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Microsoft mogul Bill Gates offers a pragmatic approach to achieving greenhouse gas targets

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

Bill Gates
272 pp.
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Bill Gates is not a climate scientist. In his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, he explains that he came to climate science indirectly, via issues of energy poverty that arose as part of his health and development work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “I am aware that I’m an imperfect messenger on climate change,” he writes: “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.”

Yet Gates clearly has an appreciation for the technical aspects of climate change and its potential solutions. His expertise, gleaned from interactions with climate scientists, glaciologists, energy scholars, agriculture experts, and others, is apparent in the book’s lucid explanations of the scientific aspects of climate change. The solutions he outlines are pragmatic and grounded in forward-thinking economic reasoning. Although he does not avoid the hard truths we must face as our climate changes, Gates remains optimistic and believes that we have the ability to avoid a total climate disaster.

The book’s five logically organized sections establish a road map for moving forward. The first chapter explains why we need to get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, rendering the abstract concept of 1° or 2°C warming tangible with a description of the devastating effects such a temperature increase would have on a relatively prosperous farmer in Nebraska and a subsistence farmer in rural India. The farmers are hypothetical, but the scenarios Gates describes—crop failures, economic ruin, a mass exodus from agrarian occupations—are all too real.

Reaching net-zero emissions will not be easy. Not only is the global population increasing, people are living longer and standards of living are improving, leading to greater demand for energy and materials. It would, of course, be “immoral and impractical to try to stop people who are lower down on the economic ladder from climbing up,” argues Gates. But can we find a way to support economic development without adding carbon emissions to the atmosphere?

Gates divides greenhouse gas–emitting activities into five sources: “making things”; “plugging in,” or generating electricity; “growing things,” including agriculture and livestock farming; “getting around”; and “keeping warm and cool.” He uses this framework to evaluate various emissions-lowering strategies, assessing the “Green Premium” that makes lower-emissions solutions more costly than fossil fuel technologies and explaining how government policies and incentives can help amortize these costs.

Gates argues that there are three key components necessary for reducing emissions: robust climate policies, new technologies and companies to develop zero-emissions solutions, and markets consisting of the financial institutions and investors that support these companies. These components, he maintains, must work in a complementary manner. Policies to stimulate research and development expenditure, for example, can lead to development of new technologies. Investors and markets can ensure that the technologies are scaled up. At the same time, it is critical for policies to be shaped by new technologies and to ensure that regulations keep up with technological advancements.

In the book’s final chapter, Gates lays out specific actions that each of us can take to help mitigate climate change, from being a more engaged citizen to being a more informed consumer, with specific advice on reducing household emissions, switching to an electric vehicle, and setting up an internal carbon tax for businesses.

Gates includes an afterword on COVID-19, making the case that many of the lessons we have learned from the pandemic—the need for international cooperation, the importance of letting science guide our actions, the understanding that solutions should be designed to meet the needs of those who suffer most—also apply to climate change. We are at a critical juncture, he argues, and must commit to investing in new policies, market structures, and technologies over the next decade if we are to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. “It’s hard to think of a better response to a miserable 2020 than spending the next ten years dedicating ourselves to this ambitious goal,” he concludes.

About the author

The reviewer is at the California Institute for Energy and Environment, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA, and the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, London SW7 1NE, UK.