Bill Gates Takes on Climate Change
The carbon footprint of human activity has risen to the forefront of national discussions and has become the key talking point of the recent UN summit. The pressing importance for immediate action to save our planet was highlighted by David Attenborough being chosen as guest speaker by Boris Johnson, who was chairing the summit. The election of President Biden – who values the opinions of scientists more than his predecessor and immediately re-joined the Paris Climate Agreement – has unified the global effort and strengthened the possibility of positive change.
Now, Bill Gates – the world’s richest man at the turn of the century – has added his thoughts on the Earth’s biggest threat. His optimistic outlook provides plenty to think about but is a naïve approach from a man, who himself benefitted heavily from the low-cost of fossil fuels and using a global transport network. His analysis is rather simple as he addresses five key questions that he believes are pivotal to navigate the Green Revolution.
With his business-tinted glasses, he views the challenge from a business perspective in his work How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. In his opinion, the high emissions of economic activity – quoted at 51 billion tonnes a year – can be attributed to a technology problem that needs to be solved. His optimistic outlook centres around the power of innovation and that as a society we already have some of the tools needed to achieve net zero.
Championing the use of nuclear energy – because of its reliability and scale of power it can generate compared to other renewable sources – he believes that investing heavily will be adequate to save the planet. The areas to invest in can be viewed purely on their impact to reduce emissions, presented by Bill Gates as Question 1: “How much of the 51 billion tonnes are we talking about?”. The growing importance of climate change to consumers has led to firms positively framing their reductions, for instance quoting that a new technology will reduce their emissions by 10 million tonnes sounds like a lot but is just a tiny fraction of a percent of the total global emissions.
There needs to be greater transparency to fund the technologies that can make a serious dent in 51 billion tonnes so that the limited funding is having the maximum impact to reduce emissions. For example, Breakthrough Energy Ventures only invest in companies that have clear plans on how to reduce their emissions by over 500 million tonnes, a substantial figure. Indeed, the efforts of activists such as Greta Thunberg has heaped pressure on governments and investment vehicles to accelerate the green shift. Boris Johnson’s announcement of his ten-point Green Plan and the emergence of green bonds has injected funds into the economy to prioritise carbon-neutral projects. The importance of these schemes is alluded to by Bill Gates’s analysis.
The huge infrastructure already in place for old forms of energy – coal and oil – provides them with a cost advantage over their newer competition. Questions 4 and 5 cover this problem: Q4 “How much space is needed?” and Q5 “How much is it going to cost?”. Businesses are constrained by their need to turn over a profit so new operations need to be affordable and for there to be the necessary space – a nuclear power station can’t be built anywhere. The UK government’s plan to subsidise and incentivise green technology will aid the transition and help firms to absorb the green premium added to their costs.
Consumers must also be favouring this trade off and be willing to pay the green premium, for instance seeing the price of flights increase. Greener businesses must be able to compete in order for there to be a sustainable net zero economy. The growing consumer demand for electricity and the growth of a new digital age presents ample opportunity for reductions in emissions but clean energy sources must be able to meet the demand. This is discussed in question 3 :“How much energy are we talking about?”.
For context, New York requires on average 10 gigawatts to power the whole city with a peak of double that. Therefore, the question must be asked of whether clean energy can provide this amount of energy. The unreliable energy sources of wind and solar would have to have enormous wind farms and solar panels to reliably produce 1 gigawatt so would need to be supplemented by another source. Luckily, nuclear power plants are very reliable and can run all day so large-scale investment in these sources should eventually lead to the world being powered with no carbon emissions.
Question 2 provides an interesting topic that is rarely mentioned in discussions about climate change but is present in Gates’s work because of his attention to large percentage contributors to emissions. The interesting take is “What are your plans for cement?” because building materials make up a staggering 31% of the 51 billion tonnes – more than electricity. He never addresses an answer to his own question bizarrely but simply wants to make the reader aware that to achieve net zero, every contributor must be equalled out to zero. The over-looked areas present a reality check to just how hard the task ahead is. Achieving net-zero in some sectors may be within sight but a total elimination of our carbon footprint will be challenging.
Bill Gates’s piece has a positive feeling running through it but his oversights and simplifications can be drawn out from his key questions. Climate change has only recently become the most prominent threat to civilisation and the transformation ahead shows that we are merely at the start of a Green Revolution.