Bill Gates has solved many problems throughout his professional life. In recent decades, he's been committed to improving the health and well-being of the poor around the world. He has traveled the globe solving problems ranging from malaria and neglected tropical diseases, to maternal health. His charitable work and foundation work have allowed him to travel the world, always looking for the best and most affordable solution.
He uses his engineering brain and way of thinking to address climate change in How to Avoid Climate Disaster: The Solutions and Breakthroughs We Have (yes, italicized on the book cover because we do really need them). Gates shares a little about his journey from software mogul, global health wizard, to concerned citizen on climate change. Climate change has a significant impact on the number of mosquitoes and other vectors of infection, as well as other challenges such neglected tropical diseases. When analyzing food security in developing countries, there is no way to avoid the effects of climate change.
With this early narrative, Gates is attempting to connect perhaps not with climate change skeptics (its hard to connect with them on a good day anyway), but instead to build a bridge to the skeptical-but-ready-to-rethink crowd. Gates admits that he didn't really think about the problem until he experienced its effects for himself. This opens the door to others who might be willing to embark on a similar intellectual journey.
Gates then provides a very sober analysis (one could easily replace dry) of the main components of greenhouse gas emission and how to get to net zero. This chapter consists of energy production (27%), manufacturing (31%), transportation (16%) and air conditioning (7%)
Gates is an engineer. It shows. The book is filled with great examples of Gates' ability to grasp scale. He tries to untangle all the numbers and units that are being reported in the media and attempts to determine if a particular innovation could make any difference. Gates gives the example of an airline program that will reduce 17 million tons CO2 but points out that this is only 0.03% of global emissions, and it is unlikely to scale up further. This is Gates' borrowing of the concept of effective altruism. It refers to the idea that charity dollars should be directed to projects that provide the greatest verifiable improvement in quality of life at the lowest cost.
It is not surprising that Gates is a capitalist. His framework for judging every solution is to calculate a Green Premium. A carbon-free cement manufacturing process may cost twice as much as a normal carbon-emitting process. These added costs can be compared with the greenhouse gas emissions savings that these substitutions will make, and voilà! You have a quick guide to the most efficient ways to solve climate change.
He tends to find the solution he has come up with quite adaptable in the end. Electricity, decarbonization of electricity, carbon capture and efficiency. It sounds difficult, but it is. Gates notes these challenges in a chapter entitled This will be Hard. The chapter begins with the line Please don't let the title depress you.
Throughout the book, Gates is a conservative figure from the end. This is not his overall approach to protecting the status quo. It's also the fact that he sees solutions as essentially substitute tweaks to our daily lives. His surprising conservatism regarding the potential of technology to solve these problems is also a surprise. Gates is not able to see the magic in his investment of billions of dollars in green technology and clean energy. Although it is possible, it can sometimes feel like pessimism when you consider the source.
When you read this book in conjunction with others in the group of climate change reviews, it is easy to feel a kind of calculated naivety on the part Gates. It makes one wonder if we should just play our cards a bit longer and see if there is a last-minute royal flush. Although there are some early signs of solutions, most of them aren't yet ready to scale. While some technologies are available, it would be costly to retrofit homes and businesses or to make any significant impact on our emissions. There are also people outside the West who should have access to modern amenities. It's so simple, yet so far away.
It is both apolitical and fact-laden, which is one of the strengths and weaknesses of this book. It also serves as a gateway drug. Once you have gotten to grips with the problems and solutions, as well the challenges and opportunities of Green Premiums, you will feel that we won't be able to solve them in the next few decades. So what is the point of this book?
Gates concludes the book by saying that we should focus on technologies, policies and market structures that will help us eliminate greenhouse gases by 2050. This is a timely comment in an environment that won't last much longer.
Bill Gates: How to Avoid Climate Disasters: The Solutions We Have & the Breakthroughs That We Need
Alfred A. Knopf 2021, 257 Pages