How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, a present from Bill Gates

How I’d like to be Bill Gates! And I’m not saying that because of his looks. Not even for his money. It is because he is dedicated to the subjects he likes, he is immensely lucky to be able to get to know them thoroughly with the best specialists and has the real opportunity to change things for the better. No wonder he conveys that image of true happiness. And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this vital success is born as a project within a family.

1.- Bill and Melinda Gates. As a computer genius and co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates has an interesting track record that has been the subject of multiple analyses and documentaries, (one very peculiar is Malcom Gladwell’s approach to OUTLIERS). But his life calls me much more since, in 2000, he and his wife Melinda founded the BILL & MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION. This Foundation deals with what I think are really transcendent projects. And it does so, moreover, with the best judgment: immediate aid to the undelayable, such as infant mortality in the Third World; and smart investment in the future that can prevent such evils: education, vaccines and climate change. Needless to say, his project is a success, both in the field of infant mortality and in raising awareness and encouraging future projects. I am particularly struck by THE GIVING PLEDGE initiative, which promotes the public commitment of billionaires to devote most of their fortune to philanthropy. Since 2010 it has already had 219 accessions.

2.- The book. Zero emissions by 2050. Bill Gates has now just published the book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, the Solutions We Already Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. It aims to be an action manual to call for the ultimate fight against climate change. Gates conducts a comprehensive analysis of the situation of the fight against climate change and the disaster that awaits us to continue this path. And he’s proposing an ambitious plan to reach zero emissions by 2050. The book does not fall into political, social, or system criticism, but makes a possibilistic approach aimed at all potential actors of change: scientists, politicians, investors, businesses, citizens, etc… It is a call to action, with real and proven proposals to achieve the solution.

It is not a book for deniers, because it does not try to convince that there is climate change: Gates acknowledge the scientific consensus on the subject and, therefore, parts from the undisputed reality that the emission of greenhouse gases by human activity causes a constant increase in temperatures that, if not urgently reversed, will be between a degree and a half and three degrees in 2050 and between four and eight degrees in 2100 , which will have incalculable catastrophic consequences. From there, Gates gives us a broad and perspective on what we already know about the causes of greenhouse gas emissions and points to what we need to achieve a level of zero emissions that ends climate change.

In its informative aspect, the book explains that we see 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually and analyses in detail the five large groups of activity that produce those gases: (i) the manufacture of materials such as steel, cement or plastic, which, in addition to the electricity needed to manufacture them, releases 31% of greenhouse gases during handling , (ii) electricity, which generates 27% of gases, (iii) agriculture (fertilizers) and livestock (farts and poop) generate 19%, (iv) displacement (aircraft, trucks, freighters), responsible for 16%, and (v) heat and air conditioning, which causes 7%. One of the great lessons of Gates’ essay is that there is not a single cause of the greenhouse effect and that if we do not face them all at once we will not be able to stop it. Electric cars and wind and solar power fields are not enough: handling iron to create steel or burning lime to make cement causes as much or more damage than all vehicle traffic. Gates is committed to a fight on all harmful gas generation fronts.

In the solutions section, the book reviews possible approaches to achieve zero emissions in each of the groups, analyzing the state of science in each of them. Gates explains it simply, but a tremendous work behind it is discovered, of active search for solutions and analyses that have some chance of being useful for the zero emissions target by 2050. The book discusses all the alternatives to the processes that generate greenhouse gases and the bonanzas and weaknesses of each system. For example, it discusses alternatives to burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, such as wind and solar energy, but also points out its problems, which are intermittent production and predation of territory. More interesting have been to me, because I do not knew them, the analyses of the other harmful processes, such as the use of fertilizers in agriculture, the manufacture of cement, the droppings of pigs and the gases of cows, etc… Bill Gates, with the help of the experts, proposes solutions for each of them. Some very obvious, such as solar and wind power; others of science fiction, such as carbon capture and geoengineering, which is to prevent so much sunlight from reaching Earth; and other controversial, such as the indispensable commitment to nuclear energy.

