How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions we have and the Breakthroughs We Need

Date Reviewed
August 24th 2021


The name of the author, 'Bill Gates', will do as much to sell the book as the subject and material. But his renown as an entrepreneur and technological innovator coupled with his philanthropy should not detract from his well-earned expertise demonstrated across many fields.


It is not the specialty of official education and career, but more akin to that of a well-informed journalist. He has an ability to read and absorb huge amounts of complex material readily, such that he brings much knowledge to any interview with experts.


And his cachet and wealth open doors for interviews with almost anybody he wants to talk to. One he credits early in the book is University of Manitoba scientist, historian and energy economist Vaclav Smil.


The book 'How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions we have and the Breakthroughs We Need' focuses on the technological which is his area of practiced expertise.


He clearly states the goal of his recipe as stopping all 51 billion tonnes of annually released greenhouse gases, ideally by 2050, and certainly by the wealthy countries. Elimination and not reduction is the goal. His strategy revolves around innovation and implementation of both new and refinement and perfection of ideas already proven. While at first glance his goal of 2050 may seem long and too generous to make a crucial difference. But his goal is net zero and he is not so much interested in incremental steps and the accolades that politicians might crave, but the big technological advances needed in half a dozen areas.


Somewhat surprising to me, is that he barely speaks of any sacrifice in standard of living or reduction in use of resources. He does talk about sealing houses to prevent heat and cool loss, and driving electric cars, but not much beyond that.


His section on electrical generation was especially interesting, not only in how much would be needed the advantages of each option and the place for them, but one idea I have not heard much about, is space for generation.


That is how much space/land has to be devoted to each form of electric power generation. Notably solar and wind require more space than water and particularly nuclear for the same amount of power.


While electric makes sense in private transportation (cars, motorcycles etc), batteries are too heavy for the power/weight ratio needed for airplanes, trucks and ships and Gates does not expect innovation to help sufficiently there.


He also makes it clear that the wealthy countries are the ones with the facilities and finance and best able to make sacrifices initially, followed by the middle income countries and later the poorer countries. This distribution of responsibility allows the poorer countries to take advantage of innovation more easily financed by the wealthy. He also expects the wealthier to help with the costs for the poorer.


Understandably his book focuses on the issues from the American perspective and each country has a different mix of origins of GHGs. As an example, Canada has comparatively little from electrical generation, where it is a significant factor in the U.S.


And a self-effacing admission by an admitted 'technophile'.....“The world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do, or who think technology can fix any problem.”


He has recently started using “sustainable jet fuel” in his private planes. And he does put money into and owns some companies working on innovations.


He starts a chapter with the rationale for getting to net 'zero' (emissions) with the fact that one fifth of the GHGs put into the atmosphere will still be there in 10,000 years. Soberingly “there are no realistic paths to zero that involve abandoning these fuels (fossil) completely or stopping all the other activities that also produce GHGs (like making cement, using fertilizers, or letting methane leak out of natural gas power plants). Emissions will continue, but the goal is to be able to capture them, he says.


Gates says a 50 per cent drop in emissions would postpone, but not prevent a climate catastrophe. Getting beyond any more emissions and into removing some already emitted will be necessary.


Some GHGs, such as mwthane trap more heat, but don't stay around as long.


Of course the problem is not confined to increasing heat and rising seas. In the case of oceans, some areas are getting more oxygen and some less, meaning fish move or die off.


Gates compares the impending deaths and misery from climate change with the pandemic we have been experiencing, but happening regularly.


He says that a global pandemic increases death by 14 per 100,000 and by the end of the century climate change would boost it by 75 per 100,000.


Amid the pressure to reduce emissions is the contradiction....a currently buoyant worldwide lifestyle where more people are getting healthier, richer and living longer.. Currently 40 per cent of emissions are produced by the richest 16 per cent of the population, without considering emitting products produced elsewhere but consumed by that segment of the population.


He points out that while the U.S. might like to think the shift from coal to natural gas was for the environment, it was economic.


