Book review: How to Avoid a Climate Catastrophe by Bill Gates

Book Review 

How to Avoid a Climate Catastrophe: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.  by Bill Gates, 2021, Knopf. 257 pp.

Reviewed by Anne Lambert, April 22, 2021

I don’t expect a non-fiction book to be a page-turner, but this one was.  Bill Gates has written a succinct analysis of where we are in tackling climate change and where we need to go.  The book is a model of clear, simple writing on matters technical and socioeconomic.  

Gates has the advantage that he can sit down with top experts in any field and he has the capacity to assimilate large amounts of information.  His two decades of philanthropic work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has familiarized him with the plight of the developing world’s rural poor who have contributed only slightly to climate change but stand to be its worst victims.  He understands business and finance—something that can’t be said for all environmentalists.  And he is actively involved in green tech R&D and is the founder of Breakthrough Energy, a network of investors working to develop “net-zero energy”.  Where he is less strong is in fully taking in the role nature-based climate solutions can play.

As he looks in turn at how we (in Gates’ words) plug in, make things, get around, and keep cool or stay warm, he calculates the “Green Premium”, which is the added cost of going to zero emissions, and he points to R&D that might lower it. The green premium might double or triple the price, but it is usually much smaller and can even be negative (a cost reduction), as with the use of heat pumps in place of oil and gas furnaces and air conditioners.  

Broadly, he says that what is needed is: first, to produce much more zero-carbon electrical power and a means to store and distribute it; second, to convert to electrical power things that now run on fossil fuels—cars, home heating, and manufacturing processes; and third, to develop advanced biofuels and fuels synthesized using electricity to power things that can’t run on batteries—ships, planes and transport trucks.  This can’t eliminate all carbon emissions.  Gates notes, for example, that the manufacture of steel and cement, which accounts for 10% of emissions, produces CO2 through chemical reactions.  In fact, large scale carbon capture will be needed.  Gates focuses less on this challenge, although he describes technological approaches, which are still very expensive, and the potential of carbon sequestration in vegetation.

Despite advances in batteries and intermittent power sources of wind and solar, we will need breakthroughs in energy storage and zero-carbon energy generation, which, he argues, should include “next generation” small nuclear reactors that produce less nuclear waste and can be made “inherently safe”  (Gates is himself an investor in this).  Not all agree that the energy storage problem is dire: the view of others is that progress is being made on energy storage, responding to demand variability and power transmission capacity.  But there is agreement that eschewing nuclear power will make the climate challenge more difficult.

Our focus should be on achieving zero emissions by 2050, Gates says.  An undue focus on emissions reductions by 2030 could actually make it harder to reach zero by 2050, because the pathways to the two goals are different.  He gives the example that you might replace coal-fired plants with gas ones to get earlier emissions reductions.  But gas plants run for decades and they would still be in operation in 2050.  Instead, he says, our 2030 goals should be milestones on the route to “zero by 2050”.  This is an important argument to consider given the current focus on 2030 by Canadian political parties and environmental groups.  On the other hand, given the unpredictability of the many pathways to lower emissions, ambitious shorter-term emissions targets may help.  That is, provided that they do not prolong fossil fuel use and that they take account of lag times between action and emissions reductions.

In calling for a five-times greater investment in clean energy and climate-related R&D over the next decade, he points out that the U.S. now spends about $7 billion annually on clean energy research, while its National Institutes of Health has a budget of about $37 billion a year.

Gates is eloquent on the need to invest in measures to adapt to the changing climate. “The climate is changing in ways that will be problematic for well-off farmers in America and Europe, but potentially deadly for low-income ones in Africa and Asia,” he says.  More frequent droughts and floods, drier conditions, extreme heat and a shorter growing season all threaten agriculture.  But much can be done and the economic case is compelling.  He cites a study that found that in five key areas—creating early-warming systems, building climate-resilient infrastructure, raising crop yields, managing water, and protecting mangroves—investing $1.8 trillion between 2020 and 2030 would return more than $7 trillion in benefits.  Water utilities in the world’s largest cities could save $890 million a year by restoring forests and watersheds, and mangroves help the world avoid some $80 billion a year in losses from floods, along with providing other benefits.  Gates also urges greater support for the agricultural research group CGIAR, which works to improve plant and animal genetics so that our crops and livestock can withstand the changing climate regime.

Gates points to the powerful greenhouse gases methane (from organic decomposition and from cattle and other ruminants) and nitrous oxide (from nitrogen fertilizers) as the largest component of emissions from the land use sector.  He says deforestation and other land uses produce 1.6 billion tons of net CO2 emissions. 

But talking about “net” emissions obscures the potential climate benefits from this sector.  A soon to be published study finds that protecting intact forests, wetlands and grasslands would yield 4 Gt (4 billion tonnes) of avoided CO2 emissions, and that only includes measures costing less than $100 per tonne of CO2e, which is considered cost effective.1  Add to that the potential “negative emissions” from the restoration of natural ecosystems and from better managed forestry and agriculture, all of which capture CO2 from the atmosphere, and you have a very large missions benefit – one that will be needed to complement rapid decarbonization of the world economy.

The Bonn Challenge aims to restore forest on 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.  If that was entirely given over to the regeneration of natural forests, they would store an additional 42 Gt of carbon (this translates to 154 Gt of CO2) by 2100.2  By contrast, converting degraded lands to plantations or agroforestry would sequester a small percentage of that amount.

The book gives a good sense of the vital and dynamic role the private sector is playing in moving to a low carbon economy.   Gates also stresses the crucial role of governments in financing R&D and in regulations needed to shift economic incentives, the most important of which is the carbon tax.

It can be disturbing reading about climate change.  This breezy and informative book was a pleasure to read.  He did persuade me that we win on this.  See what you think.

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1  Seddon, N. et al. (2021)  Getting the message right on nature-based solutions to climate change. Glob Change Biol. 2021;00:1–29.

2  Lewis, S.L., Wheeler, C.E. et al.  (2019)  Regenerate natural forests to store carbon.  Nature 568: 25-28.

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