser challenges that the market has come and will ever come to experience.
Hence Gates’ insistence throughout his book, dedicated to scientists, innovators, and activists alike, calling business and government to work hand in hand towards a larger goal that transcends them. Again, no small challenge; but one whose collective undertaking will very much determine the planet’s entire destiny — ours included.
In joining such an undertaking with determination and boldness lies an even greater breakthrough.
Eduardo Sasso is a business sustainability consultant and author of A Climate of Desire - a book reconsidering the original roots of Christianity to more fully enable us to respond to the challenges of climate change.