"How to Avoid a Climate Disaster": the dangers of techno-optimism
Bill Gates' bestseller discusses technological solutions, but ignores the political and economic causes of the climate crisis
Bill Gates has been engaged in charity for some 20 years. The Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation originally intended to give everyone access to electricity. However, when confronted with the consequences of the climate crisis that threatened to undo his efforts, he shifted his focus to climate change. Since then he has consulted many climate scientists, inventors and engineers on how to tackle this crisis.
Gates is a self-proclaimed techie, and "How to avoid a climate disaster" has therefore become a book with a mainly technological angle. It examines how different sectors of the economy can be decarbonised - electricity, concrete, steel, agriculture, transport, heating and cooling - and identifies possible solutions. Some are already available today, others exist only on paper. Gates has invested in some of these technologies himself, including nuclear power (through his company TerraPower), batteries, direct air capture and geo-engineering.
Useful lessons from " How to Avoid a Climate Disaster "
Gates takes a no-nonsense approach, stressing the need to reduce our annual CO2 emissions from 51 billion tonnes to zero. This requires radical decarbonisation of the economy: we must find zero-emission alternatives for all the goods and services we consume. We need to decarbonize the electricity sector but also greatly increase its capacity, as electricity consumption in poor countries is rising sharply and sectors such as heating and transport need to be electrified. Due to the inertia of the energy infrastructure, we need to take the 2050 goals into account in our current decisions.
Gates rightfully reminds us of the numbers. At every step, we must ask: How many tons of CO2 will this save? What are the alternatives and how much will they cost? I would have liked to add one more question: "And who is going to pay for this?" This question - which is actually about social justice - is not addressed at all in the book, but in my opinion it is the most important question in the climate debate.
In any case, Gates' questions are important and are not asked often enough. Lack of clarity about the relative impact of different climate measures gives the impression that all measures are equal, which in turn allows governments to avoid the really difficult issues and opt for easy actions that look good in the media, but hardly reduce CO2 emissions.
A central concept in the book is the Green Premium, an intuitive and concrete yardstick to indicate how far we still are from greening our economy. Across sectors, clean technologies are still substantially more expensive than polluting technologies. Therefore, for clean technologies to conquer the market, the price difference (Green Premium) must be reduced through intensive R&D.
Criticism of "How to avoid a Climate Disaster"
Gates is right: the price difference between clean and polluting solutions is crucial if clean solutions are not only to be developed in research centres but also to be rolled out on a global scale.
However, this price difference is not only determined by the state of the technology, but also by the economic conditions. Fossil fuels are cheaper because they do not include the cost of the damage they cause. This "social cost of CO2" constitutes a price advantage of USD 5 trillion a year for the fossil fuel companies. It is people who pay the bill in the form of mortality, morbidity and increasing damage to the climate (hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, migrations...). If we were to force polluting companies to pay these costs, by introducing a CO2 tax (a carbon tax can be introduced in a socially just way, by distributing the revenues to citizens as a Climate Income), the green premiums for most emission-free technologies would already be zero or even negative.
Conceptually, it does not make much difference whether the CO2 tax is included in the Green Premium or not. In both cases the Green Premium should be reduced as much as possible. But it leads to a very different attitude. In Gates' world, salvation must come from technological miracle solutions. Ordinary citizens can only wait and hope that these technologies will become available sometime in the future. Climate activism is thus fairly pointless.
However, when seeing the climate problem as an injustice (towards new generations, developing countries and the most vulnerable people) that must be corrected by forcing polluting companies to pay for the damage they cause, the conclusion is entirely different: 95% of the technologies needed for decarbonisation are already available. What is missing is a fair economic policy. Seen in this light, citizens have a much more active and crucial role to play: we need to form a broad movement against the powerful industrial lobbies and demand ambitious climate policies from our legislators.
However rational and practical Gates' approach may seem, his choice to ignore unfair rules to his disadvantage rather than to fight them is far from rational. We cannot afford this attitude. There is just too much at stake.
Techno-optimism or techno-naivety?
Technological innovations are crucial to solving the climate crisis. But one should not lapse into techno-naivety in hoping for a solution. Gates tends to exaggerate the potential of new technologies and underestimate the risks.
For example, his company TerraPower is developing a new type of nuclear reactor that they hope will be safer, cheaper and produce less waste. It is striking that Gates does not ask his own questions: how many tonnes of CO2 can this solution save by when, and at what cost can the electricity be produced?
At present, this reactor exists only as a computer model. When will the first prototype be built? When will the first commercially viable unit be built? When will a sufficient number of such reactors be available to cause a significant reduction in emissions? It is doubtful that all this can start to happen before 2050. We cannot wait that long, and there are viable alternatives that need to be massively deployed now.
Other technologies discussed include CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage), either in the stack or in the atmosphere. The author himself believes that direct capture is too immature and expensive to contribute significantly to the solution. But he cites a National Academy of Sciences study to claim that "we will have to extract and store 10 GTCO2e each year before 2050 and 20 GT annually between 2050 and 2100"... Which gives a very mixed message: we don't know how to do this, we know it's too expensive, but we have to do it ... ?
According to Gates, even geoengineering is worth considering, although as a last resort. One possibility is to introduce reflective particles into the atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the earth's surface. The consequences for the local climate are highly uncertain. Researchers involved in geoengineering say they hope their research will never be put into practice. It is playing Russian roulette with the planet at stake.
The political landscape
The final criticism I have of Gates' book is what it doesn't contain. Gates doesn't say a word about the fundamental reason why 30 years after the first UN summits on climate change we still don't have an ambitious climate policy.
The fossil fuel industry is the most powerful in the world and has excessive ties to many governments. From the very moment the scientific community discovered the causes of anthropogenic climate change, the industry has done everything it can to stop action: casting doubt on climate change and the science behind it, funding denialist think tanks, lobbying against climate measures, funding denialist political parties, spreading fake news on social media and sowing discord within the climate movement itself. So far, these actions have achieved exactly what they set out to do: year after year, fossil fuel consumption continues to increase and global CO2 emissions continue to rise.
There should be no doubt that the fossil industry will continue its campaigns. After all, they are fighting an existential battle - a battle for their own survival. Climate activists are fighting an equally existential battle for a liveable planet. If we do not recognise this battle, we have already lost.
In the light of this reality, it is strange to see how Gates approaches the climate crisis as a simple mathematical problem – to minimize the Green Premiums - and completely ignores this political context.
Bill Gates' book gives a useful overview of the future technologies that will help us decarbonise the economy. Unfortunately, Gates ignores the political and economic causes of the climate crisis: the disproportionate power of the fossil fuel industry, the struggle of the broad climate movement to put the common interest before private interests, and the current economic framework that penalises climate-friendly solutions (amounting to 5 trillion dollars a year). If these issues are not resolved, no technology will be able to save us.
Therefore, I fear that the readers of "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster" will be misled. It is tempting to reduce the climate crisis to a technological problem - which immediately relieves people - not only the politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs but also us, the civil society - of any responsibility to take action - and to wait in vain for the miracle solution to appear.