Just about every business and employee will feel the impact of climate change, as a result of extreme weather events, government regulations, and changes to their supply chains. And we all face the imperative to get to net-zero emissions in advanced economies by 2050 to avoid climate catastrophe.  

That imperative is the focus of Bill Gates in his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, published this week. Gates’s answer to the book’s title emphasizes technology breakthroughs and government policies rather than climate-friendly individual actions, many of which he suggests have more value in spurring politicians and businesses to change rather than in their direct impact.

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Gates is guided by the math of the climate crisis. Manufacturing things such as cement and steel generates 31% of greenhouse emissions globally, electricity generation represents 27%, agriculture roughly 19%, transportation 16%, and heating and cooling 7%. To stave off disaster from warming, we need a dramatic reduction across the board by 2050. “The case for zero was, and is, rock solid,” Gates writes.

Why is Gates publishing a book about the climate crisis? He explains that in 2015 he decided that he wanted to do more on the issue, and focused on the goal of helping make clean energy so cheap everywhere in the world that it would overtake fossil fuels. 

As he’d done for public health and education, Gates trained his enormous intellect and resources on the topic. And he is remarkably good at decomplexifying the science around climate change and the research into how to prevent it. 

Gates lays out some clear guidelines:

  • Global annual emissions are roughly 51 billion tons, though that has temporarily dropped perhaps 5% during the pandemic. So any initiative should be assessed against its ability to make a dent in the 51 billion—one fund that Gates invests through won’t consider any technology that doesn’t have the potential to remove at least 500 million tons annually.
  • We have to tackle all of the activities listed above, from manufacturing to heating. People often underestimate how much manufacturing contributes to warming, and some processes such as cement production are currently hard to make more environmentally friendly.
  • Breakthroughs in clean electricity production have the potential to be the most meaningful because it can be used to replace other dirty energy sources, such as by eliminating the use of gas to power cars. Carbon capture, which involves removing greenhouse gases from manufacturing exhaust or from the air, will likely be needed as well to get to net zero.
  • Reducing “Green Premiums” should be a priority. Throughout the book, Gates discusses how much extra clean alternatives currently cost compared to alternatives, and the pathways to eliminating those premiums.
  • We can’t count just on behavior change—such as people forgoing meat because its production is carbon intensive—to get us to net-zero emissions. And we shouldn’t hold back poorer countries from increasing their energy consumption, which is essential for boosting development and reducing poverty. The better alternative is to make clean energy their cheapest option.
  • Governments are needed to set policy around reducing emissions and to invest in scientific research.

Gates has some other practical recommendations:

  • Heat pumps. Furnaces and water heaters account for one-third of the emissions from the world’s buildings. Electric heat pumps are actually cheaper to install and operate than furnaces and electric air conditioners. 
  • Mangrove trees. “They’re a great investment,” Gates writes, noting the tens of billions of dollars a year in coastal flooding damage that they help prevent.
  • Carbon pricing. Gates believes in putting a price on emissions through a carbon tax or other mechanism. And he suggests that companies also consider internal carbon pricing, such as adding surcharges for corporate travel to encourage reductions and finance offsets.
  • Weather for Dummies is “still one of the best books on weather that I’ve found,” Gates contends.

Gates is highly diplomatic in his work and in his book, but he lays out positions that others might debate. Among them:

  • He argues for prioritizing net-zero emissions by 2050 over reductions by 2030, since prioritizing reductions in the shorter-term could make the 2050 target harder. Countries could meet 2030 reduction targets by replacing coal power plants with gas ones, for example, but those investments could make it harder for them to shift more fully to renewable energy by 2050.
  • He raises questions about the tree-planting initiatives that many organizations use for carbon offsets, suggesting their actual contribution to a net reduction in greenhouse gases is overstated. 

To be sure…

  • Gates, who flies in private jets and owns big houses, acknowledges he’s “an imperfect messenger on climate change.” In recent years, he’s begun buying sustainable jet fuel and carbon offsets, and divesting his gas and oil company investments. But just this month he was on the winning side of a bidding war to buy the world’s largest operator of bases for private jets, which emit at least 10 times as much carbon dioxide per passenger as commercial airliners. One researcher described Gates as a “super-emitter,” based on an analysis of his extensive private-jet travel in 2017. It’s convenient for him to emphasize technological breakthroughs rather than individual lifestyle changes.
  • The book focuses most on defining the problem and on the technology approaches that could address it. And while Gates writes that he thinks “more like an engineer than a political scientist,” climate-change denialism, opposition by the fossil-fuel industry, and political obstacles are determining factors as well. 
  • Some critics believe that Gates underestimates the potential of solar and wind power to address the bulk of the world’s electricity needs, thanks to dramatic declines in the cost and acceleration of deployment. As a result, they view his own investment in nuclear technologies as not as central to addressing the issues. Gates argues that the intermittent nature of solar and wind—and the prohibitive expense of current battery technology to store at massive scale solar power generated during the day for use at night, for example—means that there needs to be a steadier energy source like nuclear.

Memorable facts:

  • By 2050, climate change could be as deadly as Covid. And by 2100, it could be five times as deadly. (p. 34)
  • By 2050, worldwide air conditioning will be triple what it is today, consuming as much electricity as all of China and India do now. (p. 151)

Choice quotes:

  • “What’s remarkable to me is not how much emissions went down because of the pandemic, but how little.” (p. 13)
  • “Although heavy emitters like me should use less energy, the world overall should be using more of the goods and services that energy provides. There is nothing wrong with using more energy as long as it’s carbon-free.” (p. 15)
  • “We need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar. To do it, we need lots of breakthroughs in science and engineering. We need to build a consensus that doesn’t exist and create policies to push a transition that would not happen otherwise. We need the energy system to stop doing all the things we don’t like and keep doing all the things we do like—in other words, to change completely and also stay the same. But don’t despair. We can do this.” (p. 51)
  • “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.” (p. 97)
  • “With transportation, the zero-carbon future is basically this: Use electricity to run all vehicles we can, and get cheap alternative fuels for the rest.” (p. 147)
  • “I’m optimistic that we’ll make real progress on climate change—because the world is more committed to solving this problem than it has ever been.” (p. 230)

The bottom line is that Gates’ book is a very clear guide to many of the levers that exist to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. While some critics will challenge his assumptions, it’s helpful to have Gates’ framework for assessing what should be prioritized—such as clean electricity and reducing Green Premiums. On a meta level, if you’ve ever considered a career transition, it’s instructive to read about Gates’ approach, having made his own shift from software CEO.

You can order How to Avoid a Climate Disaster at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may make a commission when you buy a book.) All page numbers referenced above are to the hardcover edition. You can read a critical review in The New York Times, and watch a recent “60 Minutes” interview with Gates.

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