How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

I don’t have a framework for how we (as in humanity) might be able to tackle the current climate crisis. As a young person and engineer, I find our rapid climate change to be an urgent and important problem to solve. If we don’t, then there won’t be a very exciting future to live for.

I picked up Gates’ book to see what kind of perspective someone with as much capital and as many connections as him would have. Very frankly, the media around environmental issues tend towards pointing out problems, but only a fraction of them seriously discuss solutions. Gates’ book is all about solutions and tradeoffs, which I appreciate. It’s clear that he’s given some serious thought to how we might be able to make some traction on getting to net zero CO2 emissions.

I’m going to talk about a few key points I got from the book, delve a bit into Gates’ suggestions for how wealthy nations and citizens can move forward, and end with some thoughts on what I think about his suggestions.

51 Billion Tons of CO2

That is how many tons of CO2 we, as a species, emit annually.

The goal is to get that to net zero.

What’s particularly interesting is how this CO2 is distributed across nations, industries, and class.1 All of which Gates discusses to some level in the book. Here are the highlights.

31% of CO2 emissions come from making things (e.g. manufacturing, concrete and steel for buildings, automobiles, etc)

27% of CO2 emissions come from generating electricity

19% of CO2 emissions come from agriculture

16% of CO2 emissions come from transportation

7% of CO2 emissions come from heating/cooling the spaces we live in

Gates spends a majority of the book discussing current solutions we have in reducing emissions in each category, and the innovations we’ll need to see to get them to net zero.

Climate science tells us what’s happening, but not how to fix it

Across the book, Gates stresses how addressing climate change is going to take a lot of good ideas from a lot of different disciplines. It’s a point I’m sure many readers already know, but it’s also worth re-stating time and time again.

To develop solutions we’re going to need some amazing engineering and scientific break throughs. To see them scaled up across the globe, we’ll need some very careful financial and political ideas to ensure that they’re distributed rapidly and equitably. And to convince people that these are in fact good changes, we’ll need artists and communicators.

Much of the articles that I see and find in media discuss the climate science. In other words, about the environmental degradation, the potential consequences of increased CO2 emissions, and how it’s getting worse.

Picking up this book has made me realize that it’s time I start looking at what researchers, artists, politicians, investors, and others have to say about climate change. By centering the conversation in climate science, I’ve come to only see what’s happening, but not how we might be able to address it.

We heat and cool our homes with gas and coal. Our automobiles run on processed oil. Our buildings are made of concrete and steel that use coal to heat and process the raw materials. Many of the “green” alternatives to agriculture come at the expense at being much more energy expensive.

All of this means that if we can find ways to produce energy without emitting CO2, we have a shot at solving related issues in other sectors rapidly.

Can we (individuals) help?

One of my concerns is that Gates’ is talking to a specific audience in this book with his suggestions. Particularly, political leaders, corporate leaders, and middle to upper class individuals in wealthy nations.

Gates ends the book with a lot of ideas for how governments and bigger businesses can help accelerate the development of sustainable energy. And several times throughout the book, he stresses how sustainable energy solutions can be a source of high return investment that wealthy nations (and individuals) can capitalize on.

I interpret Gates’ suggestions to imply that only those who currently have a lot of wealth can meaningfully contribute to sustainable energy solutions. I get that this isn’t a book about political activism or the technical details that might lead to breakthroughs, but his framing does leave me a bit disgruntled at time.

Gates does highlight that his perspective comes from the idea that developing economies have very limited options for growing their wealth (and by effect, quality of life) while minimizing CO2 emissions.

It’s a hard issue I’ll keep thinking about.

Closing thoughts

I appreciate the framework that Gates has built (and expressed) in this book for tackling climate change. His discussion on how he thinks about what areas might be ripe for innovation, and how we can scale and deploy them, were especially useful as someone who’s also trying to meaningfully contribute in this space.

Although this book seems to speak to individuals in the disciplines of STEM, politics, and finance, I highly recommend the book even if you’re outside those areas. There are some really good ideas that might lead to figuring out how you can uniquely move us towards a sustainable world.

I’ll end this post with the same quote that Gates ended his book with by Hans Rosling:

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.

I get a tad anxious and frustrated when I see another negative headline related to climate change. It’s frustrating to know that much of this suffering could have been avoided if only we didn’t ignore warnings made by climate scientists 40 years ago.

But that frustration clouds reality.

The reality is this: the world has improved in tangible ways for billions of people. More people have access to education and healthcare. More people have access to luxury products like smartphones and cheeseburgers. More people are getting a shot at living a long, meaningful life.

All of this has a cost, and it’s our job to figure out how we can continue to lift people out of poverty without degrading our Earth in the process.

  1. There is a concise and well animated video on how some of these emissions are distributed between nations by Kurzgesagt. I highly recommend giving it a view during a break or while doing a chore.