Well, no surprises here. I knew I would like the book, and I did. What I did not expect was how much I’ll learn from the book. Like a true nerd, Bill Gates does a great job making nerdy puns and putting back-stories in parentheses. The book is not too long either, so go ahead and read the book if you care about the planet and your future generations.
The book starts off by describing how we contribute to greenhouse emissions. Then Bills turns to explain how we might better adapt to the changing climate and provide some concrete ways in which individuals, the government, and corporations can help us get to zero net emissions.
There are essentially five ways in which we contribute to a changing climate.
1. How We Plug In
If you are alive today, I’m sure you are aware of the number of gadgets/utilities that we plug in every single day. Just look around you, and notice how many gadgets need to be plugged in for them to work. Now, picture this in your mind - what if there are billions of such devices that need plugging in. I’m not making that up, in fact, we use a lot of electricity, and hence we need to solve this problem of plugging in on our way to zero emissions.
Clearly, we will not stop plugging in these gadgets just because it is hurting our planet. That is not our thing. But, what we can do is generate zero-emission electricity. In theory, this sounds simple - just generate clean electricity, and we are done. However, as we shall see a little later, that is not exactly it.
Location is going to matter more than ever. This has always been a thing. I wrote about it in my book note on “Utopia for Realists”. Where you live does matter a lot, be it in terms of opportunities or how much emissions you emit every year. Developed countries emit much more per person than people in countries like India, Bangladesh, and the rest of South-East Asia. Their energy use per person is also much more than ours. However, they will not stop using energy just because of climate change, nor would we, so we must find new ways of generating energy that emits net-zero carbon.
2. How We Make Things
We emit greenhouse gases (1) when we use fossil fuels to generate the electricity that factories need to run their operations; (2) when we use them to generate the heat needed for different manufacturing processes, like melting iron ore to make steel; and (3) when we actually make these materials, like the way cement manufacturing inevitably creates carbon dioxide.
To be honest, this section blew my mind. I did not think about how ubiquitous fossil fuels are. They touch every sphere of our lives. Plastic, cement, paper, and everything you can find around you involve some form of fossil fuel in their life cycles. They are so common and subtle that it is hard to make out which ones have fossil fuel in their life cycle and which ones don’t. A good rule of thumb is to assume that everything - yes everything, around you right now uses some form of fossil fuel.
Elementary science tells us that using fossil fuels emit many greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. Hence, we should get rid of fossil fuel emissions. But, since fossil fuels are so ubiquitous, they are cheap too. Would you use a fuel that costs $5 \times$ the current fuel derived from fossils? (Side note: the price is still sky-high in India, but ok.) For most people, the answer would be no. So, markets and governments need to incentivize the switch.
3. How We Grow Things
Agriculture also contributes to greenhouse emissions. This is even a worse dilemma. To get to zero, you might naively say, “Just get rid of agriculture.” Well, if we did that, then what is going to feed the growing population? We have had many agriculture innovations over the years, like the invention of fertilizers and crops that can yield more. However, fertilizers themselves are made from fossil fuel derivatives, which contribute to climate change.
Moreover, you need to have climate change-resistant crops. Otherwise, if crop yields suffer because of climate change, millions of people would starve to death. So, we must develop innovations to make crops climate-resistant so that even if some expected natural disaster happens, famines don’t occur.
With agriculture, the main culprit isn’t carbon dioxide but methane–which causes 28 times more warming per molecule than carbon dioxide over a century–and nitrous oxide, which generates 265 times more warming.
If we want to get near net-zero emissions, we’re going to have to figure out how to grow plants and raise animals while reducing and eventually eliminating greenhouse gases. This is really important to do - the world won’t stop consuming food, neither would the population stop growing (not at least soon).
4. How We Get Around
The way we get around from place to place contributes a lot to greenhouse gas emissions, unsurprisingly. So, it is essential to get these emissions to zero. One very promising idea is to use hydrogen as fuel. However, to manufacture hydrogen, we need carbon, and yep you guessed it – that contributes to greenhouse emissions.
One is to do less of driving, flying, and shipping. But, this would result in even more undesired consequences. How would the global economy function without shipping containers carrying goods without people moving around to do their jobs? So, not doing what we’ve been doing does not make sense. Sure, we can do less of it. Still, even then, the emissions would be pretty massive, so we need innovations to actually emit net zero emissions even with everyone moving around.
Another way to cut down on emissions is to use fewer carbon-intensive materials to make cars begin with-although that wouldn’t affect the fuel-based emissions.
The third way to cut down on emissions is to use fuels more efficiently.
Even if you’re burning less gasoline, you’re still burning gasoline.
The fourth-and most effective way we can move toward zero emissions from transportation: switching to electric vehicles and alternative fuels. Although this sounds like a viable alternative when you factor in the costs, many people would still prefer cheap gasoline cars. However, the market can drive innovations, and eventually, if enough people make the switch, we’ll have impacted transportation.
5. How We Keep Cool and Stay Warm
Ironically, the very thing we’ll be doing to survive in a warmer climate-running air conditioners-could make climate change worse. Air conditioners emit a lot of greenhouse gases when they are running. The freon inside refrigerators is a combination of toxic chemicals that are harmful when released into the air.
Even though the average number of air conditioners per household is nothing compared to the West, families across Asia choose to get air conditioners. This increase in number contributes directly to emissions. It would be unfair to say to a poor country that its citizens can’t use air conditioners because then climate change would worsen.
No, we cannot stop improving people’s lives. What innovators can come up with solutions like smart ACs that consume less power and emits minimal greenhouse gases. However, here also, the cost factor is decisive. People prefer to buy up-front cheap AC than purchasing a more expensive, better-rated AC that would save them money in the future. Here also, Bill Gates talks about how innovation and markets can shape the landscape. The more people move to innovative ACs, the cheaper the price would become, and overall it’s a win-win for the Earth.
Rich and middle-income people are causing the vast majority of climate change. The poorest people are doing less than anyone else to cause the problem, but they stand to suffer the most from it.
Markets, technology, and policy are like three levers that we need to pull to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.
Innovation is not just a matter of inventing a new machine or some unknown process; it’s also coming up with new approaches to business models, supply chains, markets, and policies that will help new inventions come to life and reach a global scale. Innovation is both new devices and new ways of doing things.
Unfortunately, the conversation about climate change has become unnecessarily polarized, not to mention clouded by conflicting information and confusing stories.
To sum up, Bill proposes what he thinks the world needs to do to mitigate a climate disaster:
First, we need international cooperation.
Second, we need to let science-actually, many different sciences-guide our efforts.
Third, our solutions should meet the needs of the people who are hardest hit.
Finally, we can do the things that will rescue economies from the COVID disaster and spark innovation to avoid a climate disaster.
We should spend the next decade focusing on the technologies, policies, and market structures that will put us on the path to eliminating greenhouse gases by 2050.
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