This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster" by Bill Gates. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What is Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster about? What is the key message to take away from the book?
In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates asserts that we need to find ways to produce more energy without emitting greenhouse gases and further warming Earth’s atmosphere. To this end, Gates uses his experience in the technology industry to highlight feasible technological innovations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and includes suggestions for their implementation.
Below is a brief overview of How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need
In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates presents a practical discussion of climate change informed by his experience as a tech mogul and philanthropist. Gates frames the climate problem simply—we’re emitting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This extra carbon dioxide is heating the planet and threatening the lives and livelihoods of people worldwide. We need to act quickly and collectively to reduce global carbon emissions to zero to avoid catastrophic changes to life as we know it.
(Shortform note: Bill Gates’s sense of urgency echoes that of the United Nations. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that emissions need to peak within the next three years and be reduced to roughly half their current level by 2030 to stave off the most extreme impacts of climate change, including more fires, droughts, and damaging storms.)
We’ll start this guide with an overview of how carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming and some of its impacts on humans.
Fossil Fuels and Global Temperature
Advanced and developing economies rely heavily on fossil fuels (primarily coal, oil, and natural gas) and the energy they release during combustion. Fossil fuels power manufacturing, electricity generation, transportation, agriculture, and almost all activities of daily living in advanced economies. The problem is that burning fossil fuels for energy releases carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. Because of their molecular structure, greenhouse gases trap heat that would otherwise radiate out to space in Earth’s atmosphere. The higher the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the more heat is trapped and the warmer the Earth becomes; hence the term “global warming.”
Note: Carbon dioxide is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Gates often uses the term carbon or carbon dioxide as a catch-all for the warming potential of all the major greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases) converted to their equivalent warming potential as carbon dioxide.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels skyrocketed in the mid-1800s when fossil fuel usage took off during the Industrial Revolution. Today, humans pump around 51 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere yearly. As Gates explains, this additional carbon dioxide has led to an average global temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, with the potential to warm by four to eight degrees by the end of this century. A few degrees may not sound like a lot, but for context, Gates notes that there’s only a six-degree difference between the average temperature now and during the last ice age.
The Effects of a Warmer Atmosphere
Our understanding of the impacts of global warming continues to evolve as scientists collect more data and as we experience them firsthand. Still, there’s no question that global warming affects ecological communities worldwide. We’ll introduce some of the well-documented impacts of global warming Gates highlights in the book and some of his related cautions and recommendations.
Changing Weather Patterns
The warmer atmosphere has caused long-term temperature and weather shifts, also known as climate change. For example, we now experience more frequent and intense heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and storms. By the year 2050, Gates cautions that billions of people will personally experience the destruction of wildfires, drinking water shortages, or property damage from heavy storms and flooding.
Rising Sea Levels
The warmer atmosphere is causing sea levels to rise due to melting glaciers and ice caps (land-based ice that runs into the ocean as it melts) and thermal expansion in the ocean (water expands as it heats up). Gates notes that rising sea levels can be devastating for coastal communities because of storm surges, flooding, saltwater contamination of freshwater reservoirs, and loss of habitable land.
(Shortform note: In 2022, researchers projected a foot of global sea level rise by 2050, whether carbon dioxide emissions are reduced or not. This additional foot of baseline sea level means coastal communities can expect ten times more damage from flooding and more powerful and dangerous storm surges. Additionally, the report suggests that we can expect sea levels to rise between three and seven feet by the end of the century if emissions continue to increase.)
As the climate changes, different parts of the world will face new and worsening health risks. For example, Gates notes that as the Earth warms, mosquitoes will expand into new areas bringing diseases like malaria with them, and heat stroke will become much more widespread and deadly as extreme heat and humidity worsen.
Global Warming Isn’t a Reason to Halt Development
Gates explains that the impacts of global warming will only get worse as we continue to emit more carbon into the atmosphere. While efforts to reduce emissions may postpone the worst effects, our only viable option is to figure out how to continue producing energy on a global scale without increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (we’ll refer to this as carbon-less energy production). Specifically, Gates estimates that wealthy countries must stop adding carbon to the atmosphere by 2050, with developing countries following shortly after to avoid catastrophic warming.
(Shortform note: The UN’s IPCC 2022 report provides more specific 2050 emissions benchmarks than Gates includes in the book. According to the IPCC, to keep climate change at bay and avoid an extreme version of the impacts we discussed in the previous section, the world needs to reduce coal consumption by 95%, oil consumption by 60%, and natural gas consumption by 45% by 2050.)
