Review: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

Can the world achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050? In his new book Bill Gates examines the technologies that could help us reach the target.

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Bill Gates, one of the world’s best-known billionaire philanthropists, has long focused on issues of poverty and development. Through their Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Microsoft founder and his wife have been enthusiastic backers of efforts to combat preventable diseases and stalwart supporters of vaccination drives across the world.

But it was during his work on energy poverty that Gates first realised the magnitude of the climate change crisis, concluding that the profound energy needs of developing countries would need to be met without releasing further greenhouse gases.  

Since then, Gates has become a proponent of radical measures to reduce carbon emissions from the current 51bn tonnes released into the atmosphere annually to almost zero by 2050.

In 2019, he divested his holdings in oil and gas companies, and in 2020 started using sustainable jet fuel, but he was aware that the moves would have limited real impact on reducing emissions.

Getting to zero, he says, requires a much broader approach: “driving wholesale change using all the tools at our disposal, including government policies, current technology, new inventions and the ability of private markets to deliver products to huge numbers of people.”

With the help of experts in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, political science, and finance, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster focuses on many of these solutions and how they can be harnessed in order to stop the planet’s slide to environmental disaster.

Along the way, he is not afraid to tell some home truths. Getting to a near net-zero carbon future in which we produce emissions, but are able to remove the carbon, will be really hard, he admits. Yet he retains an optimistic outlook and believes that change can be achieved. 

“We already have some of the tools we need, and as for those we don’t have, everything I’ve learned about climate and technology makes me optimistic that we can invent them, deploy them, and if we act fast enough, avoid a climate catastrophe.”

Key technologies

Throughout the enthralling book, Gates speculates on the possibilities offered by various technologies that will present the key to the zero emissions target over the next three decades, including the controversial option of nuclear energy.

He describes the research being undertaken by TerraPower, a company that he founded in 2006 which is running a laboratory that runs digital simulations of nuclear plant designs.

He writes: “TerraPower’s reactor could run on many different types of fuel, including waste from other nuclear facilities. The reactor would produce far less waste than today’s plants, would be fully automated – eliminating the risk of human error – and could be built underground, protecting it from attack… accidents would literally be prevented by the laws of physics.”

The TerraPower team are working with the US government on building the first prototype. Should it prove successful, it would be a step closer to what Gates holds as an overriding ambition: supplying affordable, reliable energy to both high-income economies and middle- and low-income countries.

It is not just nuclear energy – both fusion and fission – that Gates analyses, but other unusual and ambitious solutions that are gaining interest. These include capturing carbon with direct air capture (DAC) and then storing it safely.

Clean, reliable, affordable electricity is the Holy Grail of Gates’ thesis, allowing a move away from the use of fossil fuels to zero carbon generation.

One fascinating and challenging idea is the use of hydrogen. Green hydrogen is produced with clean energy sources – wind, solar, and biogas – and produced from natural gas using carbon capture. Inexpensive green hydrogen could enable other energy-intensive processes to become more environmentally friendly. 

“We could use electricity from a solar or wind farm,” Gates writes, “to create hydrogen, store the hydrogen as compressed gas and then put it into a fuel cell to generate electricity on demand.”

Gates argues that green hydrogen generation offers one way of achieving a carbon-free future, but says that only by committing to projects of significant scale will developers begin to understand the science behind the process and enable further success. 

Gates says he has already begun to back zero-carbon technologies with his prodigious resources. The billionaire is an investor in several of the ideas put forward in the book, and has persuaded wealthy peers to invest in Breakthough Energy, an organisation which has to date invested in some 40 companies with promising ideas.

The need for green solutions to “produce electricity, make things, grow food, keep our buildings cool and warm, and move people and goods around the world” is gaining interest from investors everywhere, he says.

The way to avoid disaster

Despite the monumental task at hand, Gates is at heart an optimist. He writes that he is “profoundly inspired by the passion I see, especially among young people for solving these problems”.

He notes that more national and local leaders around the world are committed to playing their part. In April, President Biden pledged that the US will cut carbon emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by the end of this “decisive decade” at a virtual summit of 40 global leaders, essentially doubling the previous US target.

Campaigners hope that China and India can be induced to commit to ambitious cuts ahead of the crucial COP26 meeting in Glasgow in November.  

Gates says that Covid-19 offers useful models of international cooperation, highlights the importance of science in a coordinated response, and shows the crucial work of tailoring zero-carbon solutions to the world’s poorest. 

“It’s hard to think of a better response to a miserable 2020 than spending the next 10 years dedicating ourselves to this ambitious [zero carbon] goal,” he writes. 

He concludes: “If we keep our eyes on the big goal – getting to zero – and we make serious plans to achieve that goal, we can avoid a disaster… We can keep climate bearable for everyone, help hundreds of millions of people make the most of their lives, and preserve the planet for generations to come.”

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