Once the world’s richest man, leading the world’s biggest tech company, Bill Gates spends most of his time and money at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dealing with health, gender equality and education. Now he has turned his roving eye to the climate crisis with his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Gates is a philanthropist now, but he still has a head for numbers.
However, numbers are the biggest problem with this book, starting with the first sentence: “There are two numbers you need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion. The other is zero.” Fifty-one billion was the number of tonnes of CO2 from human activity added to the atmosphere in 2019; zero emissions are what Gates says we have to aim for to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But Gates says we still need concrete, fertilizer and natural-gas power plants (others think there are solutions for all three of these, but that’s another story), so he calls for “near net-zero,” where carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere with carbon-capture devices, by reducing carbon in production processes, or through some form of offsetting.
None of these exist at scale at this time, but hey, don’t worry, Bill is on it: “I’m also a technophile. Show me a problem, and I’ll look for technology to fix it.” He has put a bit of his money where his mouth is, investing more than a billion dollars in everything from low-carbon cement and steel to faux meat, and several-hundred-million dollars in next-generation nukes.
The second problematic pair of numbers in Gates’s book are 2030 and 2050. Both are targets set in the Paris Agreement; to keep the rise in global average temperature below 1.5°C at the end of the century, we have to reduce emissions by about 50% by 2030 and to about zero by 2050. Gates does not believe that 2030 is realistic and thinks aiming for it might even be counterproductive. “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.”
The 2030 pathway would mean starting now with the technology we have, which might take us 80% of the way. But Gates says we should be thinking big and using the time to plan for “the big technological changes that would ensure long-term success.” There is some logic to his worry about “lock-in” with investments in problematic “bridge fuels” like natural gas, when his strategy is to go zero-carbon with renewables and nuclear power, electrifying everything, and then using carbon capture to pick the remaining CO2 out of the air and then store it somehow.
The problem with these strategies is time, given another big number: 570 billion tonnes. That’s the estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change back in 2018 of the total quantity of CO2 that can be added to the atmosphere if we are going to have a good chance of staying under 1.5° warming. Divide that by Bill Gates’s 51 billion tonnes and we run out of headroom before 2030, and it’s why every single molecule of CO2 emitted now matters; if we keep pushing off making changes, then his new technology is going to have to do an awful lot of CO2 sucking.
The second, bigger problem with a 2050 target is what futurist Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay.” It lets Toronto Mayor John Tory pour a billion dollars of concrete into the Gardiner Expressway or Ontario Premier Doug Ford push a highway through the greenbelt because “don’t worry, we will have electric cars.” It lets Jason Kenney and Justin Trudeau keep boiling rocks in Alberta because “don’t worry, we will have a hydrogen economy.” It lets Gates keep flying his private jet because he will be able to buy sustainable fuel. It lets us wait for some deus ex machina to drop out of the sky and save us, instead of actually giving anything up or making changes in our lives or economies now.
Notwithstanding these doubts, there is much to admire about Bill Gates. In an era of what Michael Mann calls “doom and gloomism,” he is positive, upbeat and optimistic. He really does believe that we can invent our way out of this and go from 51 billion to zero, instead of starting tomorrow with the renewable and storage technology that we have now. The problem is that we have run out of time, and the numbers don’t add up.
Lloyd Alter is design editor for Treehugger.com and author of the upcoming book Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle.