Bill Gates: How To Avoid Climate Disaster

March 3, 2021

“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”

- Canadian educator Laurence J. Peter

“Nothing is easier than spending the public money. It does not appear to belong to anybody.”

- Calvin Coolidge

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance. It is the illusion of knowledge.”

- Stephen Hawking

A. How To Avoid Climate Disaster

I came to Bill Gates new book, about as excited as I came to Ray Dalio’s Principles (covered here).

Was this yet another billionaire writing a book to add author to his biography? What was this +220 page going to tell me apart from how smart Bill Gates is.

Having finished it last week, I ended up being impressed and here is what I learnt.

First some facts:

51 billion tons: is how many tons of greenhouse gases the world typically adds to the atmosphere every year, and this is where it comes from:

860 million: the number of people who don’t have electricity.

Income per person and energy use per person go hand in hand. Cheaper energy allows us to lift people out of poverty, but how do we provide that energy without adding to that 51 billion tons a year?

The book is a discussion on how we get those 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases down to zero, while providing more access to energy to the poor.

Why zero emissions?

Quoting Gates:

The reason we need to get to zero is simple. Greenhouse gases trap heat, causing the average surface temperature of the earth to go up. The more gases there are, the more the temperature rises. And once greenhouse gases are in the atmosphere, they stay there for a very long time; something like one-fifth of the carbon dioxide emitted today will still be there in 10,000 years.

There’s no scenario in which we keep adding carbon to the atmosphere. and the world stops getting hotter, and the hotter it gets, the harder it will be for humans to survive, much less thrive. We don’t know exactly how much harm will be caused by a given rise in the temperature, but we have every reason to worry. And, because greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for so long, the planet will stay warm for a long time even after we get to zero.

Admittedly, I’m using “zero” imprecisely, and I should be clear about what I mean. In preindustrial times—before the mid-18th century or so—the earth’s carbon cycle was probably roughly in balance; that is, plants and other things absorbed about as much carbon dioxide as was emitted.

If we are going to bring global emissions down to zero, we need to understand where and how we are creating them, and then how to go about bringing them down.

Some charts that helped me visualise the problem:

Of course some would argue that the solution is simple, we just need to use more renewables. But Gates reminds us that history is not on our side. Energy transitions take a long time (he recommends Vaclav Smil’s work here).

One of most useful mental models I got from the book was: Five Questions To Ask In Every Climate Conversation.

  1. How much of the 51 billion tons are we talking about?

    Tip: convert tons of emission to a % of 51 billion, to see how meaningful this solution is.

  2. What’s your plan for cement?

  3. How much power are we talking about?

    A watt is a joule per second.

  4. How much space do you need?

    This is why it’s hard to displace fossil fuels. They are far more energy dense than renewables.

  5. How much is this going to cost?

    The shift to a green economy will cost money. Zero carbon solutions are more expensive than their fossil fuel counterparts. These additional costs we can call Green Premiums for now.

27% of the 51 billion tons a year comes from how we produce electricity. Today, fossil fuels account for two-thirds of all electricity generated.

His favourite idea when it comes to electricity production is Nuclear (fusion or fission), combined with a break-through in large-scale batteries, which will make renewables more useful.

The break through he is really hoping for is in the production of hydrogen without emitting carbon. This is because hydrogen can be used in fuel cells, which get their energy from a chemical reaction between hydrogen & oxygen, with water as a by-product.

31% of the 51 billion tons a year comes from how we make things. The key things being the core materials modern civilisation is built on: cement, steel and plastic.

To sum up his path to zero emissions in manufacturing looks like: a) electrify every process possible b) get the electricity used from a power grid that has been de-carbonised c) use carbon capture to absorb the remaining emissions.

19% of the 51 billion tons a year comes from how we grow things. This includes raising animals, growing crops and harvesting trees.

In some ways this is the most complex problem, because there isn’t one good answer. You need to pull on a lot of strings, including: new ways to fertilise plants, raise livestock, waste less food and even eat less meat.

16% of the 51 billion tons a year comes from how we get around.

He starts the chapter with an enlightening quiz:

The correct answers are A and C. Gasoline contains an amazing amount of energy—you’d need to bundle 130 sticks of dynamite together to get as much energy as a single gallon of gas contains.

This is why we use fossil fuels to get around, but cars aren’t the only culprit.

Gates thinks there are four ways to cut down on emissions from transportation: a) do less driving, flying, shipping b) use fewer carbon intensive materials in making cars c) use fuels more efficiently d) switching to electric vehicles and alternative fuels.

To overcome the Green Premium, he recommends better government policies, more on that below.

Knowing the problems above then, his big picture plan for getting the world to zero emissions is reducing the Green Premium of cleaner technologies by:

Expanding the supply of innovation:

  1. Quintuple clean energy and climate-related R&D over the next decade

  2. Make bigger bets on high-risk, high-reward R&D projects

  3. Match R&D with our greatest needs

  4. Work with industry from the beginning

And accelerating the demand for innovation:

  1. Use procurement power

  2. Create incentives that lower costs and reduce risk

  3. Build the infrastructure that will get new technologies to market

  4. Change the rules so new technologies can compete

I hope this helped you better understand the climate change and green technology debate.

Here is Gates in his own words (35 mins):

B. A Few Things Worth Checking Out

1. The Berkshire Annual Report came out last weekend. This tweet storm captured the key ideas well.

2. The world is opening back up post COVID, my friend Dror Poleg (author of Rethinking Real Estate) and I discussed the future of real estate in a post COVID world recently.

3. MIT Technology Review covered the breakthrough technologies of 2021. I’m interviewing my friend Ben Savage of Clocktower Technology Ventures next week to discuss the Global State of Fintech, let me know if you’d like to join.

4. The School Of Life does great work, we covered it here. They did a great video on how to lengthen your life. It’s not about living healthier. Answers a great question on why it feels like our life is passing by faster and faster.

5. Fun list of 100 short rules for a Better Life by Ryan Holiday.

6. Another place where the world is changing.

These emails take many hours to put together every week. If you enjoy them, I’d love it if you left a comment or a like so I know I’m being useful to you.