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Book Summary: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

May 29, 2021

Welcome to my first book review/summary! I recently started using a Notion template by someone named Ali Abdaal to summarise books that I’ve read. You can find a link to that here.

So I thought I’d share what I learned from this book and give a few of my thoughts :).

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. In order to avoid a climate disaster, we need to go from today’s level of carbon emissions, 51 billions tons per year, to zero, by 2050.
  2. We can no longer shift the blame and responsibility of the crisis onto anyone else: we’ll need cooperation from the private sector, from every level of government, in nearly every country – no one of these groups acting on their own can get us there.
  3. Removing emissions from electricity production will be vital, but it won’t be nearly enough: there’s still 73% that comes from other areas.

🎨 Impressions

It’s very well-researched and well thought out, as I expected anything from Bill Gates would be. It’s a book written for the masses, with simple language used to explain concepts. I feel that it does a good job at allowing most people to come to grips with concepts that can otherwise be pretty technical and science-y.

Interestingly, the book doesn’t make any mention of regenerative farming or seaweed farming. Both of these practices have the potential to reduce emissions significantly. I suspect there are other promising technologies that had to be left out as well – there’s only so much you can fit in one book after all.

It gives a finely balanced message of hope and harsh reality: that it is possible for us, as a species, to stop emitting greenhouse gasses and avert a climate disaster. But it’s going to be hard. Really hard. We will need massive co-oporation and innovation at every level.

How I Discovered It

My wife bought the book and I gave it a read. It’s hard to pass up the opportunity when a figure as well-known and influential as Bill Gates writes a book, especially on such an important and polarising topic.

Who Should Read It?

  • Someone with an interest or curiosity in climate change
  • If you’re wondering “Just how screwed are we?”
  • If you’re wondering “What’s actually being done about this problem?”
  • If you’re wondering “What could I possibly contribute to this massively complex issue?”
  • I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone in doubt of climate science – this book assumes you’re on board with the facts (which you probably should be). It does give some facts and figures about what’s happening with the climate, but it’s not a book trying to convince you of the science. It largely goes right into what we can do about it.

☘️ How the Book Changed Me

  • It’s empowering for me to realise that as an individual, I can actually a meaningful change – but not in the way most people think. Yes, trying to make better decisions like an electric car, not eating meat and turning off light bulbs is important. But the greatest power we hold is that to influence policy, which will move the needle the most towards our goal.
  • The cost of solar has come down so dramatically that it’s now cheaper than nuclear, takes less time to build and doesn’t have any of the problems related to nuclear waste or meltdown. So I believed it was a a no-brainer win for solar. From the book: “Here’s the one-sentence case for nuclear power: It’s the only carbon-free energy source that can reliably deliver power day and night, through every season, almost anywhere on earth, that has been proven to work on a large scale.”. This has changed my opinion on how I see nuclear. I now see the a place for it in our power grids.
  • I realised that we have the technology today that we need in order to get to zero carbon emissions. But using only our current technology would be extremely expensive. This is why we need action from governments: not only to regulate and limit carbon but to spur innovation that will make these costs more palatable.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  • “In 2050, the world will need much more than three times the electricity we generate now”. This accounts for not only population growth but the fact that most people will become richer. And all of this will need to be 100% renewable
  • “Markets, technology, and policy are like three levers that we need to pull in order to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.”
  • “In short, every national government needs to do three things. First, make it a goal to get to zero—by 2050 for rich countries, and as soon after 2050 as possible for middle-income countries. Second, develop specific plans for meeting those goals. To get to zero by 2050, we’ll need to have the policy and market structures in place by 2030. And third, any country that’s in a position to fund research needs to make sure it’s on track to make clean energy so cheap—to reduce the Green Premiums so much—that middle-income countries will be able to get to zero.”

Exploring ways to get to zero:

The book breaks down humanity’s carbon-emitting activities into 5 broad categories and goes into each of them in detail.