While Gates stresses the urgent need to curb emissions, reducing global energy demand isn’t part of his plan for addressing atmospheric carbon dioxide. He reminds readers that there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because people are using energy to live healthier, longer, and more comfortable lives, which is a good thing. Therefore, it would be unreasonable and unjust to halt development, particularly in emerging economies, because of the climate crisis. In fact, we should expect energy demand to increase significantly over the coming decades as developing economies invest in industry and infrastructure and living standards improve.
The Five Major Sources of Carbon Dioxide Emissions
We’ve established that the world will need more energy in the coming decades and discussed the importance of producing that energy without emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Gates’s framework for addressing the global warming problem begins by dividing the major sources of carbon dioxide emissions into five categories. These categories (and their corresponding percentage of overall emissions) are manufacturing (31%), electricity generation (27%), agriculture (19%), transportation (16%), and heating and cooling (7%). Next, we’ll examine Gates’s commentary on the current state of each category and some significant challenges and opportunities for curbing emissions.
(Shortform note: Though he doesn’t describe it in these terms, we can think of the five emissions categories Gates introduces as akin to a society’s carbon footprint. The term “carbon footprint” describes an individual’s total greenhouse gas emissions, often divided into categories such as transportation, energy use at home, diet, and so on. According to the Nature Conservancy, the carbon footprint of the average American is 16 tons. However, to avoid “catastrophic” climate change, they suggest that figure should drop to two tons by 2050. You can try the EPA’s carbon footprint calculator here.)
Gates explains that the cement and steel used to build infrastructure are the primary sources of emissions in the manufacturing category. Producing one ton of cement and one ton of steel generates one and 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide, respectively, and the world uses a lot of them. For example, the United States produces 600 pounds of cement and 600 pounds of steel per person every year, and between 2001 and 2016, China used nearly 26 billion tons of cement alone. The quantity of these materials that go into constructing roads, bridges, and buildings make them major greenhouse gas sources.
(Shortform note: The global cement and steel production figures are even more staggering. In 2020, the world produced over 500 pounds of steel and 9,000 pounds of cement per person.)
Reducing cement and steel emissions is problematic because the technology for carbon-less manufacturing on a large scale doesn’t exist yet. Still, the demand for these building materials will increase as the global population grows. Gates explains that our most viable yet imperfect option is to keep the process roughly the same but capture the carbon dioxide before it reaches the atmosphere. Unfortunately, while this technology exists on a relatively small scale, it can’t capture all the carbon dioxide emitted, and it makes both the manufacturing and the final products more expensive. Since the options for carbon-less manufacturing are limited, using materials as efficiently as possible and recycling materials is especially important.
Electricity Generation (27%)
According to Gates, generating electricity without emitting carbon dioxide is the most critical step to eliminating carbon emissions because non-carbon electricity can also help reduce emissions in all other categories. For example, electric cars reduce emissions in the transportation category, and electric heat pumps can reduce emissions from furnaces in the heating and cooling category. As of 2021, fossil fuels account for two-thirds of electricity production worldwide, with hydropower contributing 16%, nuclear 10%, and renewable sources (including solar and wind) 11%. Gates highlights solar and wind as promising renewable/non-carbon energy sources. We’ll briefly discuss each.
Solar is one of the most widely used and growing renewable electricity sources. Solar has obvious appeal in that the sun is an unlimited source of energy, and solar panels can be scaled up to industrial size and down to individual homes and businesses or even tiny cells that can charge a single device. However, Gates notes that solar also has significant limitations, including:
Efficiency. Gates explains that at current efficiency levels, solar takes up between five and 50 times more space than fossil fuels. This limitation is especially significant considering that land devoted to solar energy production won’t be available for other uses like farming and housing.
(Shortform note: One way to address solar’s space-efficiency problem is to change where we put solar panels. The United States only puts 2.5% of large-scale solar projects in urban areas. The rest are in deserts, cropland, grassland, and forests, where they disrupt local ecosystems and preclude other land uses. A promising alternative is to put large solar facilities in existing parking lots where they can generate power near where it’s needed, save space, and provide shade in areas that can otherwise be extremely hot.)
Discontinuous Availability. Gates notes that one of the biggest challenges in carbon-less electricity generation is the public’s expectation that electricity will be reliably available 24/7. Unlike fossil fuels that generate energy day or night, solar panels only produce electricity when the sun is shining, meaning less power is available at night, during long or especially heavy storms, and during winter.
The challenges of discontinuous solar availability add to the complexity of a large-scale switch to solar. For example, Gates notes that it isn’t feasible or economical to use existing battery technology to store the huge amounts of energy cities would need during especially dark periods. Additionally, the uneven distribution of sunlight throughout the year creates the problematic question of whether to invest in enough solar panels for the winter (in which case you’d have too much power during the summer) or summer (in which case you wouldn’t have enough power in the winter).
(Shortform note: Space-based solar power is a futuristic yet potentially viable option for addressing solar intermittency issues. Since sunlight is constant in space, scientists from the US, UK, China, and Japan, among others, are working on ways to have satellites in outer space collect solar energy and beam it wirelessly back to Earth. Some think this technology might be viable within the next decade.)
Technology coupled with strategic pricing can help address the challenges of discontinuity. For example, “smart homes” could be outfitted to use electricity to charge electric vehicles, heat water, and perform other tasks during off-peak hours, such as late at night. Additionally, Gates notes that utility companies could start charging more for electricity during peak hours to create an incentive for people to restructure their energy use based on availability.
(Shortform note: Americans collectively waste $130 billion of energy around their homes yearly. Since heating and cooling represent the bulk of residential energy use, smart home technology can be especially helpful in reducing energy waste and lowering heating and cooling bills.)
Wind and Offshore Wind
Wind-generated electricity faces many of the same challenges as solar. Gates notes that windmills take up ten times more space than solar and have similar reliability challenges (the wind doesn’t always blow). Additionally, Gates explains that the lengthy and complex permitting process for installing offshore wind turbines in the United States is a deterrent to widespread adoption.
Another challenge facing wind and solar power is that they’re location-specific, whereas fossil fuels can be shipped and used anywhere. Making a significant switch to wind or solar would necessitate a large-scale and coordinated update of electrical grids and power companies so that renewable energy generated in one location could be used in another. However, this would also necessitate crossing state or even national boundaries, adding political and economic complexity to the task. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are easy to transport and our existing infrastructure is set up for their transport and use.
(Shortform note: The transportation of fossil fuels may be relatively easy compared to renewables; however, transporting fossil fuels is a major source of emissions in and of itself. Much of the global shipping industry’s revenue comes from shipping fossil fuels, and fossil fuels also power virtually all large shipping vessels. Problematically, emissions in this sector are growing despite global efforts to reduce atmospheric carbon. Representing the emissions of the global shipping industry as a country would make it the sixth largest emitter in the world!)
While Gates advocates pursuing and improving all of the renewable energy sources discussed above, he notes that our best chance of achieving non-carbon electricity generation is to combine the above options with nuclear power. This would provide many benefits:
- Reliable and consistent electricity generation: Nuclear doesn’t have the discontinuity problems solar and wind face.
- Non-carbon fuel source: Nuclear reactors run on uranium, a non-carbon and relatively abundant fuel source.
- Less material-intensive to build: Nuclear reactors are the second-most materials-efficient type of power plant we can build, bested only marginally by natural gas. Therefore, making the reactor itself emits less carbon dioxide than other energy sources.
Gates recognizes public hesitancy to pursue large-scale nuclear power due to the dangers of radioactive waste, the potential for a nuclear reactor meltdown, and uranium’s role in producing weapons of mass destruction. However, he notes that the idea that nuclear is an unsafe option is flawed. Nuclear power has resulted in fewer deaths per unit of energy produced than coal, oil, biomass, or gas. Additionally, Gates notes that new technology promises to make nuclear meltdowns a near impossibility. Therefore, he explains that reducing the threat of global warming will likely necessitate a more widespread acceptance of nuclear power.
Raising livestock generates most of the emissions in the agriculture category. Animals such as cows, sheep, and goats generate methane in their flatulence, and animal manure (particularly pig manure) generates nitrous oxide. Both of these greenhouse gases have far more warming potential than carbon dioxide. Additionally, when we clear land for livestock the carbon stored in the trees and disturbed soil is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
As people around the world become wealthier, their dietary preferences shift toward consuming more animal products, driving up the carbon footprint of their diet. This trend, combined with global population increases, will substantially increase the demand for animal-based food. As a result, if current trends hold, emissions in this category may increase by two-thirds in the coming decades. While Gates doesn’t expect people to give up meat entirely, he encourages readers to eat fewer animal products to help curb greenhouse gas emissions.
(Shortform note: A 2021 study published in Nature re-estimated greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector and compared emissions from plant-based and animal-based food production and consumption. The data show that food systems emissions actually make up roughly 35% of global emissions, higher than previous estimates and higher than the 19% Gates proposes in the book. Additionally, this study suggests that emissions from animal-based food are nearly double those from plant-based food; 57% and 29%, respectively. These findings add weight to Gates’s suggestion of eating fewer animal products to reduce our carbon footprints.)
Transportation accounts for 16% of emissions worldwide, but Gates explains that it’s the biggest source of emissions in the US, with roughly half of those emissions coming from personal vehicles. Without a large-scale shift to electric cars and carbon-less electricity to charge those cars, we can expect emissions from personal vehicles to increase as car ownership becomes more common globally.
The two most significant barriers to reducing personal transportation emissions with electric cars are the availability of carbon-less electricity (if we use fossil fuels to generate the electricity used to charge the car then we’re just swapping one fossil fuel for another) and the purchase cost of an electric vehicle. However, Gates estimates that the price of an electric car will be similar to the price of a gas-powered car by 2030, and sooner should gas prices increase.
Nearly a third of the remaining global transportation emissions come from large trucks and buses, as well as another 10% from cargo and cruise ships and 10% from airplanes. Unfortunately, these larger vehicles are more difficult to electrify because current battery technology is 35 times heavier than gas and would require vehicles to make frequent recharging stops. The resulting loss of efficiency makes current battery technology impractical for large vehicles. Gates notes that nuclear-powered ships are a carbon-free option and cites advances in alternative fuels as a promising solution for trucks and planes.
(Shortform note: A 2022 report by the Environmental Defense Fund takes a more optimistic view on the future of large electric vehicles. The study found that it will be cheaper to buy and maintain electric freight trucks and buses than those powered by combustion engines by 2027, largely because of advances in battery technology coupled with more affordable prices. Large companies are already switching to electric trucks: Amazon recently purchased 100,000 electric trucks, UPS is purchasing 10,000 electric delivery vehicles, and FedEx aims to be fully battery-powered by 2040. In contrast, the USPS sparked outrage in 2022 when it announced that it would continue to purchase thousands of gas-powered delivery trucks.)
Heating and Cooling (7%)
Heating and cooling technology improves people’s quality of life in moderate temperatures and can be the difference between life and death in extreme temperatures. Gates expects the global demand for air conditioning to triple by 2050 as wealth increases in emerging economies and extreme heat becomes more dangerous. Ironically, the more the planet warms, the more air conditioning people will use, further exacerbating global warming (this is another reason Gates stresses the need for carbon-less electricity).
Efficiency can help curb emissions in the heating and cooling category. Gates estimates that emissions from air conditioners could be reduced by half if people purchased the most efficient models available. Additionally, since most furnaces and water heaters currently run on fossil fuels, Gates suggests switching to electric heat pumps as another way to increase efficiency and reduce emissions. However, since a new furnace or water heater is an expensive and infrequent purchase, he notes that this large-scale switch is likely to take a long time without compelling consumer incentives.
The Roles of Governments, Private Entities, and Individuals in Curbing Carbon Emissions
We’ve discussed Gates’s ideas about why carbon dioxide emissions are problematic, where they come from, and the challenges and opportunities we face in addressing them. Next, we’ll cover Gates’s discussion of the roles governments, private entities, and individuals must play if we hope to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050.
According to Gates, the most meaningful reductions in carbon emissions will start at the highest levels of government because they can create and enforce the large-scale policies needed to achieve significant carbon reduction quickly. However, Gates recognizes that enacting change at the highest levels of government is challenging for many reasons, including:
Entrenched Systems: Our current systems are set up for fossil fuels. A switch to carbon-less energy would necessitate modifications at every level of government, from international trade agreements and economic policies to physical infrastructure (including a new national power grid) and building codes, down to outfitting individual homes for renewable energy sources.
(Shortform note: As Gates explains, fossil fuels have been the default energy system in many highly developed economies for decades. However, the Biden administration has taken steps to dissuade other nations from taking the same path. In 2021, the Biden administration announced that the United States would no longer finance “carbon-intensive” overseas energy projects (defining “carbon-intensive” as 250 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour). While some argue that this policy, shared by multiple European countries, is hypocritical, it shows that fossil fuels are no longer so entrenched as to be a “given” when it comes to new energy projects.)
Changing Administrations: Turnover is a significant challenge for climate activism in government because different elected officials and administrations have different agendas, priorities, and methods. Therefore, it can be difficult to enact meaningful climate policy and see it through before terms run out or political priorities change.
(Shortform note: One of the most widely publicized examples of changing climate priorities in recent years is President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2019, and President Biden’s rejoining of the agreement in 2021. The purpose of the agreement is to hold countries accountable for keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by reducing carbon emissions. President Trump withdrew from the agreement on the grounds of prioritizing the economy, while President Biden rejoined, citing the climate as a top priority.)