The energy industry is so large and mature that its inertia restricts the rate of change as compared to the computer industry that can change rapidly, says Gates.


He points out that people tolerate little risk in the energy business, hence work on nuclear installations dropped precipitously from accidents, yet hardly at all for coal which kills many more people. “There is a strong incentive to stick with what we know, even if what we know is killing us.”


Compounding this ossification are old out of date regulations not designed for the present needs. In addition, election cycles compromise the ability to respond to climate change. And this uncertainty increases the reluctance of private industry to invest.


And while there is strong consensus among scientists on the trajectory of events, it is not shared by the same proportion of people, he adds. Many people concede that climate change is an issue yet insist on focussing on issues such as health and education that have a more direct and imminent impact on human welfare, he says.


“We need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar” and politically tricky global consensus is needed.


To put the needed 51 billion tons per year into perspective, the much maligned air traffic contributes about 17 million or 0.03 per cent of the emissions.




Gates company, 'Breakthrough Energy', funds technologies dealing with 500 million tons or one percent annually. Smaller sources should not compete for limited resources, he says.


Transportation contributes about 16 per cent worldwide and passenger cars less than half of that.


Making steel and cement account for about 10 per cent each. He reminds people the problem is much more than electricity and cars.


The allocation he puts forward are; making things 31 per cent, plug in electricity 27 per cent, growing things 19 per cent, transportation 16 per cent and heating and cooling seven per cent.


Clean electricity has the potential to be one of the “easiest” areas to make improvement, he says., because it involves so many aspects. He calls reliable electricity without emissions “the single most important thing we must do to avoid a climate disaster”.


He supplies a graph that quantifies electricity: 5,000 gigawatts, the world, 1000 gigawatts, the U.S., mid-sized city one gigawatt, small town one megawatt, American house one kilowatt. New York uses 12 gigawatts and Tokyo 23.


Gates says more attention should be given to the space, whether land or water, needed to produce electricity under the options available. 'Power density' is the term. Solar is considerably more dense than wind, but he cautions that doesn't mean better, just a consideration for decision. A solar farm needs between five and 50 times more land to generate as much electricity as a coal plant and a wind farm needs ten time more space than solar, says Gates.


Until the environment is considered, the choice is 'what is cheapest?'. The cost between the price paid and the cost for environmental protection, Gates calls the “green premium' and this becomes a base consideration in his thesis, which attempts to determine full cost. As an example, if it were available, the green premium for jet fuel would be over 2.5 times current fossil fuel price.


Determining the green premium is, or could be, a way to grasp the cost of net zero carbon options. And from there determining what people are willing to pay for what. It can also be used to determine progress.


Another term he adds is 'direct air capture' (DAC). It is largely a technology still in development, but involves removing carbon dioxide from the air. Currently it is estimated to cost $200 per ton, that may come down to $100. Worldwide that would amount to six per cent of the world economy. While large, says Gates, it is still less than reducing emissions by shutting down large segments of the economy.


Ultimately it is will likely be cheaper not to emit.


He believes the green premiums should be low enough for middle income countries to pay.


Things are not as simple as they first seem, he cautions. A dam over carbon rich soil may lead to methane that more than overcomes gains made by not using coal for the electricity generation. Carbon capture around a fossil fuel plant in some cases may be the better option.


The price flexibility available in the U.S. seems large since only about two per cent of the GDP goes to electricity.


The demand for electricity may double or triple by 2050 as efforts are made to electrify such demands as cars and steel making and the population grows and more are richer and want to use more electricity.


With power plants centralized near cities, the “power” for electric plants in the form of fossil fuels was brought physically. Under the 21st century regime much more will be moved by the electricity infrastructure grid which will likely have to expand both for the increased electricity demand and to replace the loss of physical movement of fuel to the plants.


The grid will have to extend to the renewable sites where the electricity is generated. This enhancing of the electrical grid will mean a doubling to each house to meet demands for cars and heating. It means more and heavier wires.


There will be more pressure to put them underground, which will require innovation for heat dispersal, says Gates, and that will cost.


