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Bill Gates vs Climate Change

The climate. You probably know a thing or two about where it's heading (somewhere bad), but you're not entirely sure how to improve it. After all, you're just one person. Do actions like recycling and using smart energy meters make that much difference? Is there a right and a wrong way to improve the environment?

These questions and more are the focus of How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, written by the one and only Bill Gates.

The Microsoft co-founder is also one of the leading voices in the fight against climate change, and his book is a powerful and informative piece of writing which brings some stark realities to life. It's not all negative, though, with How to Avoid a Climate Disaster providing a comprehensive look at the current state of the global climate crisis along with potential solutions.

A black footprint with a cartoon globe and stars on the sole, and "CO2" written on the heel.

A Challenge Like No Other

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity today. Every year, the world adds 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which is contributing to global warming.

To stop this and avoid the worst effects of climate change, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster reckons it might be a clever idea to stop adding these gases to the atmosphere. Yes, it's a huge task that requires changes in every country and in almost every aspect of modern life. But there is cause for hope.

Gates states that we already have some of the tools needed, and with new technology being developed, it's possible to make a change before it's too late.

As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, cities around the world will need to adapt to survive. According to How to Avoid a Climate Disaster:

"Urban areas are home to more than half the people on earth — a proportion that will rise in the years ahead — and they're responsible for more than three-quarters of the world's economy.”

As they expand, many of the world's fastest-growing cities end up building over floodplains, forests and wetlands.

One solution is to protect and restore natural defences. Gates notes that:

"Forests store and regulate water. Wetlands prevent floods and provide water for farmers and cities. Coral reefs are home to the fish that coastal communities depend on for food. But these and other natural defences against climate change are rapidly disappearing."

Restoring these ecosystems offers a significant payoff, with water utilities in the world's largest cities potentially saving $890 million a year just by restoring forests and watersheds.

Another important issue is the availability of drinking water, or the lack thereof. As climate change causes lakes and aquifers to shrink or become polluted, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to provide portable water to everyone who needs it.

Most of the world's megacities already face severe shortages. If there's no change by mid-century, the number of people who can't get enough water at least once a month will rise by more than a third.

New sources of money will need to be found to fund these necessary adaptation projects. Gates believes that "we have to make adaptation an attractive investment" and that the public sector will have to "play a role in both financing adaptation projects and drawing in private sector investment".

It's All in the Policy

Governments play a crucial role in shaping the energy market and addressing the challenges of climate change. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster underlines this:

"In addition to cleaner air, smart energy policies have given us the following: electrification, energy security and economic recovery."

One example of a successful government policy is the electrification of America in the early 20th century. The book explains that in 1910, only 12% of Americans could get electric power in their homes. Yet by 1950 more than 90% had electric power in their homes, thanks to efforts like federal funding for dams, the creation of federal agencies to regulate energy and a massive government project designed to bring electricity to rural areas.

Another example is Germany's feed-in tariff for solar power, which has helped drive down the cost of solar-generated electricity by 90% since 2009. In his book, Gates says:

"Germany gave the market a boost by offering low-interest loans to install panels and paying a feed-in tariff — a fixed government payment per unit of electricity generated by renewables — to anyone who generated excess solar power."

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster notes that energy is a highly regulated and capital-intensive industry, so it's important for governments to find ways to make clean energy an attractive investment. One way they can do this is by creating jobs and spurring investment by putting money into renewable energy, energy efficiency, electricity infrastructure and railroads.

This could play a significant role in companies being able to commit to measures aimed at helping save the planet.

A cartoon depiction of a TV debate, where the two debators are shaking hands. Behind them a sign reads 'Climate Change'. One debator says 'happening' and the other replies 'fact'.

Einstein, What's the Plan?

What is important now, says Gates, is achieving deep decarbonisation by 2050 through the gradual elimination of carbon-emitting fuels. This is crucial for tackling the issue of climate change, and the policies adopted in the next decade will determine whether we can achieve our goals or not.

But it's not as simple as saying, "let's do deep decarbonisation". Gates even says that:

"Making reductions by 2030 the wrong way might actually prevent us from ever getting to zero."

This is because the strategies we use to achieve small reductions by 2030 are vastly different from those we would use to reach zero emissions by 2050. Therefore, it's essential to focus on the long-term goal of zero emissions rather than short-term targets.

Again, this is where governments have a crucial role to play in this process. The book suggests that governments should quintuple clean energy and climate-related research and development (R&D) over the next decade.

Additionally, they should make bigger bets on high-risk, high-reward R&D projects and work with industries from the beginning, such as:

  • Creating incentives that lower costs and reduce risk

  • Building the infrastructure that will get new technologies to market

  • Changing the rules so new technologies can compete

  • Putting a price on carbon

But it's not just down to governments. As individuals, we also have an important role in tackling climate change, with Gates saying:

"Engaging in the political process is the most important single step that people from every walk of life can take to help avoid a climate disaster."

Gates is talking about us all making calls, writing letters and attending town halls to advocate for climate action. We can all make a difference by looking locally as well as nationally, and knowing who our representatives are in office.

We also have a role to play as consumers and can help the fight against climate change by signing up for green pricing programmes with our electric utility companies, reducing home emissions, buying electric vehicles and trying a vegan diet.

Employees and employers can also make a difference by seizing initiatives like setting up an internal carbon tax, prioritising innovation in low-carbon solutions and engaging in the policy-making process while taking advantage of government-funded research.

Working Together

When governments, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies came together on COVID-19, the world made remarkable progress, developing and testing vaccines in record time.

The same approach should underpin the fight against climate change. Conversely, if rich countries only focus on lowering their own emissions and don't work to make clean technologies practical for everyone, the goal of zero emissions will become truly out of reach.

But Gates is in positive spirits, believing the answer lies in science. Just as many different sciences were used to understand and combat COVID-19, he says it's now time to "draw on a variety of disciplines, including engineering, physics, environmental science, economics and more”, to develop solutions to climate change.

Perhaps most importantly, these disciplines need to create solutions to meet the needs of the hardest hit by climate change.

The numbers behind climate change are sobering, but How to Avoid a Climate Disaster offers a glimmer of hope while showing that support for action to tackle climate change remains high. Gates believes that:

"This is a moment to seize the momentum and focus on the technologies, policies and market structures that will put us on the path to eliminating greenhouse gases by 2050.”

Let’s hope he’s right.


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