How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

by Bill Gates

272 pages, ★★★★★
Finished on 7th of October, buy here.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. We need to reduce the global yearly emissions of 51 billion tons of CO2e to zero by 2050 in order to stop climate change and avoid the world becoming more inhabitable for humankind.
  2. We understand a great deal about where our current emissions come from and how we create them. We have many ideas to reduce and eliminate them, too.
  3. It must be a globally coordinated effort from mainly the rich countries to make adapting economically possible for the poorer countries. We need to put lots of resources into it and be mindful about it in order to do our part as individuals by demanding political action for example.

🎨 Impressions

Many readers of the book apparently lost hope, but Bill’s optimism infected me. He shows a big picture overview of the situation we are in and explains the solutions available and ideas for future optimizations. It does seem possible. The focus on facts and way of explaining complex systems in an understandable way for normal people is helpful. We all need to keep spreading this knowledge and aim to be part of the solution.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • It helped me understand the size and relations between different aspects of our life in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and comparing them from an environmental standpoint.
  • Hope needs to have a factual basis or it’s delusional. This book provides the facts and caused a “let’s do this” mentality in me.
  • Just being able to now recite some numbers and explain more of the situation to others (people who don't believe it’s necessary to take action) makes me feel more confident in discussions.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  1. Hans Rosling (in Factfulness, recited by Gates): “When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems — and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.”
  2. 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 the best response to our miserable 2020.
  3. Zero is what we need to aim for.

📔 Summary & Notes

1 Why Zero

  • 51 billion tons of CO2e per year of emissions need to get to zero by 2050 in order to keep the global warming limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
  • We need to think about negative emissions: taking more greenhouse gases out of the air than putting into it.
  • Greenhouse gases: methane creates 120x more warming than CO2, but not around as long as CO2. NO2 (laughing gas) used for fertilizer, 265x more harmful than CO2. That's why CO2e = equivalent.
  • Only gases with two atoms or more of a different kind absorb radiation and heat.
  • Climate crisis: feast-or-famine situation, more extreme storms, but also more extreme droughts. Wildfires, strong heat, harsh cold, etc.
  • Some plants grow faster with more heat in the air, but many are sensitive to it and die.
  • Adaptation research: finding crops etc. which can withstand the climate changing for the worse.
  • Mitigation: finding out how to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

2 This Will Be Hard

  • Getting rid of using oil is tough: we use 4 billion gallons every day.
  • China and India are the fastest growing emitters partly because the richer countries have outsourced emission-heavy production to them.
  • Stopping poorer countries from developing and climbing the economic ladder in order to stop emissions is immoral and impractical.
  • Economics lead the way: creating electricity from burning natural gas and coal is cheaper right now, this must be changed.
  • COP21 / Paris Agreement of 2015 would reduce emissions by 3-6 billion tons by 2030. Less than 12 percent of today's emissions. But it's a starting point and proves global cooperation possible.
  • We need to do something which humanity has never done: create global consensus, create public policies, push a transition worldwide, as fast as possible.

3 Five Questions to Ask in Every Climate Conversation

  • Try to get the big picture first in order to understand new information and remember it.
  1. What's the percentage of the 51 billion tons? Less than 1 percent? Maybe not a priority.
  2. What's your plan for cement? (cement, steel, plastic etc. make up 31%) Don't forget about the heavy emitting areas and just focus on the popular ones. Electricity is "just" 27%, but affects lots of other areas, too.
  3. How much power are we talking about? Watt = Joule per second. The world = 5,000 Gigawatts, big country = 1,000 GW, city = 1 GW, average house = 1 kW
  4. How much space do you need? Energy creating requires space. Fossil fuels are most efficient, wind least.
  5. How much is it going to cost? Consider the Green Premium, but also consider it might be negative, as with replacing gas furnaces with electric heat pumps.
  • Zero-carbon options with a low Green Premium should be deployed immediately.
  • Countries with great R&D can find export new solutions to poorer countries as soon as the solutions are economically superior – it's not a question of every country doing its fair share.
  • Carbon capture (DAC = direct air capture; and point capture = directly at the emitting source) are highly expensive and will be for a while (5.1 trillion USD per year), so reducing the emissions in the first place is less expensive. DAC also doesn't work with methane etc., just CO2.