Without large amounts of nuclear, he says, there will be a need for as much solar and wind as can be built and room found for. And it will have to be built 5 to 10 times faster than currently. Solar and wind won't be enough.


Nuclear is the only carbon free source that can reliably deliver power day and night essentially any where on earth, he adds. Nuclear plants also require less space and building materials for the amount generated than almost any other source.


Fear of the few rare accidents has caused a hiatus on developing the nuclear systems. He says it is crucial to resume exploration of this aspect for energy.


Currently fission is the process used, while fusion, the most ideal, remains elusive.


Most of the “renewable” options are limited by time, place and space.


Storage of electricity is another conundrum. Gates relates that there is little optimism that batteries can be made significantly better than they are now. Improved by a factor of three may be possible, but not 50. Utilizing liquid, rather than solid metals, may be one enhancement.


Gates points out that there are many ideas and they don't all have to pan out to get a workable solution.


Cement, steel and plastics are among the major basic manufacturing materials and emitters and carbon is a component of the product and integral to the production of cement and steel. And the trend is to more of all of them. Manufacturing of primarily these, but others, is responsible for about one third of emissions. Steel making alone accounts for about 10 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions and cement is close behind and is harder to get around.


China is by far the major producer of cement.


The big three all remain cheap because fossil fuels are cheap, he says, and with other manufactures account for about one third of emissions.


The strong bond in plastics between carbon, hydrogen and oxygen is why they take so long to break down. It also means it is a long time before the carbon gets back into the atmosphere.


In many cases, getting buyers to pay the green premium price may depend on regulation and not just incentives.


Gates suggests that innovation may lead to plastics being a carbon sink rather than an emitter.


In agriculture, animal raising is the major factor in emitting GHGs, but it is methane and nitrous oxide not carbon dioxide.


And while shortage of food is lessening as people get richer they will want more meat which creates more emissions and the growing of more food to feed the animals. Cattle contribute about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide or four per cent.


Emissions from cattle varies with where they live. South American cattle produce about five times as much as North American cattle and African even more. This may be a function of breed, veterinary care and feed.


Food wasted contributes about 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Waste in North America approaches 40 per cent and about half that in most of the rest of the world.


Much of the quantity of food now is a function of synthetic fertilizer and without it the world population has been estimated to have been 40 to 50 per smaller. Much of the fertilizer is nitrogen and less than half is taken up by plants leaving the rest as pollution and eventually nitrous oxide emissions.


And then their is the increasing carbon dioxide by the removal of Amazon rain forest for cattle pasture. Removal of trees means stored carbon gets released, he said.


“The most effective tree-related strategy for climate change is to stop cutting down so many of the trees we already have.”


While transportation is number four in emissions worldwide, it is number one in the U.S. and possibly also in Canada. And, says Gates, we are not likely to give up fossil fuels without a replacement that is as cheap. Growth in the transportation sector is in aviation, trucking and shipping.


Currently, says Gates, a comparable electric vehicle in the U.S. costs 10 cents per mile more than a gasoline vehicle with less for maintenance, but more for purchase price and insurance because it costs more. In Europe, the electric is cheaper because gasoline is so much more expensive.


Outside of direct electricity, biofuels are an option along with electrofuels, but both have a high “green premium”. But something akin to them will be required for planes, trucks and ships, which would require batteries too heavy to make the system work on electricity


Pound for pound, the best lithium-ion battery today packs 35 times less energy than gasoline, he says. Electricity will work for short distances, but not heavy long haul trucks. The cost situation is worse for planes and even worse for large ships. Nuclear may be an option for container ships.


Here Gates does suggest less use of these forms of transportation.


Heating and cooling is another big user. In the U.S. the air conditioner demands the most electricity. However, furnaces and water heaters are on more, and demand more electricity overall. While demand for heating may decline that for air conditioning is likely to grow with more heat and more people able to buy air conditioners. One prediction has it tripling by 2050.


Demand can be modified, as much as 45 per cent, says Gates, if more efficient appliances are demanded.


