The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need
Life gets busy. Has How to Avoid a Climate Disaster been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, learn some of the key ideas now.
DISCLAIMER: This is an unofficial summary and analysis. It is not affiliated with, authorized, approved, licensed, or endorsed by the subject book’s author or publisher. The content may contain errors and should not be considered a replacement for consulting a professional.
Originally posted on April 11, 2021. Updated on Nov 12, 2021.
Bill Gates’ Perspective
Bill Gates is an American business magnate, software developer, investor, author and philanthropist. He is a co-founder of Microsoft and was subsequently the world’s richest person for all but four years between 1995 and 2017. Gates was born at the start of the computer age and coded his first software by 13. He is now considered one of the pioneers of the microcomputer revolution in the 1970s and 80s. Later in his career and since leaving day-to-day operations at Microsoft in 2008, Gates has pursued many philanthropic endeavors. He has given sizable amounts of money to various charitable organizations and scientific research programs through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation is now reported to be the world’s largest private charity. In 2009, Gates and Warren Buffett founded The Giving Pledge. Together with other billionaires, they have pledged to give at least half of their wealth to philanthropy. Gates has invested heavily in climate change research and eco-friendly innovations.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a book that investigates the technology required to avoid a future climate disaster. Bill Gates believes this challenge is greater than the innovation required for men to land on the moon and get a computer in every person’s house. This could be mankind’s greatest ever challenge. That said, technological innovation, political change and pressure from advocates can help us overcome this challenge and avoid a climate disaster.
StoryShot #1: Renewable Energy Solutions Must Be Global
Gates describes how the variety of renewable sources available means we can choose the best match for different climates. For example, we can obtain electricity from geothermal, offshore winds, pump hydro, nuclear power and many more. That said, we also have to help produce cheap and reliable electricity across the globe. We currently have several areas, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, where energy access is limited. Another challenge to overcome is different countries’ relationships with energy. For example, the Green Premiums in the US are quite low (roughly 15% more than they pay now), which means uptake could be high. The issues with global net zero will likely be within countries that have a high Green Premium. For example, Asia and Africa rely on cheap coal plants. It is unfair to judge these continents as the West relied heavily on fossil fuels as they developed economically. This means that the renewable energy solution must be global rather than solved at a national level.
StoryShot #2: We Need to Revolutionize Production
We need to change the way we make things. One of the examples he offers is cement. Although we have innovated in several other parts of the construction field, cement is still used at a remarkable rate. America alone produces 96 million tonnes of cement every year. That is roughly 600 pounds per US citizen. The issue with this is that cement production uses considerable amounts of energy. The importance of this chapter is that the way we produce things must change. Cement is not the only problem, as plastic, steel, paper and many other materials produce enormous amounts of greenhouse gases every year. So, to reach net-zero emissions, we must change our production.
A couple of solutions for cement production are the use of recycled CO2 in cement production of the use of seawater rather than fresh water. That said, Gates believes the most important solution is the use of carbon capturing. This is because the Green Premium is too high when switching away from resources like cement or steel.
StoryShot #3: Nuclear Fission Is the Future
Gates argues that nuclear fission is potentially the best global solution to reaching net zero. Nuclear energy has a negative reputation due to high publicity disasters. But, Gates doesn’t believe we should give up on it so easily. He compares nuclear energy production to cars. Thousands of people die every year from car crashes but we continue to use cars every day. The key is to understand the risks and limit them, as well as making things safer through innovation. Gates’ passion for nuclear energy is why he started TerraPower in 2008. This company has a laboratory of supercomputers that run digital simulations on reactors. The reactors they simulate are failsafe, making it impossible for them to overheat. Although these are just simulations, Gates has high hopes for nuclear energy in the future.
StoryShot #4: Your Food Choices Are Crucial
This chapter showcases the negative impact our food choices can have on the environment. Gates describes several issues with animal agriculture.
- Animals require huge amounts of plant matter to help them grow to the size for slaughter. This is inefficient when we can obtain the nutrients from plants themselves.
- Cows, in particular, release huge amounts of methane (more potent than CO2) by burping, farting and and the decomposition of their excrement.
- Deforestation is highly common to make room for rearing livestock and growing more soy and other plants to feed the animals. This removes trees that absorb CO2 and releases more greenhouse gases when land areas are burned to make room for livestock.
StoryShot #5: Technological Innovation Can Solve Our Food Crisis
Our reliance on animal products for protein led Paul Ehrlich, a famous German physician, to predict in 1968 that there would be a global food crisis in the 70s and 80s. This prediction was wrong but it isn’t because our food production is sustainable. The reason we haven’t experienced a food shortage is because of technological innovations. For example, Norman Borlaug developed a type of wheat that produced far bigger grains. This strain was allowed to spread across the world and has subsequently saved billions of people’s lives.
One of the key technological innovations will be lab-grown meat. Meat substitutes have been received far more positively than Gates expected and are a key choice that can be made. That said, Gates believes we need to develop more advanced technologies before we can start creating lab-grown meat on the scale required.
StoryShot #6: 5 Questions to Keep Asking Yourself
Bill Gates provides five questions you should always ask yourself when the topic of climate change surfaces. This could be while reading an article, talking with a friend, or any other example where climate change can come up in conversation. These questions should help you deal with the complex statistics and facts that often come with any climate change conversation.
- How much of the 51 billion tons are we talking about? – Whenever Bill Gates reads something that mentions several greenhouse gases, he does some quick math. He always converts this amount into a percentage of the annual total of 51 billion tons. This provides him with more context.
- What’s your plan for cement? – A comprehensive conversation about tackling climate change requires you to consider everything humans do to cause greenhouse gas emissions. Transport only accounts for 40% of emissions, so there are many other areas where we can improve, like the food we eat and the world’s production of cement.
- How much power are we talking about? – This question involves a better understanding of what energy means in a specific context. He describes a megawatt as a million watts and a watt as a bit of energy per second. As these numbers can get very big quickly, it is better to shorthand these numbers and think about everything as a bit of energy per second.
- How much space do you need? – It is often forgotten that power sources take up room and there is only so much land and water.
- How much is this going to cost? – Zero carbon solutions are often more expensive than fossil fuels. Green premiums are when the zero-carbon solutions are less expensive, but these are rare. With advancements in technology, these zero-carbon solutions should become more affordable.
StoryShot #7: Transportation Has Some Easy Solutions
Often transportation is highlighted as the biggest cause of climate change. The statistics suggest that food production, driven by animal agriculture, is actually worse. That said, emissions from cars alone are still 17% of greenhouse gas emissions. Significant amounts of greenhouse gases are also released due to us expecting to have certain foods all year round. Transitioning away from local seasonal foods means we are using unsustainable energy sources to send food all over the world.
Gates points out that transportation should be easily improved as electric cars become increasingly common and cheaper. There is almost a car brand for every letter of the alphabet that now offers an electric car. So, through competition, electric cars should become more accessible and the norm within the next couple of decades. These car companies will also need to use technological innovation, as Gates believes the time it takes to charge an electric vehicle will limit uptake.
StoryShot #8: Making Heating Changes Could Be a Hard Sell
This is another area that should be relatively easy to solve but will have a significant impact. Currently, how we keep cool and stay warm accounts for 7% of global emissions. Gates points out that there are also examples where green technology would save people money. Heating is one of these areas in certain parts of the world. Gates provides the example of how swapping to an electric heat pump will save you money on your furnace. In Oakland, this switch would save you 14% on your heating and cooling costs. In Houston, the same switch would save you 17%. This point highlights, though, that even saving people money will not lead to immediate change. These technologies offer a negative green premium, but there is always a lag between introducing new technologies and their implementation in parts of our lives we often consider changing.
StoryShot #9: Air Conditioning Is One of Our Biggest Climate Failures
Another area that uses huge amounts of energy is air conditioning. Gates explains that air conditioning was first invented as a method to prevent malaria. The science supporting this claim was flawed but people enjoyed the AC so much that 90% of Americans now use one. It is one of the biggest energy users in any given home in the US. So, people’s AC usage is going to lead to global warming, which will mean people will have an even greater need for AC. The solution is to use a technology that already exists. We just need to implement standards that force AC companies to use less harmful cooling materials and cut out fluorine gases.
StoryShot #10: Why Net-Zero Will Be So Difficult
Bill Gates is keen to highlight that avoiding a climate disaster won’t be easy. This is partly because hitting net-zero emissions is near-impossible even at the individual level. He provides several examples of everyday behaviors that release considerable amounts of greenhouse gases:
- If you brushed your teeth this morning, you brushed your teeth with a brush likely made of plastic. This plastic is made from petroleum and fossil fuels.
- The grains in the cereals or bread you ate for breakfast are likely fertilized. These fertilizers release greenhouse gases when used. These grains were also harvested by a tractor constructed of steel, which requires considerable amounts of greenhouse gases to produce, and the tractor runs on gas.
- If you had meat today, you ate an animal fed considerable amounts of soy and grain. These plants required deforestation and fertilization to grow. If it was a burger, you also ate an animal bred for food that releases methane when it burps and farts.