Lack of Funding: Gates explains that only .02% of the global economy is currently directed toward climate-related research and development. Given the potentially devastating impacts of global warming, Gates suggests that this figure should be much higher.
Note: To Gates, government hesitancy about investing in carbon-less energy is nonsensical. Instead, he explains that governments should be rushing to invest in climate-related technology because any green technology that can outcompete fossil fuels in price and efficiency will be guaranteed a massive international market.
(Shortform note: Gates puts the injustice of climate change front and center in the book, and discrepancies in climate-related spending are a measurable example of this disparity. For example, Ethiopia is on track to spend 5.6% of its GDP adapting to the damaging impacts of climate change every year until 2030, despite only producing 0.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita. For context, 0.2 metric tons is roughly 1.4% as much carbon dioxide as the average American produces (calculated based on 2019 values). Similarly, South Sudan, the second poorest country in the world, will need to spend $376 million (3% of its GDP) on climate-related challenges, despite contributing virtually nothing to the climate problem.)
The Cost of Shifting to Greener Energy Sources: Markets favor fossil fuels because they’re cheap relative to other energy sources. Additionally, governments have historically subsidized fossil fuels to keep prices down instead of pushing the market towards carbon-less alternatives. Gates explains that governments should take an active role in making green energy affordable because once carbon-less energy can match or beat fossil fuel prices, addressing global warming will make financial sense whether individuals, businesses, or countries are committed to reducing emissions or not. For example, governments could:
- Increase the cost of carbon-emitting products to reflect the damage they cause
- Subsidize or create other incentives to help consumers choose greener products
- Enforce new emissions standards for products and companies so that producers have to make lowering emissions while keeping prices affordable a priority to stay in business
(Shortform note: The cost of shifting to greener energy sources is decreasing around the world. According to BloombergNEF, which tracks market transitions to a low-carbon economy, it’s now cheaper to build and run wind and solar power plants for 46% of the world’s population than it is to build new coal or gas-fired power plants. For example, in China, India, and Germany, new solar farms are cheaper than producing energy with coal, and the same is true for wind power in Brazil, the UK, Poland, and Morocco.)
Local Government and Private Business
Local and regional governments and businesses can help curb carbon emissions by factoring them into local standards, regulations, and budgets. For example, public utility companies should invest in renewable energy and subsidize efforts to make carbon-less energy affordable and feasible for their customers. Additionally, Gates notes that as consumers, governments and businesses have more power to shape the market than individuals because of their size. Therefore, they should support green products or companies whenever possible. For example, a local municipality could invest in a fleet of hybrid school buses.
(Shortform note: Involvement from state governments and local businesses is one of the reasons more people are investing in solar panels in the US, where the solar industry has grown 10,000% since 2006, and the cost of solar has decreased by 70% since 2014. Many state governments drive solar prices down by providing state tax credits for solar panels. Additionally, local utilities around the country are making solar more affordable by offering customers rebates on their energy bills or paying their customers a fixed amount per kilowatt-hour their solar system produces.)
Gates recognizes that a large-scale shift away from fossil fuels will benefit the planet but may devastate some families and communities when fossil fuel industries downsize and jobs are lost. Therefore, local governments must be proactive in assessing what a shift toward carbon-less energy will mean for their constituents and make a plan to support them.
Lifestyle changes such as reducing energy consumption at home, purchasing an electric car, and consuming fewer animal products are valuable because they reduce our carbon footprint and, more importantly, send a message to the market about what consumers want. However, Gates explains that our individual efforts to reduce our emissions have little impact on global warming. Instead, the most important thing individuals can do to reduce carbon emissions is engage in the political process. Gates stresses the importance of voting for elected officials and policies that prioritize the climate, becoming active in local politics, and running for office.
(Shortform note: As Gates explains, access to energy, particularly electricity, is associated with a higher quality of life. However, many of us could stand to use less energy. A 2022 study from Stanford was able to pinpoint just how much energy people need to maximize their health using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as benchmarks. Their results indicate that people need 75 gigajoules per year, and no more, to maximize their quality of life. For context, the average American uses 284 gigajoules per year. Therefore, in addition to Gates’s call to get involved in the political process, many of us could cut back significantly on our energy consumption and carbon footprints with no ill effects.)
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- Bill Gates's technology-based strategies for reducing global carbon emissions
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- The roles governments, private entities, and individuals must play to save the planet