Here’s each category’s contribution to overall emissions:

  • Electricity: 27%
  • Manufacturing: 31%
  • Agriculture: 19%
  • Transport: 16%
  • Heating & Cooling: 7%

The strategy for getting to zero in all of these areas roughly boils down to:

  1. Electrify everything wherever possible: switch from gasoline cars, gas cookstoves, gas water heats, furnaces – all to electric.
  2. Get all electricity from renewable sources: solar, wind and geothermal for example.
  3. Use biofuels and advanced electrofuels for vehicles & machines that can’t be upgraded.
  4. Use direct carbon capture to offset emissions for processes that can’t be decarbonised. E.g. fertiliser production.

📒 Summary + Notes

  • “In the next decade or two, the economic damage caused by climate change will likely be as bad as having a COVID-sized pandemic every 10 years.” If we don’t reduce emissions. One COVID-sized pandemic is enough in my lifetime, thank you very much!
  • “This long life cycle means that if we wanted to have every passenger car in America running on electricity by 2050, EVs would need to be nearly 100 percent of auto sales within the next 15 years. Today they’re less than 2 percent.”
  • “Finally, and in my view most important, we have to lower the Green Premiums. It’s the only way to make it easier for middle- and low-income countries to reduce their emissions and eventually get to zero, and it will happen only if rich countries—especially the United States, Japan, and European nations—take the lead.”. This speaks to the very important role that developed countries, particularly smaller ones like Australia, can play. “lowering the Green Premiums that the world pays is not charity. Countries like the United States shouldn’t see investing in clean energy R&D as just a favor to the rest of the world. They should also see it as an opportunity to make scientific breakthroughs”. Rather than pointing the finger at other countries’ emissions, we can see it as an opportunity.
  • “860 million people don’t have reliable access to electricity. Fewer than half the people in sub-Saharan Africa are on the grid. (IEA)”
  • “Africa, where the typical farmer gets just one-fifth as much food per acre of land as an American farmer gets. That’s because in poor countries most farmers don’t have good enough credit to buy fertilizer, and it’s more expensive than in rich countries because it has to be shipped into rural areas over poorly built roads.”
  • “we’ll soon need to produce 70 percent more food while simultaneously cutting down on emissions and moving toward eliminating them altogether.”
  • “Although emissions will shrink in many places, they will grow so much in low- and middle-income countries that the overall effect will be an increase in greenhouse gases.(IEA World Energy Outlook 2020; Rhodium Group)” – in regards to transport. These points illustrate a major challenge: we can’t and shouldn’t stop poorer countries from emitting more just because they get richer. Us richer countries have already benefitted from emitting as much as we want after all. Instead we should be focusing leading the way with innovation that the rest of the world can make use of
  • “People cut down trees not because people are evil; they do it when the incentives to cut down trees are stronger than the incentives to leave them alone.” A much less cynical view of deforestation. But c’mon, we’ve gotta stop cutting down those trees.
  • “Generally, rice plants respond to flooding by stretching out their leaves to escape the water; if they’re underwater long enough, they expend all their energy trying to escape, and they essentially die of exhaustion. Scuba rice doesn’t have that problem: It’s got a gene called SUB1 that kicks in during a flood, making the plant dormant—so it stops stretching—until the waters recede.” A development in agriculture that I found really interesting. Especially relevant living in a country where the rice production can really be improved.
  • “What we can do—and need to do—in the next 10 years is adopt the policies that will put us on a path to deep decarbonization by 2050.”
  • “In short, every national government needs to do three things. First, make it a goal to get to zero—by 2050 for rich countries, and as soon after 2050 as possible for middle-income countries. Second, develop specific plans for meeting those goals. To get to zero by 2050, we’ll need to have the policy and market structures in place by 2030. And third, any country that’s in a position to fund research needs to make sure it’s on track to make clean energy so cheap—to reduce the Green Premiums so much—that middle-income countries will be able to get to zero.”
  • “If we keep our eye on the big goal—getting to zero—and we make serious plans to achieve that goal, we can avoid a disaster. We can keep the climate bearable for everyone, help hundreds of millions of poor people make the most of their lives, and preserve the planet for generations to come.”

 

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