- If you put a shirt on today, it is likely formed from cotton or polyester. Cotton requires significant amounts of energy and water to produce, while polyester is derived from ethylene, a type of petroleum.
Another issue is that these individual behaviors will become more pronounced. The reason for this is that as the world develops it is becoming more populated. The more people introduced into an unsustainable world, the greater the damage. The worry is that we will struggle to make such a big change in our energy needs and production in such a short period. Firstly, the development and implementation of new energy sources will generate huge amounts of greenhouse gases at first. Although the long-term impact will be positive, Gates explains that humans in the past have taken a very long time to transition from one form of energy to another. For example, it took over fifty years for humans to transition from plant-based fuel to oil and another fifty from oil to natural gas. That said, these transitions were slowed by a lack of innovation. So, we need global action to get behind finding technological solutions to speed up our transition toward renewable energy.
StoryShot #11: Changes the Government Can Make
Government policies matter because corporations are not encouraged enough to part ways with fossil fuels. Gates is reluctant to blame corporations for their fossil fuel emissions because they are merely doing what makes practical sense. At this point, fossil fuels are cheaper and more reliable for these corporations than renewables. Currently, the technology isn’t quite there for renewables and this means the costs often aren’t feasible.
Gates believes the world would have already switched to renewables if it was that easy. The reality is there are far more complex challenges to overcome before we can have a world that has net-zero emissions. Gates offers seven ways in which policymakers could make a difference:
- Close investment gaps in the R & D of green energy
- Support initiatives that reduce Green Premiums
- Disseminate information about the benefits of replacing fossil fuels with electric alternatives
- Remain informed
- Make a plan that makes it fair for everyone
- Go beyond the easy wins
- Cover all bases together
StoryShot #12: Individual Changes We Can Make
Gates closes the book by outlining the changes we can make as individuals.
- As a Citizen – Think about your daily life e.g. how you commute, your routines and the products you consume. The most important thing to do is to also engage with climate change on a political level. Only vote for those who are willing to put climate change at the top of their priorities. Write letters and make calls to local politicians if you have to.
- As a Consumer – Our world is governed by markets which are driven by our decisions as consumers. So, send a message to companies that you will only continue to consume their products if they go green. You should also make changes yourself like switching your utility company, reducing your vehicle emissions and cutting out animal products from your diet.
- As an Employee or Employer – You need to encourage shareholders within your business to move towards potentially risk ventures that have green outcomes.
StoryShot #13: How Our Lives Could Change
A warmer world will require large improvements in our technology and will lead to more floods that can wipe out a sizable portion of global crops. Animals will also start to eat less and produce less milk, leading to more food shortages. Moisture will be held in the air more, leaving less water for plants and shorter growing seasons. For some, these changes might not have an immediate impact. But, for those living life on the edge with very little resources, this will be disastrous.
Gates offers the example of the Talam family to highlight why climate is so important. He met this family in 2009 in Kenya when they had just started as subsistence farmers on a small farm. They only had one cow and this cow produced three liters of milk a day. The poor efficiency was due to the increasingly warm weather. The family then learned about a local chilling plant that would help them raise healthier livestock and produce better milk. They were able to buy more cows and increase their efficiency, showing that technology can help us adapt to a warmer world. That said, this increased efficiency also increased their emissions. Here is the problem. With greater prosperity comes greater emissions. This means our solutions for how we can adapt to a warmer world must not make this warming worse.
Final Review, Analysis, and Criticism of How to Avoid a Climate Disaster
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is Bill Gates’ first book in over 20 years. This long-overdue book aims to encourage readers to consider the enormity of the challenge climate change will offer humanity. That said, he also adopts an optimistic approach while avoiding blaming others or corporations. This book instead highlights the impact we have on the world and how important technology will be to transitioning away from the resources and decisions that have this negative impact.
In his arguments, Bill Gates is direct and to the point. Although he integrates some of his anecdotes and opinions throughout How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, he primarily relies on scientific facts and research to quantify climate change. Gates offers thorough references and various charts and visuals to clarify the data better and explain some of his viewpoints.
Gates may come off as too optimistic about nuclear power compared to wind and solar power.
He was also criticized for buying a seaside mansion in 2020 after claiming global warming would lead to sea level rises. But the counterargument is that the millions of dollars he has paid for the mansion is nothing compared to the billions he has already invested in or donated to climate change R&D. The rising sea levels won’t affect him in his lifetime either.
If you’re trying to decide whether to get the book as an audiobook or a regular book, we’d like to point out that the audiobook comes with a link to external material such as charts and pictures in PDF form and is narrated by the author.
We rate this book 4.5/5.
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