How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

by Bill Gates, 2021

Everything you need to know about climate change and what to do about it. We add 51 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere every year. We need to reduce that to 0 or there will be floods, famines, droughts, massive storms, wildfires, no coral reefs. We need to reduce our emissions to 0 by 2050. We need to convert everything possible (industry, transportation, heating and cooling) to run on electricity, but it needs to be clean electricity, and only nuclear can provide the 24/7 clean energy in the amounts we need. The 3rd world countries need to be able to modernize in everything they do, and we need to allow them to do so and help them to do so without increasing carbon emissions.

There are so many solutions out there (from page 200): next-generation nuclear fission, Nuclear fusion, low-emission fuels (Electrofuels and advanced biofuels), zero-carbon cement and steel and fertilizer, plant and cell-based meat and dairy, zero-carbon plastics, geothermal energy, thermal storage, grid-scale electricity storage that can last a full season, hydrogen produced without emitting carbon, zero-carbon alternatives to palm oil, Coolants that don’t contain F-gases, pumped hydro, thermal storage, underground electricity transmission, carbon capture (both direct air capture and point capture).

The main things people can do involve getting involved politically; telling our representatives what we want, and not just saying “do something about climate change.” Tell them policies that need to be updated, incentives that need to be in place, tax money that needs to be spent, etc. Research and Development are key items and government can invest in R&D for the long haul.

If we don’t do anything and we get to a tipping point, then geoengineering may need to happen: “distributing extremely fine particles–each just a few millionths of an inch in diameter–in the upper layers of the atmosphere…Another approach to geoengineering involves brightening clouds. Because sunlight is scattered by the tops of clouds, we could scatter more sunlight and cool the earth by making the clouds brighter, using a salt spray that causes clouds to scatter more light.”

Here are interesting quotes from the book:

The world’s output of carbon during the Covid-19 pandemic dropped from 51 billion to 49 billion, a reduction of about 5 percent…”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. And we need new seeds and other innovations to help the world’s poorest people–many of whom are smallholder farmers–adapt to a warmer climate.”

He says in the introduction: “I am aware that I’m an imperfect messenger on climate change…I own big houses and fly in private planes–in fact, I took one to Paris for the climate conference–so who am I to lecture anyone on the environment?”…

“In 2020, I started buying sustainable jet fuel and will fully offset my family’s aviation emissions in 2021. For our non-aviation emissions, I’m buying offsets through a company that runs a facility that removes carbon dioxide from the air…I’m also supporting a non-profit that installs clean energy upgrades in affordable housing units in Chicago..I’m also investing in zero-carbon technologies…I’ve put more than $1 billion into approaches that I hope will help the world get to zero, including affordable and reliable clean energy and low-emissions cement, steel, meat, and more…Of course, investing in companies doesn’t make my carbon footprint smaller. But if I’ve picked any winners at all, they’ll be responsible for removing much more carbon than I or my family is responsible for…So I’m supporting early-stage clean energy research, investing in promising clean energy companies, advocating for policies that will trigger breakthroughs throughout the world, and encouraging other people who have the resources to do the same…Here’s the key point: Although heavy emitters like me should use less energy, the world overall should be using more of the goods and services that energy provides. There is nothing wrong with using more energy as long as it’s carbon-free…”

There are several greenhouse gases and all total, we emit 51 billion tons of them each year. Carbon dioxide is the most common (37 billion tons) but methane and nitrous oxide are two others. Methane is 28 times more warming and nitrous oxide is 265 times more warming.

Rich countries (16 percent of the world’s population) produce 40 percent of the greenhouse gases, “and that’s not counting the emissions from products that are made someplace else but consumed in rich countries.” “We can’t expect poor people to stay poor because rich countries emitted too many greenhouse gases…Instead, we need to make it possible for low-income people to climb the ladder without making climate change worse.”

Talking about how hard it is to implement new energy technology, “Society also tolerates very little risk in the energy business, understandably so. We demand reliable electricity; the lights had better come on every time a customer flips a switch. We also worry about disasters. In fact, safety concerns have nearly killed off new construction of nuclear plants in the United States. Since the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, America has broken ground on just two nuclear plants, even though more people die from coal pollution in a single year than have died in all nuclear accidents combined.”

A chart on page 55 shows the percentage of greenhouse gases emitted by 5 activities of life:

  1. Making things (cement, steel, plastic) – 31%
  2. Plugging in (electricity) – 27%
  3. Growing things (plants, animals) – 19%
  4. Getting around (planes, trucks, cargo ships) – 16%
  5. Keeping warm and cool (heating, cooling, refrigeration) – 7%

“The good news is that even though electricity is only 27 percent of the problem, it could represent much more than 27 percent of the solution. With clean electricity, we could shift away from burning hydrocarbons (which emits carbon dioxide) for fuel. Think electric cars and buses; electric heating and cooling systems in our homes and businesses; and energy-intensive factories using electricity instead of natural gas to make their products. On its own, clean electricity won’t get us to zero, but it will be a key step.”

We can’t get to zero without nuclear energy:

“Unless we use large amounts of nuclear energy (which I’ll get to in the next section), every path to zero in the United States will require us to install as much wind and solar power as we can build and find room for.” …

“Nuclear fission. 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.

“No other clean energy source even comes close to what nuclear already provides today…”

And building a nuclear power plant uses SO much less concrete, steel and glass than all the other types of power (Solar, Hydropower, Wind, Geothermal, and Coal) except for natural gas which is only a tiny bit less than nuclear.

“Imagine if everyone had gotten together one day and said, “Hey, cars are killing people. They’re dangerous. Let’s stop driving and give up these automobiles.” That would’ve been ridiculous, of course. We did just the opposite: We used innovation to make cars safer. …

“Nuclear power kills far, far fewer people than cars do. For that matter, it kills far fewer peope than any fossil fuel.

“Nevertheless, we should improve it, just as we did with cars, by analyzing the problems one by one and setting out to solve them with innovation.

“Scientists and engineers have proposed various solutions. I’m very optimistic about the approach created by TerraPower, a company I founded in 2008, bringing together some of the best minds in nuclear physics and computer modeling to design a next-generation nuclear reactor.

“Because no one was going to let us build experimental reactors in the real world, we set up a lab of supercomputers in Bellevue, Washington, where the team runs digital simulations of different reactor designs. We think we’ve created a model that solves all the key problems using a design called a traveling wave reactor.”

In a chart on page 87, “Is nuclear power dangerous?” Coal has caused 24.6 deaths per TWh, oil 18.4, biomass 4.6, gas 2.8, and nuclear 0.07.

“But the key point is not that any one company has the single breakthrough idea we need in nuclear fission or fusion. What’s most important is that the world get serious once again about advancing the field of nuclear energy It’s just too promising to ignore.”

Regarding batteries:

“To my surprise, despite all the limitations of lithium-ion batteries–the ones that power your laptop and mobile phone–it’s hard to improve on them…I think we can improve them by a factor of 3, but not by a factor of 50.”

“One inventor I admire is working on a battery that uses liquid metals instead of the solid metals employed in traditional batteries…”

“Others are working on something called flow batteries, which involve storing fluids in separate tanks and then generating electricity by pumping the fluids together…”

“To sum up, the path to zero emissions in manufacturing looks like this:

  1. Electrify every process possible. This is going to take a lot of innovation.
  2. Get that electricity from a power grid that’s been decarbonized. This also will take a lot of innovation.
  3. Use carbon capture to absorb the remaining emissions. And so will this.
  4. Use materials more efficiently. Same.”

In discussing agriculture, “This sector also involves a wide range of various greenhouse gases: With agriculture, the main culprit isn’t carbon dioxide but methane–which causes 28 times more warming per molecule than carbon dioxide over the course of a century–and nitrous oxide, which causes 265 times more warming.”