4 How We Plug In

  • Electricity is responsible for 27% of total global emissions.
  • Consider all consequences: hydropower is great, but building dams in certain areas and thereby covering land with water can release stored methane from that soil, making the hydropower plant an even worse emitter than a coal plant at that location instead.
  • Many countries subsidise fossil fuel usage for electricity. It started out as a stimulus for economic growth but now it's counterproductive and needs to change.
  • The world's energy demands will double or triple by 2050 due to economic and population growth. The goal is not to stop that, but to make it happen in a zero-carbon way.
  • When market and governments play together well, great things happen, for example the solar cell prices went down 10x between 2010 and 2020, and the whole cost of a solar array went down 11% just in 2019 alone.
  • We need to build renewables much faster, about 5-10x faster than right now to account for our growth.
  • Getting rid of nuclear energy is short-sighted. Combined, nuclear accidents have killed far fewer people than fossil fuels, or cars do. People would never give up cars just because they are killing people. Double standards.
  • Nuclear must be considered a helpful ally and taken seriously again, as it’s the only known method of zero-carbon electricity production that works 24/7 regardless of the weather and season.
  • With most renewables, the problem is storage of electricity. Promising research is still in its infancy. We don't just need to store energy from the days for the nights, but also from summer for the winter. Batteries are far away from being able to do enough of that at scale.

5 How We Make Things

  • Cement: 1:1, make a ton of cement, you release a ton of CO2.
  • Steel: 1:1.8
  • Plastic (1:1.3) stores about half of the CO2 needed to create it from fossil fuels in itself. That's not so bad. Because it takes so long to degrade, those atoms won't make it into the atmosphere anytime soon.
  • Green Premiums for zero-emission plastics and steel are just 9-29% at this stage, cement 75-140%. Example: 30,000 $ car contains 750 $ worth of steel. Making that zero-emission steel would increase the steel price to 950 $ – hardly a difference in the end.
  • Many ways to bring the premiums down: public policies, innovation in manufacturing, subsidies, people embracing them and voting with their buying power.
  • Reliable clean electricity is needed for the production of everything.
  • Electrification: using electricity wherever we can instead of fossil fuels.
  • Simply use less stuff and use that more efficiently helps a lot, too.

6 How We Grow Things

  • In agriculture, methane and nitrous oxide cause way more harm than CO2. NO2 = 265x.
  • Pigs: needs 3x more calories than we get from eating it.
  • Cows: 6x more calories. Also: methane burping and farting is equivalent to 2 billion tons of CO2, or 4% of all global emissions
  • Poop from animals releases greenhouse gases too: methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur, ammonia. Pig poop is worst.
  • Getting rid of meat consumption worldwide isn't realistic, it plays too big a role in human culture.
  • Plant-based meats helps, but a bigger lever is wasting less food. 20-40% of produced food is wasted.
  • Fertilizer: nitrogen makes a plant grow. Microorganisms usually make the nitrogen, but will stop if we put nitrogen artifically into the soil. And half of the nitrogen we put into the soil isn't used by the plants but runs off into the ground / water, causing pollution. Or binds with oxygen, NO2, gets released into the air.
  • There's no NO2 capture like there is carbon capture for CO2.
  • Still, nitrogen-based fertilizer is one of mankind's best inventions and makes it possible to feed as many people as it does, so we can't get rid of it unless we have better alternatives.
  • Carbon is stored in the soil, too. More of it than in all plant-life and the atmosphere combined. Ripping out trees disturbs the soil too and that releases more CO2 than we think.
  • People cut down trees because the incentives are high and they need to survive, not because they are evil people.
  • Planting trees is not as helpful as we think: To offset just the emissions of all US citizens, we would need to cover half of the world's landmass in trees and maintain them forever. We should still be planting more of them, but stopping deforestation is more effective.
  • Conclusion: find new ways to fertilize plants, raise livestock, waste less food. People in rich countries need to change some habits too, like eating less meat.

7 How We Get Around

  • A billion cars are in the world. 2018 added 24 million passenger cars. Personal cars make up 47% of the transportation emissions; trucks/buses etc. 30%, cargo and cruise ships 10%, airplanes 10%, others 3%.
  • EVs are the way, but still contain a green premium. Taking all into account, about 10 cents more per mile in the US. Cheaper electricity and/or more expensive gasoline reduces it. In some EU countries, gas is so expensive that EVs are already cheaper per mile. Gas needs to be at >3$ per gallon for that to happen. That's 0,68 € per liter. (Electricity is cheaper in the US, too, about 10 cents per kWh as opposed to 30 in Germany.)
  • Heavy, long-haul transport isn't viable with electricity, because of the weight of the batteries. Solution: more efficient electrofuels (synthetic) and advanced biofuels. Green Premiums are at 103%, 234% respectively.
  • Same with jet fuel: electrofuels and advanced biofuels, 141% and 296% as of now.
  • How to reduce: less driving / flying / shipping. Encourage alternative modes like biking. Fewer carbon-intensive materials while producing cars etc.; use fuels more efficiently – including policy standards for manufacturers; switching to EV and alternative fuels.
  • Speed up the transition to EVs by adopting encouraging policies.
  • Explore all the ways we can make advanced biofuels and cheap electrofuels. Use electricity to run all vehicles we can, find cheap alternatives for the rest.

8 How We Keep Cool and Stay Warm

  • A/C is the biggest consumer of electricity in most US households.
  • Heating is often created from fossil fuels. The path to zero carbon is similar to the path for passenger cars: 1. electrify what we can, get rid of gas heaters etc., 2. develop clean fuels for everything else.
  • Solution right now: electric heat pumps. Can already replace gas or oil heating and A/C and are cheaper in the long run. Green Premiums between -27 to -16% depending on where you live.
  • Getting rid of government subsidies for fossil fuel heating (still in place in many locations) is a must – government policies need to keep up with the time.
  • Oil and gas heaters will still run for decades, so we need the mentioned advanced biofuels and electrofuels for this, too.

9 Adapting to a Warmer World

  • We need innovations because people rising on the income ladder want to do more things that cause emissions.
  • Help farmers manage the risks of more chaotic weather: improve the sturdiness of crops and livestock, also improve social-security systems / weather-based insurance for farmers. Create incentives for farmers to reduce their emissions while growing more food as well.
  • Focussing on the most vulnerable people. Women worldwide don't usually have the same access to economic activities like farming. Studies suggest that equal rights for women would improve food growth by 20-30%, increase the number of fed people worldwide by 12-17%
  • Governments need to put more resources into adaptation: setting goals for investments, remove risks for some private investors. Investing 1.8 trillion $ into this between 2020 and 2030 would return more than 7 trillion $ in benefits.
  • Those of us who have done the most to cause the problem should help the rest of the world survive it.
  • Geoengineering: an emergency tool. Make temporary artificial changes to the earth's oceans or atmosphere to lower the temperature. It's a global concern, so no nation on its own should get to decide to do this.

10 Why Government Policies Matter

  • Massive undertakings need governments to get them done: building national highways, vaccinate the world's children, or decarbonizing the global economy.
  • The government must invest in R&D when the private sector can't find a way to make a profit and therefore won't start investing.
  • Level the playing field: raise the cost of fossil fuels by incorporating the damage they cause into the price.
  • Markets, policy, and technology have to work together. Policies, such as higher spending on R&D can help spark new technologies which shape market systems which reach millions of people.

11 A Plan for Getting to Zero

  • Goals for 2030 are great, but only if they are part of the way for getting to zero by 2050.
  • We know how long the transition will take, so we need to start right now.
  • Supply and demand: expand the supply of innovations, accelerate the demand for innovations in a push-and-pull fashion.
  • Governments need to quintuple the spending on R&D over the next decade. Take bigger bets on high-risk, high-reward projects. Match R&D with our greatest needs. Work with industries from the beginning.
  • Governments are massive consumers and can therefore allocate money to start-ups by prioritizing buying green for their own needs.
  • Scaling up new technologies is something we are good at, see electrification and use of fossil fuels by tying policy and innovation together many years ago.
  • Put a price on carbon. Make it more expensive to emit in order to force change.
  • Create standards for clean fuel, clean products, etc., make it easier to retire old standards sooner.
  • All levels of government need to play a role: local transportation planners, national legislatures, environmental regulators.
  • International agreements like the 2015 Paris Agreement show that it's possible to get consensus. Ozone layer: thanks to Montreal Protocol it's still here.
  • Governments can say to each other: if you want to do business with us, you'll have to take climate change seriously.

12 What Each of Us Can Do

  • Elected officials will adopt plans if the voters demand it.
  • Demand specific actions: more funding for R&D, better energy standards, a price on carbon. Make calls, write letters, attend town halls, vote.
  • Look locally and nationally, even run for office if you can.
  • As a consumer: buy clean products, it sends a message.
  • As employers/employees: offset emissions, demonstrate you care about climate change, internal carbon tax, prioritize innovation and low-carbon solutions, be an early adopter, encourage policy-making process, connect with government-funded research, help start-ups succeed.
  • Make the debate more thoughtful and constructive. Be realistic, focus on finding specific plans for getting to zero.
  • Support what you're in favor of more than oppose what you're against.
  • Have a fact-based worldview: with it, the world isn't as bad as it seems, and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.

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