In one of the initial passages in his book, Bill Gates confesses that he might be an ‘imperfect messenger’ trying to convey the grave import of the cause and consequence of climate change. However, he goes on to transport that very same message in an admirable manner throughout the book. “How to Avoid A Climate Disaster” is more a primer into the perils of Climate change and the potential solutions that can be implemented in a practical manner to mitigate such risks, than a dense and impenetrable dissection of the associated Science. Gates exhorts his readers to be mindful, always, of two key numbers, 51 billion and 0. While the former represents the tonnes of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere on an annual basis, the latter number is the targeted emission rate that the world should aspire to achieve by 2050, at the latest. The usual suspects contributing to this gargantuan emission number are fossil fuels (responsible for approximately 27% of the emissions), manufacturing (contributing roughly 31% of the emissions), agriculture (18%), travel (16%), and residential and commercial heating devices (6%).
However, Gates also acknowledges that transitioning from fossil fuel to renewables and realtering the way in which we grow our food, manufacture our essentials and keep ourselves cozy would entail its own set of practical challenges and logical impediments. This is where the notion of a “Green Premium” kicks in. Green Premium is nothing but the difference in costs between a product that involves emitting carbon and an alternative that is absolutely carbon free. As Gates proceeds to illustrate, “the average retail price for a gallon of jet fuel in the United States over the past few years has been around $2.22, while advanced biofuels for jets cost around $5.35 per gallon. The Green Premium is the difference between the two, which is $3.13, or an increase of more than 140 percent.”
Gates also informs his readers that Gates that as a matter of principle he has made a conscious choice to divest his stakes in fossil fuel companies. “I don’t want to profit if their stock prices go up because we don’t develop zero-carbon alternatives.” But such divestments alone would not constitute solutions to the problem. What is needed is a concentrated, concrete and comprehensive structural set of global reforms that would lead to a convergence of thought, deed and word on the part of all the nations constituting our Planet. Gates’ idea is to formulate a set of measures and ideas that could be put into play at the ensuing 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, Cop26, in Glasgow.
Drawing on the work of Vaclav Smil, an authoritative voice on the energy sector, Gates also demonstrates the challenges involved in transitioning between alternative energy sources. “In 1900, natural gas accounted for 1 percent of the world’s energy. It took seventy years to reach 20 percent. Nuclear fission went faster, going from 0 to 10 percent in 27 years. Between 1840 and 1900, coal went from 5 percent of the world’s energy supply to nearly 50 percent. But in the 60 years from 1930 to 1990, natural gas reached just 20 percent. In short, energy transitions take a long time.”
Gates admits his bias in one sphere of decarbonization in particular, electricity. He writes. “If a genie offered me one wish, a single breakthrough in just one activity that drives climate change, I’d pick making electricity: It’s going to play a big role in decarbonizing other parts of the physical economy.” Gates also dwells on the contributions made by the immortal Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug to the field of agriculture by using innovative techniques. Borlaug developed varieties of wheat with bigger grains and other characteristics that allowed them to provide much more food per acre of land—what farmers call raising the yield. However, as Gates illustrates the process of farming as well as consuming meat contributes its own bit to the dangers of carbon emission. A process scientifically termed enteric fermentation, causes bacteria inside the cow’s stomach to break down the cellulose in the plant, fermenting it and producing methane. This induces cows to belch and fart away, Gates highlights the advantages of cutting down on meat eating while not compromising on the taste of meat itself. “One option is plant-based meat: plant products that have been processed in various ways to mimic the taste of meat. I’ve been an investor in two companies that have plant-based meat products on the market right now—Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods— so I’m biased, but I have to say that artificial meat is pretty good. When prepared just right, it’s a convincing substitute for ground beef. And all of the alternatives out there are better for the environment, because they use much less land and water and are responsible for fewer emissions. You also need less grain to produce them, reducing the pressure on food crops and the use of fertilizers too. And it’s a huge boon for animal welfare whenever fewer livestock are being kept in small cages.”
Gates also talks in a passionate manner about the pioneering efforts of CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) in the realms of climate change. CGIAR research aims to reduce rural poverty, increase food security, improve human health and nutrition, and sustainable management of natural resources. It is carried out at 15 centers. A dizzying alphabet soup of CGIAR collaboration partners include Africa Rice Centre, CIFOR, ICARDA, ICRISAT, IFPRI, IITA, ILRI, ICIMMYT, CIP, IRRI, IWMI, CIAT, ICRAF and World Fish.
Gates concludes his book with a clarion call for governments, companies, investors and individuals to come together with a motive and purpose to bring down the Green Premium. While the Government can formulate relevant policies to either make the carbon-based version of something more expensive, or make the clean version cheaper, investors and corporates can change their buying behavior to employing cleaner alternatives, investing in research and development, supporting clean-energy entrepreneurs and startups, and advocating for helpful government policies. Finally, individuals can influence the market by their purchasing habits. Opting for an Electric Vehicle or a plant based food results in a powerful ‘signaling’ effect to which companies would ultimately have to pay heed.
Gates has the last word when he says, “We need to accomplish something gigantic we have never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar,” pushing through “a consensus that doesn’t exist” and accelerating “a transition that would not happen otherwise.”
We may already be more than a tad bit too late.