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How to avoid a climate disaster (according to Bill Gates)

By Céline Boulenger - Economist
In his new book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”, Bill Gates takes a 200-page look at the climate crisis we face today and the existing solutions to achieve carbon neutrality. While it may seem strange to take the advice of a technocratic billionaire with an astronomical carbon footprint, this book has a lot to teach us about the technological challenge of the crisis. In this article, we try to analyse the lessons it teaches us, as well as some of its shortcomings.

Net zero

Bill Gates’ entire argument is based on a single fact : the need to aim for carbon neutrality. He explains with great clarity that reducing our emissions will not be enough, because as long as carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, temperatures will continue to rise, threatening all life on this planet. He also explains that achieving “zero emissions” does not mean that our economic activities will no longer result in carbon emissions, but that we are talking about net zero emissions. He defines this as reducing emissions as much as possible, in combination with carbon removal techniques. Carbon could be removed either at the source of the emission or in the atmosphere. Gates also reconciles the fight against poverty with the fight against climate change. He states that it is imperative that every individual has access to electricity, transport and quality food. This makes promoting the economic development of the poorest regions vital. The fight against global warming must take these issues into account, and must not condemn human beings to live in poverty. It is inconceivable to ask African countries, for example, which today account for only 2% of carbon emissions, to continue living in poverty in order to avoid a climate disaster. Instead, we need to invest in technologies that will allow emerging countries to develop in a sustainable manner, without increasing their carbon footprints. 

Every sector is affected

As Gates explains, reaching net zero will not be an easy task, because every economic sector will have to rethink the way it operates. Changing the transport and electricity sectors will not be enough. The transport sector, for example, accounts for only 16% of global emissions, while the construction and infrastructure sector is responsible for 31%. This means that all areas of the economy will have to be revolutionised. 
In his view, it will be necessary to electrify as many sectors as possible, such as the transport sector, and to ensure that electricity comes from non-polluting sources. Naturally, he talks at length about renewables, the need to bring down their costs and to improve storage systems, but he also talks about nuclear power. Nuclear energy, a major taboo in environmental debates, is, in his view, essential for achieving carbon neutrality, since it is currently the only zero-carbon, non-intermittent source of electricity. Of course, he mentions the progress that needs to be made to make nuclear power safer and cleaner; and he also talks about the possibility of one day seeing nuclear power plants based on fusion, a process that would release four times more energy than nuclear fission, and that would not produce any high-level radioactive waste.

Mitigation before adaptation

In the second part of his book, he also discusses the differences between mitigation and adaptation to climate change. In his view, we must first focus on mitigation, i.e. doing everything possible to avoid a climate disaster. Achieving net zero must remain the priority. However, even if our emissions are reduced to zero by 2050, global warming has already begun, and some level of adaptation to it will be necessary. This is especially true in countries most vulnerable to rising temperatures and water levels. Unfortunately, these are often emerging countries that lack resources. For example, it will be necessary to help the African continent to cope with increasingly common droughts and to adapt its agricultural crops to the climate in order to avoid new waves of malnutrition. So the most vulnerable must be protected first and foremost; and we must also bear in mind that the more we reduce our emissions today, the less we will have to adapt to a more hostile climate tomorrow.

Some gaps

It should be noted, however, that although Bill Gates provides a very good analysis of the technologies that will have to be deployed in the coming years to achieve carbon neutrality, his book is a reflection of him; that is, it is clear that it was written by the pen of a technocrat. While significantly increasing research and development in future technologies should be a priority, technology does not solve everything, and the founder of Microsoft is perhaps a touch naive in this regard. 
  • He stresses that the public and private sectors must work together to achieve net zero, but he remains focused on the private sector, as he is part of it. However, we believe that it is the public sector that can make a difference. If it was possible to apply the advice of scientists and technocrats in the blink of an eye, we would not be where we are today (both from an environmental and a health point of view). The environmental transition is slow and complicated because it depends on our governments and the politicians who represent them, as well as on the will of each citizen to change his or her lifestyle and of each company to make the environment a priority. Bill Gates is humble enough to admit that he does not have a solution to climate change policies, yet this is what needs to be changed first. Each government must take its responsibility seriously and put in place extremely ambitious climate policies, while forcing the private sector to follow the same trajectory. 
  • Nor does the book mention the importance of multilateral institutions in the fight against climate change and in development aid for emerging countries. COP26, for example, could have a huge impact on the decisions taken by governments in the near future. Climate change is inherently global, so it needs solutions that are also global. Bill Gates’ remarkable work teaches us a great deal about the technologies of tomorrow and the solutions that already exist to reduce our emissions and to capture some of them, but his analysis would have been more complete if he had focused on the political nature of the climate issue.

What is striking is not the size of the reduction in emissions caused by the pandemic, but how small that reduction is. The relatively modest decrease in emissions this year shows that we will not be able to achieve zero emissions by simply flying and driving less.As bad as this pandemic is, climate change could be worse. A global crisis has shaken the planet. It has caused a tragic number of deaths, made people fear leaving their homes and will cause economic hardship for many generations. Its impact is being felt around the world. I am, of course, referring to COVID-19. But in just a few decades, the same characteristics will apply to another global crisis: climate change.

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