How to avoid a climate disaster (review)

My mom put gas in her car for the first time since November and she doesn’t drive a hybrid.

The pandemic’s parked cars and planes the world over. Many of us have spent the past year working from home and we’ve gone nowhere beyond the grocery store. Yet it’s estimated that greenhouse gas emissions have only dropped by around five per cent during our global lockdown.

Here’s our collective problem. To save our kids and grandkids from a climate catastrophe, experts say we need a permanent 100 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. And we need to get to zero while keeping the economy firing on all cylinders and pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. 

“What’s remarkable to me is not how much emissions went down because of the pandemic but how little,” writes Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates in his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. “This small decline in emissions is proof that we cannot get to zero emissions simply or even mostly by flying and driving less.

“Just as we needed new tests, treatments and vaccines for the novel coronavirus, we need new tools for fighting climate change: zero-carbon ways to produce electricity, make things, grow food, keep our buildings cool and warm and move people and goods around the world.”

We’re currently pumping around 46 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. Nearly a third of those emissions come from making things like steel, concrete and plastic. Generating electricity accounts for 27 per cent. Growing crops and raising livestock represent 19 per cent. Getting around by planes, trucks, ships and cars add 16 per cent. And the remaining 7 per cent comes from heating and cooling homes and buildings.

“If a genie offered me one wish, a simple breakthrough in just one activity that drives climate change, I’d pick making electricity,” says Gates. In the absence of a genie, we’ll need a combination of affordable, zero-carbon renewable energy sources to replace the coal, oil and natural gas that currently generates most of our electricity.

Finding alternatives to the 15 billion litres of gas we consume each and every day and eliminating 46 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will be wickedly hard to pull off.

“We need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar,” says Gates. “To do it, we need lots of breakthroughs in science and engineering. We need to build a consensus that doesn’t exist and create public policies to push a transition that would not happen otherwise. We need the energy system to stop doing all the things we don’t like and keep doing all the things we do like – in other words, to change completely and also stay the same.”

Yet Gates remains optimistic that we’ll find our way to zero. He says we can avoid disaster by fully deploying the technologies we already have and creating breakthrough innovations that’ll take us the rest of the way. He’s confident enough citizens, scientists, engineers, business leaders and politicians will rise to the challenge and put up a sustained full-court press.

Gates acknowledges that “the world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do or who think technology can fix any problem”.  Yet Gates has put forward a practical and accessible plan that he’s personally backing with a sizeable chunck of his $130 billion net worth.    

“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. It’s hard to think of a better response to a miserable 2020 then spending the next 10 years dedicating ourselves to this ambitious goal.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.