‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ is a fantastic read for people who are new to climate change. To my surprise, Bill Gates is also relatively new to the space (although he’s ahead by over a decade compared to most people!) He changed his mind on the topic in 2006 and I believe his newness to the topic led to a more accessible climate book. In the introduction he writes:
“Things changed for me in late 2006 when I met with two former Microsoft colleagues who were starting nonprofits focused on energy and climate. They brought along two climate scientists who were well versed in the issues, and the four of them showed me the data connecting greenhouse gas emissions to climate change.
I knew that greenhouse gases were making the temperature rise, but I had assumed that there were cyclical variations or other factors that would naturally prevent a true climate disaster. And it was hard to accept that as long as humans kept emitting any amount of greenhouse gases, temperatures would keep going up.
I went back to the group several times with follow-up questions. Eventually it sank in. The world needs to provide more energy so the poorest can thrive, but we need to provide that energy without releasing any more greenhouse gases.”
— How to Avoid a Climate Disaster (Hardback version, Page 7)
Bill Gates does well to avoid technical jargon in the book, and balances pessimistic realism with reasons to be optimistic. This makes the book an easy and encouraging read.
Below are some of the highlights I made in the book but the full title is worth reading if you’d like to learn more about climate change and what we can do about it.
- We add 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere annually. That’s about 1 billion a week. The warming impact is equivalent to detonating 1 Hiroshima-sized nuke every second of every day, all year round.
- Greenhouse gases are roughly composed of CO2 (76%), methane (16%) and nitrous oxide (6%). But even though methane and nitrous oxide are a smaller portion of the total, their warming impact is significantly larger. Methane causes 28 times more warming per molecule in 100 years compared to CO2. Meanwhile nitrous oxide causes 265 times more warming per molecule over a century. (See Box 3.2, Table 1 here.)
- The fossil fuel energy industry is huge and will be resistant to change. It generates $2–3 trillion of revenues a year. That’s like the GDP of a rich country. For example it’s more than the GDP of Canada or Italy, and close to that of the UK.
- The energy sector needs to urgently invest in the research and development of clean energy technologies given the climate emergency we face. However, it only invests around 0.3% to 0.4% of its revenue in R&D. The electronics and pharmaceutical industries do over 30 times that amount, with 10% or more of revenues invested.
- A small rise in global warming seems harmless but it isn’t. The Paris Agreement aims to keep it below 2.0°C relative to pre-industrial levels and ideally below 1.5°C. But if we go from 1.5 to 2.0 it won’t just be 33% worse. The damage could be 100% worse or more since climate is a non-linear system. (On a related note, researchers estimate that based “on current trends, the probability of staying below 2°C of warming is only 5%.” The temperature scale below from a book called ‘The Madhouse Effect’ shows what the impact of this could be.)
- Oil is so cheap that it’s cheaper than a soft drink. In 2020 a barrel of oil cost around $40 — that’s just 25 cents per litre. In pound sterling today that’s 18 pence, while a litre of coke at Tesco costs £1.45. (Notice that even though oil is cheap today, the price doesn’t reflect the potentially irreversible costs of climate change.)
- Around 50% of global CO2 emissions come from just 15% of the world’s countries. These are China (27%), USA (15%), EU and the UK (10%). (Bill Gates framed this slightly differently in his book, noting that “nearly 40% of the world’s emissions are produced by the richest 16% of the population.”)
- The major sources of greenhouse gases are listed below (from page 55 of the hardback version of the book).
- Cement is especially worth highlighting. The following statistic isn’t from Bill Gates’ book but it’s telling nonetheless: “If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the word,” according to Carbon Brief.
- If we transition to clean energy for all our electricity, we’d have to pay a bit more in the short term. For Americans this would be around 15% (a Green Premium of $18/month for the average home) and around 20% for Europeans.
- Transmission and distribution make up a considerable portion of the cost of electricity. Bill Gates cites that this is more than a third of the final cost. The number I found for the UK is around a fifth.
- Although solar cells are almost 10 times cheaper since 2010 (which is fantastic progress), they are starting to reach their efficiency limits. The best solar panels convert less than 25% of sunlight into electricity and the theoretical limit for current technology is around 33%.
- Lithium-ion batteries might also be reaching their peak in terms of how long they can last and the number of charge-discharge-cycles they can go through. Bill Gates believes that we can probably make batteries 3 times better but we’re unlikely to get a 50x improvement.
- Nuclear energy sounds scary. People often cite accidents like Fukushima (2011) and Chernobyl (1986) as reasons for why we shouldn’t use it for electricity. However deaths per terawatt hour (“TWh”) are far less for nuclear (0.07 people) compared to coal (25 people) or oil (18 people). (Ps. The UK uses around 1 TWh in a day.)
- The UK is currently the biggest user of offshore wind energy but China will likely take that position within a decade. (Ps. Offshore wind powers around 10% of the UK’s electricity and could be cheaper than gas by 2023.)
- Carbon capture is an exciting new technology that can remove CO2 from the air directly. However, it’s technically challenging and expensive. This is because CO2 makes up just 1 molecule for every 2,500 molecules in the atmosphere (or 3.8 per 10,000).
- Americans waste 30–40% of their food while in the UK it’s about 16–18%. (For Europe it’s 20%.)
- Since 1990 the world has lost an area of forest that’s almost 4 times the size of Germany. That’s around 1.3 million square kilometres of forest cover.
Originally published at https://michaeltefula.com on March 23, 2021.