Regarding electric vehicles:

“Another drawback is that it takes an hour or more to fully charge an EV, yet you can gas up your car in less than five minutes. In addition, using them to avoid carbon emissions works only if we’re generating electricity from zero-carbon sources. This is another reason why the breakthroughs I mentioned in chapter 4 are so important. If we get our power from coal and then charge up our electric cars with coal-fired electricity, we’ll just be swapping one fossil fuel for another.” …

“Medium-duty vehicles, like garbage trucks and city buses, are generally lightweight enough that electricity is a viable option for them. They also have the advantage of running relatively short routes and parking in the same place every night, so it’s easy to set up charging stations for them. The city of Shenzhen, China–home to 12 million people–has electrified its entire fleet of more than 16,000 buses and nearly two-thirds of its taxis.” …

“It’s rare that you can boil the solution for such a complex subject down into a single sentence. But with transportation, the zero-carbon future is basically this: Use electricity to run all the vehicles we can, and get cheap alternative fuels for the rest.”

In the chapter on How we keep cool and stay warm, he discusses the electric heat pump. They are actually cheaper, have a negative green premium, than a natural gas furnace and electric AC in new construction and including the cost of operating for 15 years. Unfortunately, “in some older homes it’s simply not practical to find space for new equipment, so you might not be able to upgrade at all.” Darn.

In the chapter, Adapting to a Warmer World, “To sum up: 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. They deserve the world’s help, and they need more of it than they’re getting.”…

” Extreme poverty has plummeted in the past quarter century, from 36 percent of the world’s population in 1990 to 10 percent in 2015–although COVID-19 was a huge setback that undid a great deal of progress. Climate change could erase even more of these gains, increasing the number of people living in extreme poverty by 13 percent.

“Those of us who have done the most to cause this problem should help the rest of the world survive it. We owe them that much.”

He tells about a day in 1943 when so much smog descended on Los Angeles that residents thought Japan had attacked them with chemical weapons. Then a day in London in December 1952 when the smog was so bad, they had to shut down everything and 4000 people died. Congress started funding research to remedy air pollution in 1955. “Seven years later, America’s Clean Air Act established the modern regulatory system for controlling air pollution in the United States; it remains the most comprehensive law–and one of the most influential–to regulate air pollution that can endanger public health. In 1970, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency to help implement it.”

“The U.S. Clean Air Act did what it was supposed to do–get poisonous gases out of the air–and since 1990 the level of nitrogen dioxide in American emissions has dropped by 56 percent, carbon monoxide by 77 percent, and sulfur dioxide by 88 percent. Lead has nearly vanished from American emissions…”

“Starting in 2014, China launched several programs in response to worsening smog in urban centers and skyrocketing levels of dangerous air pollutants. The government set new targets for reducing air pollution, banned the building of new coal-fired plants near the most polluted cities, and put limits on driving nonelectric cars in large cities. Within a few years, Beijing was reporting a 35 percent decline in certain types of pollution, and Baoding, a city of 11 million people, was reporting a decline of 38 percent.”

…”To see the effect of policies that don’t keep up with technology, look at the nuclear power industry. Nuclear is the only carbon-free energy source we can use almost anywhere, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A handful of companies, including TerraPower, are working on advanced reactors that solve the problems of the 50-year-old design used by reactors you see today: Their designs are safer and cheaper and produce much less waste. But without the right policies and the right approach to markets, the scientific and engineering work on these advanced reactors will go nowhere.”

“How quickly do we need to get to zero? Science tells us that in order to avoid a climate catastrophe, rich countries should reach net-zero emissions by 2050…Making reductions by 2030 the wrong way might actually prevent us from ever getting to zero.

“Why? Because the things we’d do to get small reductions by 2030 are radically different from the things we’d do to get to zero by 2050. They’re really two different pathways, with different measures of success, and we have to choose between them. It’s great to have goals for 2030, as long as they’re milestones on the way to zero by 2050.”

“…To get to zero by 2050, we’ll need to have the policy and market structures in place by 2030.”

Here’s the last paragraph:

“The question now is this: What should we do with this momentum? To me, the answer is clear. 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 than spending the next ten years dedicating ourselves to this ambitious goal.”