Getting to Zero Emissions

A short review of Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

When someone famous for their achievements in one field of human endeavour offers opinions on some unrelated topic, it is wise to treat their views with a degree of scepticism.  So it was with some caution that I approached Bill Gates’ new book (1).  How much credence, I wondered, should be given to the views on climate change of a software entrepreneur and philanthropist?

Having read the book, I have no hesitation in recommending it as a survey for the lay reader of the problem presented by climate change and, as its subtitle puts it, the solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need.  And I would add that this is a topic on which everyone is in some respects a layperson: no one could possibly be an expert in all of the relevant fields, which include climate science,  energy, engineering, agriculture, economics and behavioural science.  Although I have some criticisms, I commend the book for its broad focus and for its judicious combination of science and common sense.

Central to the book is the claim that developed countries should aim for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and middle-income countries as soon as possible thereafter (p 35).  The case for zero is set out in detail in Chapter 1.  In essence, failure to reduce emissions to zero will mean that the world will progressively get hotter (pp 18-24), and that would have all kinds of dire consequences (pp 25-34), and indeed be disastrous if zero is not achieved by 2050 (pp 35 & 196).  The case for not aiming for zero earlier than 2050 is simply that it isn’t feasible (p 196): supporting argument is implicit in much of the rest of the book which shows that to get to zero we need not only to achieve numerous technological breakthroughs but also to implement them on a very large scale.

If zero is our goal for 2050, how should we measure progress towards that goal, and what intermediate targets should we set?  These questions are briefly but tellingly addressed in Chapter 11 (pp 196-7).  For a country which generates lots of electricity from coal, replacing coal-fired power stations by gas-fired ones is an effective way of reducing its emissions.  What it is not is a step towards zero emissions (2).  It also risks diverting funds away from investment in zero-emission technologies, and creating pressure to allow the gas-fired power stations to continue operating beyond 2050 so as to obtain a satisfactory return on investment.  For zero emissions, electricity will need to be obtained without reliance on fossil fuels (or just possibly from fossil fuels with full carbon capture and storage).  Progress towards zero should therefore be measured in terms of the development and implementation of zero-emission technologies.  Although Gates does not develop the point, there seems to be the basis here for a critique of international agreements which set short-term country-level targets for reductions in emissions.

Discussions of climate change abound in figures and comparisons which, even if accurate, are presented without enough context to make them meaningful.  Gates uses figures well, stating at the outset that the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions are currently 51 billion tons (p 3), and using that figure to put proposed means of reducing emissions into context (p 53).  He shows a healthy scepticism based on rough but reasonable calculation for ideas which, however desirable in themselves, are unlikely to make more than a very small contribution to meeting the goal of zero emissions.  While accepting that we should plant more trees, for example, he calculates that to plant enough trees to absorb the emissions produced by the population of the US would require about half the world’s land area (p 129). 

Chapters 4 to 8 consider in turn the difficulties and possible solutions in getting to zero emissions in respect of electricity generation, production of goods and infrastructure, agriculture, transport, and heating and cooling.  These chapters achieve a good balance between readability and inclusion of just enough technical detail to show how complex the issues are and how big the challenges.  Gates evidently relishes learning about the detail: he talks of “following closely” a company developing molten oxide electrolysis for emission-free steel production (p 110), and of a visit to a fertilizer distribution centre in Tanzania as a “kind of trip I love” (p 121).  The main conclusion is stark.  Although we have some of the technologies needed to get to zero, we need to invent many new technologies (p 158) and make them affordable for middle-income countries (p 199).

Making a personal selection from the book’s list of nineteen necessary technologies (p 200), I will mention:

  • Emission-free hydrogen production for use in storing electricity (pp 93-4) and in transport (p 139);
  • Emission-free cement production for use in concrete, an essential product in much infrastructure (pp 98-100);
  • Plant- and cell-based meat and dairy food to reduce emissions from agriculture (pp 119-121);
  • Improved nuclear reactor designs, because electricity from nuclear fission is proven to work, emissions-free, and does not suffer from the intermittency of sources such as wind and solar (pp 84-87).

To improve our chances of achieving the technological breakthroughs we need, the book advocates a massive increase in relevant R&D, with developed-country governments making big bets on high-risk high-reward projects and leaving safer investments to the private sector. 

Deployment of emissions-reducing technologies, whether existing or new, is also crucial, and to encourage this the book recommends a combination of standards and market-based incentives (pp 206-8).  In respect of standards for clean electricity and clean fuel, it makes the important point that standards should be technology-neutral, that is, they should specify a goal (eg that utilities must obtain so much of their electricity from emissions-free sources) but allow any technologies that delivers that goal.  In advocating a carbon price, it emphasizes that the purpose is to raise the price of fossil fuels and other products that generate emissions so as to make emissions-free alternatives more competitive, with both the choice between a carbon tax and cap-and-trade and the use to which the resulting revenues are put being somewhat secondary issues.  Most economists would I think broadly agree on these points. 

Perhaps as a consequence of Gates’ enthusiasm for technological matters, the book seems to me to underplay the seriousness of the behavioural and political issues involved in getting to zero.  Regarding plant- and cell-based-meat, he notes that many US states have tried to ban these products from being labelled as “meat”, and concludes that there will be a need for “healthy public debate” about their regulation, packaging and sale (pp 120-1).  I wouldn’t like to predict what the outcome of such debate might be.  And if, to get to zero, we need not only to develop lots of new technologies and then implement them at scale, but also to find time for public debates along the way, that’s quite a lot to fit in to the 29 years to 2050.  Another example is his suggestion of border carbon adjustment as a policy towards countries refusing to join international agreements on climate change and  (p 215).  Such a policy has difficulties in its own right (3) but, more fundamentally, would also be subject to the need to look at relations between countries – which may involve a variety of trade, security and political issues – in the round. 

I would also like to have seen some discussion of population growth as a contributory factor in increasing emissions.  It is true that the highest growth rates are in poor countries with low levels of emissions (4), but those countries may not always be so poor.  Many countries with significant emissions levels also have growing populations, and could consider financial incentives for smaller families as a climate change policy (the emissions due to people who are never born are zero).  Moreover addressing climate change should not be at the price of letting poor countries remain poor so that their emissions will remain low.  We need to address both climate change and poverty, and aid programmes offering improved access to family planning in poor countries can surely make a contribution to both?

These are minor criticisms.  If you are only going to read one book on how we should address climate change, or if you are a librarian who can only afford one such book for your public or school library, this would be an excellent choice. 

Notes and references

  1. Gates, Bill (2021) How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions we Have and the Breakthroughs we Need   Penguin Random House LLC
  2. Combustion of coal which is mainly carbon produces mainly CO2, while combustion of natural gas which is mainly methane (CH4) produces a mixture of CO2 and water.
  3. See for example Cosbey A (2012)  It Ain’t Easy: The Complexities of Creating a Regime for Border Carbon Adjustment https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2163203
  4. For population growth rates by country see https://www.indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?v=24

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