What’s missing from “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”: a book review

Bill Gates giving a speech

“How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” discusses technological solutions, but ignores the political and economic causes of the climate crisis.

Bill Gates has been engaged in charity for some 20 years. The Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation originally intended to give everyone access to electricity. But when confronted with the climate crisis, Gates shifted his focus on climate change. Since then, he has consulted numerous scientists, inventors, and engineers on how to tackle this crisis.

Gates is a self-proclaimed techie, and “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” has therefore become a book with a mainly technological angle. It examines how different sectors of the economy can be decarbonised—electricity, concrete, steel, agriculture, transport, heating and cooling—and identifies possible solutions. Some are already available today, others exist only on paper. Gates has invested in some of these technologies himself, including nuclear power (through his company TerraPower), batteries, direct air capture, and geo-engineering.

Useful lessons about tackling the climate crisis from “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”

Bill Gates gives a good overview of the challenges per sector and of the available technological solutions. He takes a no-nonsense approach to solving the climate crisis. We must not delude ourselves: the goal is to reduce CO2 emissions to zero. This challenge requires radical decarbonisation of the economy: we must find zero-emission alternatives for all the goods and services we consume.

Gates reminds us of how formidable the challenge is:

  • People in the poor South will want to and have the right to live as comfortably as people in the rich North. Hence, global energy consumption will continue to rise.
  • While clean electricity is key, demand is likely to triple: We need to both electrify a range of sectors (e.g., transport) and decarbonize electricity at the same time.  
  • Energy transition takes time; its infrastructure is designed to last for decades. Today’s decisions and investments must stay away from fossil fuel and make our world carbon neutral by 2050.

Gates rightfully reminds us of the numbers: we must move from an annual 51 billion tons of CO2 emissions to zero emissions in less than 30 years.

At every step, we must ask: How many tons of CO2 will this save? What are the alternatives and how much will they cost? I would have liked to add one more question: Who is going to pay for this?

This question—which is actually about social justice in the climate movement—is not addressed at all in the book, but in my opinion it is the most important question in the climate debate.

Not all climate measures are equal, and decision-makers at all levels in government and industry must be held accountable for choosing the best ones. 

Gates’ central concept is the “Green Premium”:  For climate-friendly technologies to conquer the market, they must become as cheap as their fossil counterparts. Gates calls the current price difference the green premium, and examines how high green premiums are in different sectors of the economy.  Through intensive R&D, we should strive to get the green premiums as low as possible.

Criticism of “How to avoid a Climate Disaster”

Green premiums

Gates is right: the price difference between clean and polluting solutions is crucial if clean solutions are not only to be developed in research centres but also to be rolled out on a global scale.

However, this price difference is not only determined by the state of the technology, but also by the economic conditions. Fossil fuels are cheaper because they do not internalise the cost of the damage they produce, the well-known social cost of CO2. This externality constitutes a price advantage of USD 5 trillion a year for the fossil fuel companies. It is people who pay the bill in the form of mortality, morbidity and increasing damage to the climate (hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, migrations…). If we were to force polluting companies to pay these costs, by introducing a CO2 tax (a carbon tax can be introduced in a socially just way, by distributing the revenues to citizens as a Climate Income), the green premiums for most emission-free technologies would be zero or even negative.

Conceptually, it does not make much difference whether the CO2 tax is included in the Green Premium or not. In both cases the Green Premium should be reduced as much as possible. But it leads to a very different attitude. In Gates’ world, salvation must come from technological miracle solutions. As an ordinary citizen, you can only wait, pay taxes to support R&D initiatives as well as infrastructure programmes and hope that these technologies will become available sometime in the future. Climate activism is thus fairly pointless.

However, for people who see the climate problem as an injustice (towards new generations, developing countries and the most vulnerable people) that must be corrected by forcing polluting companies to pay for the damage they cause, the conclusion is entirely different: 95% of the technologies needed for decarbonisation are already available. What is missing is a fair economic policy. Seen in this light, citizens have a much more active and crucial role to play: we need to form as broad a movement as possible against the powerful industrial lobbies and demand ambitious climate policies from our legislators.

However rational and practical Gates’ approach may seem, his choice to ignore unfair rules to his disadvantage rather than to fight them is far from rational.  We cannot afford this attitude. There is just too much at stake.

Techno-optimism or techno-naivety?

Technological innovations are crucial to solving the climate crisis. But one should not lapse into techno-naivety in hoping for a solution. Gates tends to exaggerate the potential of new technologies and underestimate the risks. 

For example, his company TerraPower is developing a new type of nuclear reactor that they hope will be safer, cheaper and with less waste. But it doesn’t tell us how many tonnes of CO2 they can avoid, or when, or at what cost?

At present, such a reactor exists only as a computer model. When will the first one be built? When will the first commercially viable unit be built? When will a sufficient number of such reactors be able to cause a significant reduction in emissions? It is doubtful that all this can start to happen before 2050. We cannot wait that long, and there are viable alternatives that need to be massively deployed now.

Other technologies discussed include CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage), either in the stack or in the atmosphere. The author himself believes that direct capture is too immature and expensive to contribute significantly to the solution. But he cites a National Academy of Sciences study to claim that “we will have to extract and store 10 GTCO2e each year before 2050 and 20 GT annually between 2050 and 2100″… So we don’t know how, it’s too expensive, but do we have to do it…?

According to Gates, even geoengineering is worth considering, although as a last resort. One possibility is to introduce reflective particles into the atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface. The consequences for the local climate are highly uncertain. Researchers involved in geoengineering say they hope their research will never be put into practice. It is playing Russian roulette with the planet at stake.

The political landscape

The final criticism I have of Gates’ book is what it doesn’t contain. Gates doesn’t say a word about the fundamental reason why after 30 years we still don’t have an ambitious climate policy.

The fossil fuel industry is the most powerful in the world and has excessive ties to many governments. From the very moment the scientific community discovered the causes of anthropogenic climate change, the industry has done everything it can to stop action: casting doubt on climate change and the science behind it, funding denialist think tanks, lobbying against climate measures, funding denialist political parties, misinforming the media and sowing discord within the climate movement itself. So far, these actions have achieved exactly what they set out to do: year after year, fossil fuel consumption continues to increase and global CO2 emissions continue to rise.

There should be no doubt that the fossil industry will continue its campaigns. After all, they are fighting an existential battle – a battle for their own survival. And climate activists are fighting an equally existential battle for a liveable planet. If we do not recognise this battle, we have already lost.

In the light of this reality, it is strange to see how Gates approaches the climate crisis as a simple mathematical problem: throw in a lot of R&D in order to minimise the Green Premiums. He does not see the point of Fridays for Future and the divestment movement. The political struggle that is going on with democracy at stake – with the broad citizens’ movement urging governments to put the public interest before private interests – this struggle seems to pass him by completely.

In a book that claims to offer a concrete and elaborate recipe for stopping climate change, this strikes me as very bizarre.

Finally it is very typical for Gates’ outlook that he does not take into account fundamental changes in human life styles of the Global North as a turn to sufficiency and a solidaric world. On the contrary: grasping for economic growth and even luxury are not questioned. However, he discovers his sympathy for vegan meat-substitutes. Who cares that he is already investing in this business himself?

Final thoughts on “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”

Bill Gates’ book is certainly worth reading. It is useful to know what technological innovations are in the pipeline to decarbonise our economy, even when often referring in a narcissistic manner on his own investments and innovations. But unfortunately, Gates ignores the political and economic causes of the climate crisis: the pivotal power struggle between the fossil fuel industry and the broad citizens’ climate movement, and the current economic framework that penalises climate-friendly solutions (amounting to 5 trillion dollars a year). If these issues are not resolved, no technology will be able to save us.

Therefore, I fear that the readers of “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” will be misled. It is tempting to reduce the climate crisis to a technological problem, which immediately relieves people. Not only the politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs, but also us, the civil society, of any responsibility to take action and to wait in vain for the miracle solution to appear.

Featured photo by Dominic Spohr on Unsplash