Where the climate is not extreme, Gates sees furnaces and air conditioners being replaced by electric heat pumps.


Gates speaks about the need to prepare poor farmers in poor countries to withstand the stresses of climate change. Innovations here need to include more flood and drought resistant variants of crops.


He also addresses the need to have more emergency responses in place for floods, storms and fires. And this should consider worst case scenarios as a result of “tipping points”. This needs to extend past the immediate crisis into a system that helps people recover their position.


City planners should start offering growth solutions for the weather stresses predicted. These may include protecting more urban forests and wetlands. One example, he cites, is planting mangrove along coastlines as cheaper protection than breakwaters, while offering water purification services.


He hopes that non profit and government adaptive efforts will show opportunity for private investments.


He points out that some actions may not demonstrate good things, but may be the reason that some bad things don't happen, which might have been provoked by desperation.


Several times Gates refers to the pandemic as a preview of dangers presented by climate change.


While a late resort consideration, geoengineering should be studied as a desperate action. While there are many critics of manipulating the climate this way, it may be the only way to reduce temperatures over years or decades. And critics should be reminded that we have gotten into this position by “experimenting” with excessive use of fossil fuels.


Gates delves into the needs for government policies appropriate to conditions now and those expected. As a business person in the 1980s and 90s he resented regulation, but has gone past tolerance to welcoming and encouraging more of it.


He is also a big booster of government research and development, cognizant that profit orientation of private firms will not consent to do groundwork in science when there is no profit foreseen.


However, when basic research lays the groundwork for application, business can step in and build the product, bring it to market and reduce costs. The government has to invest in R&D when the private sector won't.


“We need government to play a huge role in creating the right incentives and making sure the overall system will work for everyone.”


Gates is in favour of progressively increasing the price for emitting greenhouse gases to better reflect the cost to society, but do it in a way to increase the incentive to reduce emissions.


Since we are doing the easier stuff fast enough, he says there is lots of room to make improvements, short of the major innovations.


He describes markets, technology and policy as “three levers” that have to be pulled in the same direction at the same time. This in order to encourage innovation, spark new companies and get products to market.


He believes that more countries than just Russia and China should be working on advanced nuclear companies. Gates also owns one such company.


Gates believes the wealthy countries getting down to net-zero emissions by 2050 is possible. He thinks fossil fuels are too fundamental to our way of life to get to zero much sooner.


He doesn't believe in incremental reduction steps, but instead commit to getting to zero by a set date. He sees the first goal is net-zero emissions electricity and from there electrifying more services.


Encouraging innovation should be a guiding principle in all areas and technologies aimed at zero emissions. Government R&D should be risk taking and aggressive. And government policies should be predictable so that people and companies can plan around them. Policies and regulations instituted for technologies of the past should be brought up to date.


While many crucial technologies are still in development onshore wind, solar and electric vehicles are in the “scale up phase”. Gates hopes that people start buying electric cars as fast as they bought clothes dryers and colour TVs when they became available.


He favours a price on carbon whether carbon tax or cap and trade. The market signal is the most important aspect, not the revenue charged or where it goes. At some point, the price may be equal to the cost of carbon capture.


Then he wants performance standards set on emissions for producing products and retiring old ones.


One reference to Canada has its public making it clear it doesn't want to pay more for gasoline, heating fuel and other basics.


Gates does try to present the going green as an economic opportunity for those who position themselves to take advantage of it. Among the big opportunities are net zero cement, steel and a liquid fuel.


While people can take individual actions to limit emissions, Gates advises becoming a political activist in the cause as the best action, because it is large systems that need to change. Demand more R&D, clean energy standards and a price on carbon along with regulations to help the cause.


Gates describes himself as an optimist because he knows what technology and people can accomplish.

He expects the transition will be disruptive for communities built on traditional industries in oil and gas, coal, cement and steel making.


Governments should make it easier for green premium products to compete with traditional.


He is an internationalist on the project believing that countries need to co-operate to help others meet standards.