What Bill Gates Gets Wrong, and Right, About Climate Change

This article was originally published by Policy Magazine.

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

By Bill Gates

Penguin Random House/February 2021

Reviewed by Elizabeth May

March 7, 2021

Can billionaires save the world? Whenever I hear of a sustainability scheme from someone both obscenely wealthy and professing big ideas, I get nervous. Take Elon Musk, for example. I am very happy that he has moved the dial on electric vehicles by making them hot and sexy. The Tesla has changed the landscape in a way the Nissan Leaf could never have done. But when Elon Musk talks about a colony on Mars, I figure he’s not banking on planet Earth remaining habitable.

Any veneration of the billionaire class makes me queasy. It may be reduced post-pandemic. During this epic crisis, we’ve not been banging our pots and pans for billionaires, but for the underpaid and marginal front-line workers — from nurses to the people who stock the supermarket shelves. Our perspective on the value of work may have changed. I sense a shift to questions about why we have a tax structure that allows so few to amass so much wealth to the obvious detriment of multitudes. The conversation about Guaranteed Livable Income is gathering momentum, as is the movement for a wealth tax.

The latest billionaire to take on a Big Question is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates with his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions we Have and the Breakthroughs we Need

Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation have done much famously good work. As a Rotarian, I am very hopeful that Rotary International, in partnership with the Gates Foundation, may actually eliminate polio — for good and everywhere.

For now, I will plunge into an appraisal of Bill Gates, climate campaigner.

For the most part, Gates has the climate issue, the science and the solutions more right than wrong. That makes this a very worthwhile book. A book by Bill Gates will be read by people who would not read a (better) climate change book by Thomas Homer-Dixon, Michael Mann or George Monbiot. With this book, Bill Gates establishes that he knows a lot more about both the climate crisis and its solutions than he used to.

Gates confesses much with a welcome transparency. He admits freely that, as a geeky, enormously wealthy man with a penchant for flying in his own private jet, he is “an imperfect messenger on climate change.” He reveals that he got interested in climate change in 2006, a fact that shocked me, as it is 20 years after the world started to notice and governments started to make pledges. He was evidently focused elsewhere for the 1992 Earth Summit, the 1997 negotiations in Kyoto, and the 2005 hurricane called Katrina. He found a reason to be concerned about climate change through his work in the developing world, realizing how desperately much of humanity needs access to electricity and coming up against a carbon-constrained world.

For the most part, Gates has the climate issue, the science and the solutions more right than wrong. That makes this a very worthwhile book.

Seeking solutions, Gates works by trial-and-error. Unlike most of us, his trial-and-error technique often involves plunking $50 million down in an investment and seeing if it falls flat or makes him another $50 million. (That’s an actual example in the book of his failed bet on a company converting biomass to bio-fuel. It sounds like an Iogen-type technology for cellulosic ethanol, but he didn’t give the details except that it was a US company. He has also invested in British Columbia-based Carbon Engineering, a direct air capture carbon removal enterprise).

What he gets right is that we have to get to zero. We emit 51 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year and we have to get to zero. What he does not adequately explore is how fast we have to do this. He makes no mention of the growing risk of tipping points to an unstoppable, self-accelerating runaway global warming crisis. He does convey urgency, but with a techno-optimist glow that left me wondering if he realizes we must cut emissions globally in half by 2030, or we lose the bet on the human race having been a good idea.

On forests, he nails it. “The most effective tree-related strategy for climate change is to stop cutting down so many of the trees that we already have.” And he correctly focuses on how critical it is that we replant the mangrove forests of the world.

My frustration was with the internal contradictions and errors that tended towards an underestimation of renewable energy’s potential. It is through those errors that the case for nuclear energy gets made. (Again, he helpfully explains his large investments in nuclear energy).

For example, on solar energy, Gates downplays how fast the price for solar photovoltaics continues to decline. New solar is now cheaper than new coal plants. Meanwhile, he makes a rookie error in calculating how much space solar will occupy by assuming vast fields of solar arrays in greenfield sites, while ignoring the obvious imperative to get solar panels on every roof possible, as fast as possible. Every time we install more solar, we bring down the price.

On solar energy, Gates downplays how fast the price for solar photovoltaics continues to decline. New solar is now cheaper than new coal plants.

In the same way, he has an internally inconsistent argument about batteries, first calculating the cost for storing renewable energy as though the only available option is lithium batteries. He calculates the cost of batteries to run Tokyo for three days at $400 billion. Pages later he gets around to mentioning the world’s current elegant technology for energy storage. It reads as an afterthought, having dismissed batteries, he throws in a page on pumped storage. It will not amount to much, he writes, because it has not already amounted to much in the United States. Had he looked to Europe, he would have seen a renaissance in pumped storage with plants of 1000MW planned for Germany, Austria and Switzerland. And they are being planned to store renewable energy from offshore wind and solar.

What he gets right is terribly important. It aligns completely with the Green Party’s plan for 60 percent cuts in GHG against 2005 levels by 2030, or Mission Possible (with the tiny modification that Mission Possible relies on soil, green things and other nature-based solutions for carbon capture):

  1. Electrify every process possible. This is going to take a lot of innovation.
  2. Get that electricity from a power grid that has been decarbonized. This will also take a lot of innovation.
  3. Use carbon capture to absorb the remaining emissions. And so will this.
  4. Use materials more efficiently. Same

This is a good time for a reasonably good climate book for an American audience. It is likely to help build a consensus for the new Biden commitment for meaningful climate action.

I do hope the folks in the Prime Minister’s Office take note and start getting ready to double targets and efforts at home.

Contributing Writer Elizabeth May, former Leader of the Green Party of Canada, is the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands.