How to avoid a Climate Disaster
from Bill Gates


In this urgent, authoritative book, Bill Gates sets out a wide-ranging, practical—and accessible—plan for how the world can get to zero greenhouse gas emissions in time to avoid a climate catastrophe. Bill Gates has spent a decade investigating the causes and effects of climate change. With the help of experts in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, political science, and finance, he has focused on what must be done in order to stop the planet’s slide to certain environmental disaster. In this book, he not only explains why we need to work toward net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases, but also details what we need to do to achieve this profoundly important goal. He gives us a clear-eyed description of the challenges we face. Drawing on his understanding of innovation and what it takes to get new ideas into the market, he describes the areas in which technology is already helping to reduce emissions, where and how the current technology can be made to function more effectively, where breakthrough technologies are needed, and who is working on these essential innovations. Finally, he lays out a concrete, practical plan for achieving the goal of zero emissions—suggesting not only policies that governments should adopt, but what we as individuals can do to keep our government, our employers, and ourselves accountable in this crucial enterprise. As Bill Gates makes clear, achieving zero emissions will not be simple or easy to do, but if we follow the plan he sets out here, it is a goal firmly within our reach.

Book notes

Introduction - 51 billion to zero

  • 2 numbers you need to know about climate :
    • 51 billion
      • Tons of greenhouse gases the world typically adds to the atmosphere every year
      • Where we are today
    • zero
      • What we need to aim for
  • Convinced of 3 things
    1. 1.
      To avoid a climate disaster, we have to get to zero
    2. 2.
      We need to deploy the tools we already have, like solar and wind, faster and smarter
    3. 3.
      And we need to create and roll out breakthrough technologies that can take us the rest of the way
The climate is like a bathtub that's slowly filling up with water. Even if we slow the flow of water to a trickle, the tub will eventually fill up and water will come spilling out onto the floor.
  • COVID-19
    • 5 percent reduction
    • Because economic activity has slowed down

Chapter 1 - Why zero ?

  • Getting to zero doesn't mean "zero"
    • It means "near net zero"
  • The earth is warming
    • Because of human activity
    • We have every reason to believe that at some point the impact will be catastrophic
    • We don't know precisely WHEN (30 years ? 50 years ? ...)
    • We need to act now
  • Already raised 1 degree Celsius since preindustrial times
    • mid-century : probably between 1.5 and 3 degrees Celsius
    • end of century : between 4 and 8 degrees Celsius
  • A 2-degree rise wouldn't simply be 33 percent worse than 1.5
    • Could be 100 percent worse
      • Twice as many people would have trouble getting clean water
      • Corn production in the tropics would go down twice as much
      • Mosquitoes will start living in new places
        • Malaria
      • Heatstroke will be another major problem
        • Because of humidity
  • Using data from the Spanish flu of 1918and COVID-19
    • The amount by which a global pandemic increases the global mortality rate : 14 deaths per 100,000 people each year
    • By mid-century climate change could represent the same amount than COVID-19 :
      • 14 deaths per 100,000 people each year
    • By the end of century : could be responsible for
      • 75 extra deaths per 100,000 people each year
      • By 2100 could be five times as deadly than COVID
    • 2 things we can do about it
      • Adaptation : minimize the impact of the changes that are already here and that we know are coming
      • Mitigation : stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere
        • Biggest emitters (richest countries) have to get top net-zero emissions by 2050

Chapter 2 - This will be hard

  • Fossil fuels are like water
    • "important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about" - David Foster Wallace
    • Fossil fuels are like that
  • Oil
    • The world uses more than 4 billion gallons every day
    • Oil is cheaper than a soft drink
  • It's not just the rich world
    • almost everywhere people are living longer and healthier lives
    • Would be immoral and impractical to try to stop people who are lower down on the economic ladder from climbing up
      • Can't expect poor people to stay poor because rich countries emitted too many greenhouse gases
We need to make it possible for low-income people to climb the ladder without making climate change worse.
  • Our laws and regulations are so outdated
    • Environmental laws and regulations weren't designed with climate change in mind
    • Clean Air Act -> 1970
  • We need to build a consensus that doesn't exist and create public policies to push a transition that would not happen otherwise
    • Don't despair, we can do this

Chapter 3 - 5 questions to ask in every climate conversation

  • Build a mental framework
    • Gave a sense of how much was a lot and how much was a little
  1. 1.
    How much of the 51 Billion Tons are we talking about ?
    • Convert numbers into a percentage of the annual total of 51 billion tons
  2. 2.
    What's your plan for Cement ?
    • A shorthand reminder that if you're trying to come up with a comprehensive plan for climate change, you have to account for much than electricity and cars
    • Emissions come from 5 different activities
      • We need solutions in all of them
3. How much power are we talking about?
Whenever you hear :
A hundred or more gigawatts
big country
4. How much space do you need ?
  • If someone tells you that some source : wind, solar, nuclear, ... can supply all the energy the world needs
    • Find out how much space will be required to produce that much energy
    • Examples : Wind -> 1-2 Watts per square meter, Fossil Fuels -> 500-10,000 Watts per Square Meter
5. How much this is going to cost ?
  • Most of the zero-carbon solutions are more expensive than their fossil-fuel counterparts
    • Because the prices don't reflect the environmental damage they influct
    • These additional costs are what I call Green Premiums
      • The difference between the 2 prices
      • It can be negative : greeen can be cheaper than sticking with fossil fuels
We need the premiums to be so low that everyone will be able to decarbonize.

Chapter 4 - How we plug in

27 percent of 51 billion tons per year
  • What we like from electricity : a cheap source of energy always available
    • Getting all the world's electricity from clean source won't be easy
    • Fossil fuels account for two-thirds of all electricity worldwide
      • Coal : 36%
      • Naturals Gas : 23%
      • Hydropower : 16%
      • Nuclear : 10%
      • Renewables : 11%
      • Oil : 3%
      • Other : 1%
  • Can we turn this around and get all the electricity we'll need without any greenhouse gas emissions ?
  • We can eliminate our emissions with only a modest Green Premium
    • The premium for electricity :
      • Additional cost of getting all our power from non-emitting sources :
        • wind, solar, nuclear, coal, natural gas fired equipped with devices that capture the carbon they produce
    • Changing America's system to zero carbon
      • Raise retail average rates by between 1.3 and 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour
      • 15% more than what people pay now
      • Adds up to a Green Premium : 18$ a month for the average home
  • 1 problem is that fossil fuels are so cheap
    • Their prices don't factor in the true cost of climate change
  • To get close to 100% renewable resources
    • We'd have to move lots of clean energy from where it's made (sunny places, windly regions) to where it's needed
  • Sun / wind = intermittent sources
    • How to store it ?
  • Extremely difficult / expensive to store electricity on a large scale
  • Every path to zero in the U.S will require
    • Install as much wind and solar power as we can build and find room for it

Making Carbon-free electricity

  • Nuclear fission : Only carbon-free energy source that can reliably deliver power day and night
    • The process of getting energy by splitting atoms apart
    • Problems :
      • Human error can cause accidents
      • Uranium can be converted for use in weapons
      • Waste is dangerous and hard to store
  • Nuclear fusion : Instead of getting energy from splitting atoms apart -> it involves pushing them together, or fusing them
    • At least a decade away from supplying electricity to consumers
    • No chain reaction to run out of control
      • Fusion ceases as soon as you stop supplying fuel or switch off the device containing the plasma
  • Offshore wind : putting wind turbines in an ocean or other body of water
  • Geothermal : Deep underground, are hot rocks that can be used to generate carbon-free electricity
    • Amount of energy we get per square meter is quite low

Storing electricity

  • Batteries : hard to improve on them
    • Can improve by a factor of 3 but by a factor of 50
  • Pumped hydro : When electricity is cheap you pump water up a hill into a reservoir, then when demand for power goes up, let the water flow back down the hill -> generate electricity from it
  • Thermal storage : When electricity is cheap, use it to heat up some material
  • Cheap hydrogen

Other innovations

  • Capturing carbon : Suck up the carbon dioxide before it hits the atmosphere
    • Expensive to buy and operate
  • Using less : using power more efficiently

Chapter 5 - How we make things

31 percent of 51 billion tons per year
  • Every year America alone produces more than 96 millions tons of cement
    • 600 pounds for every person in the country
  • Americans use as much steel as cement
  • Use tons of steel, cement, glass, plastic
    • Emits lots of greenhouse gases
    • Responsible for about a third of all emissions worldwide
  • Making 1 ton of steel produces about 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide

Bring the premium down

  • Different ways :
    • Using public policies to create demand for clean products
      • Create incentives or requirements to buy zero-carbon cement or steel
    • Take recycled CO2
      • Inject it back into the cement

Chapter 6 - How we grow things

19 percent of 51 billion tons a year
  • Raising animals for food is a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions
    • Ranks as the highest contributor in the sector that experts call "agriculture, forestry, and other land use"
    • Composition : 70% agriculture / 30% deforestation
  • With agriculture main culprit = methane
    • Causes 28 times more warming per molecule than CO2 over the course of a century
    • Nitrous oxide causes 265 times more warming
  • If we want to get near net-zero emissions
    • Figure out how to grow plants and raise animals while reducing and eventually eliminating greenhouse gases
    • Have to do something about deforestation and other uses of land
  • Global population is headed toward 10 billion people by 2100
    • 40% more people
    • We'll need more than 40% more food too
      • As people get richer, they eat more calories
  • We can cut down on meat eating while still enjoying the taste of meat
    • Plant based meat
    • Artificial meats
    • Grow the meat itself in labs
      • Cell based meat
  • Wasting less of it
    • In Europe, Industrialized parts of Asia, Sub-Saharian Africa : 20% of food is simply thrown away
    • US : 40%
    • Most important solution = behavior change
  • It's been estimated that if we couldn't make synthetic fertilizer
    • The world's population would be 40 to 50 percent smaller
    • No practical zero-carbon alternative for fertilizer right now
  • Deforestation : would be easier to stop
    • Incentives to cut down trees are stronger than the incentives to leave them alone
    • We need political / economic solutions
  • How much CO2 can a tree absorb in its lifetime :
    • 4 tons over the course of 40 years
  • How long will the tree survive ?
    • If it burns down all the CO2 it was storing will be released into the atmosphere

Chapter 7 - How we get around

16 percent of 51 billion tons a year
  • Gas contains an amazing amount of energy
    • Gasoline is remarkably cheap
  • Transportation is not the biggest cause of emissions worldwide
    • BUT number one in the United States
      • 47% : passengers cars
        • All-electric car ?
        • To avoid carbon emissions -> only if we generate electricity from 0 carbon-sources
      • 10% : airplanes
      • 10% : cargo / cruise ships
      • 30% : garbage trucks, buses, 18-wheelers
4 ways to cut down on emissions from transportation :
  • Do less of it : walking, biking, car-pooling
  • Use fewer carbon-intensive materials in making-cars
  • Use fuels more efficiently
  • Switch to electric vehicles / alternative fuels

Chapter 8 - How we keep cool and stay warm

7 percent of 51 billion tons a year
  • 90% of American houses have some types of air conditioner
    • The biggest consumer of electricity you own

Chapter 9 - Adapting to a warmer world

To get to zero we will need a lot of innovation
The cruel injustice is that even though the world's poor are doing essentially nothing to cause climate change, they're going to suffer the most from it

Chapter 11 - A plan for getting to Zero

Science tells us that in order to avoid a climate catastrophe, rich countries should reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Expand the supply of Innovation

Technologies needed
Hydrogen produced without emitting carbon
Nuclear fusion
Grid-scale electricity storage that can last a full season
Carbon capture (both direct air and point capture)
Underground electricity transmission
Advanced biofuels
Zero-carbon plastics
Zero-carbon cement
Geothermal energy
Zero-carbon steel
Pumped hydro
Plant and cell-based meat and dairy
Thermal storage
Zero-carbon fertilizer
Drought and flood-tolerant food crops
Next-generation nuclear fission
Zero-carbon alternatives to palm oil
To get these technologies ready soon :
  1. 1.
    Quintuple clean energy and climate-related R&D over the next decade
  2. 2.
    Make bigger bets on high-risk, high reward R&D projects
  3. 3.
    Match R&D with our greatest needs
  4. 4.
    Work with the industry from the beginning

Accelerate the Demand for Innovation

  • Create incentives that lower costs and reduce risk
    • Tax credits, loan guarantees
    • Can help reduce the Green Premiums
  • Build the infrastructure that will get new technologies to market
  • Change the rules so new technologies can compete
  • Put a price on carbon
    • Putting a price on carbon is one of the most important things we can do to eliminate Green Premiums
  • Clean electricity standards
  • Clean fuel standards
  • Clean product standards
    • Setting standards in procurement programs for example

Chapter 12 - What each of us can do ?

As a citizen

  • Personal action is important for the signals
    • elected officials will adopt specific plans if their voters demand it
So ?
  • Make calls, write letters, attend town halls
  • Run for office

As a Consumer

The market is ruled by supply and demand -> we can have a huge impact on the demand side
  • Sign up for a green pricing program with you electricity utility
  • Reduce your home's emissions
  • Buy an electric car
  • Try a plant-based burger

As an Employee or Employer

Push your company to do its part :
  • Set up an internal carbon tax
  • Prioritize innovation in low-carbon solutions
  • Be an early adopter
  • Engage in the policy-making process
    • Businesses should be champion getting to zero
  • Connect with government funded research
  • Help early-stage innovators get across the valley of death
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