3.- Ideas. We could highlight three recurring ideas in Gates’ analysis:

  • First of all, the book is essentially realistic: it neither proposes miracle recipes, nor does it make illusions or false ideas about reality. Gates is clear that energy consumption will not be reduced in the coming years. On the contrary, it will grow tremendously as developing countries access new industries and commodities like the ones we enjoyed in the first world, (global energy consumption is projected to have increased by 50% by 2050). And it’s also clear that it’s not going to be easy, not easy at all, neither will be cheap to get zero emissions. Hence the need for the plan he proposes.
  • Second, Gates’ strategy is a constant commitment to innovation: Bill Gates has found that the problem of climate change is much more than power plants and transportation, and that making electric cars and using renewable energy does not solve half the problem, so either we really move forward in the many other fields (agriculture , livestock, cement manufacturing, etc…), or we will never reach the goal of zero emissions, or anything approaching it. And the problem is that technological advancement in these matters is in diapers.
  • Finally, Gates’ assessment is markedly possibilistic. Bill Gates shows us a possible path and focuses not on problems, but on solutions. Among the many data it provides us, the book includes dozens of examples of old and current initiatives that allow us to believe that a solution is possible. Bill Gates has faith in people and technology, and just as he explains it in the book, he might be right!

4.- Concepts. I also stick with several concepts that come to stay in the fight for climate change. Not everyone is from Bill Gates, but in his book he rightly contextualizes them:

  • Zero net emissions in 2050. It is the goal to achieve that Gates marks by weighing the urgency of achieving it, which is great, with the real chances of reaching it. The goal is zero net emissions, i.e. to extract as much carbon from the atmosphere as we emit.
  • Green Premiums. The additional cost of emissions-neutral alternatives compared to those we now use. For example, the additional cost of one kilowatt of wind power versus one kilowatt produced by a coal-fired power plant.
  • Carbon footprint. It is the actual amount of harmful gases generated throughout the process of manufacturing, distributing and consuming a product. On this total value it is on which we must consider the comparison with neutral solutions, since most products are not responsible for their own emissions and therefore have a competitive advantage over green alternatives, which do care for the emissions they produce.
  • Comprehensive plan to reach zero. There are hundreds of activities that generate harmful gases and therefore alternatives will have to be found to each and every one of them. There are hundreds of approaches to getting the alternatives and therefore we will have to work on all of them to reach zero.

5.- The worst-case scenario. As the book is realistic, it also reserves a section for the worst-case scenario. Which won’t be if we don’t reach zero emissions in the 2050s, but if predictions about how many gases we’ll emit until 2050 fail. On such a complex issue, there are possibilities that are difficult to assess, but scientists point to turning points that could accelerate climate change and trigger a real irreparable catastrophe, such as the unlikely but possible expulsion of methane in immense quantities from crystalline structures at the bottom of the oceans that could be broken down by rising water temperatures. It gives you a good thought. If there’s one thing the current pandemic has taught us, it’s our turn to work on preventing catastrophes. without going crazy, but acting with elementary prudence that should guide any human activity. I don’t think we can pretend that climate change doesn’t exist or isn’t important. If we were Even if we were very lucky, and climate change did not really happen, or its would get solved by its own, or its consequences would be less than those envisaged, we can’t  just sit and wait for that to happen: if the scientific community agrees that there is a climate change and that we can do something to avoid its catastrophic consequences, it is our duty to work to avoid them.

6.- A final thought on the book.

The exhibition is more enjoyable than might be expected on such a technical matter and rather pedagogical and easy-to-follow. What I liked the most are its naturalness, a contagious optimistic mood, its notes of humor and, above all, its solidarity and seeking justice fund. Gates constantly repeats that we must protect especially the most disadvantaged, who are the ones who will suffer the most from climate change and who have contributed the least to it. In fact, in the book Gates criticizes nothing or anyone, talks about politicians in positive terms, applauds activists’ actions, neither blames anyone or demonizes industries or consumer practices. Up to a limit: the only moral demand it poses in the whole book is to protect the most disadvantaged. I totally agree.

Anyway, I’d say it’s a book like Gates himself: lucid, simple, passionate, optimistic, generous and timely. Very timely. I can’t deny that I liked it. Both the book and the initiative. For me it is a great symbol of hope and a comforting sign about the future. Not only because he is a man who has everything, who is happy, who has guaranteed good life for himself and his descendants for generations, and still decides to work and expose himself socially and publicly for a collective purpose. But especially because he decides to do it humbly and as service to others: with the best specialists that can be found he has prepared a plan for us to avoid the disasters of climate change. It was not his obligation, he did not owe it to us, but he still offers it to us.

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