Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft Corporation MSFT MSFT and one of the world’s richest men and philanthropists, has written a new book that hits the stores on February 16th. Unlike his two previous books, this one is not about software and the digital revolution. Mr. Gates’ new book covers grounds far beyond the author’s background in software engineering and his active philanthropic interests in global development, public health and US public education via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (founded in 2000).
According to the blurb, “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”. In the introduction, Gates explains how he got involved with the climate change field via the problem of energy poverty that he came across in looking at issues of public health in developing countries. In field visits to parts of India and Sub-Saharan Africa, the initial impression of “why is it so dark, where are the lights” naturally led to understanding that an essential part of poverty was the lack of reliable access to electricity for over a billion people in the world, half of them in Africa. Gates asks, “Where is the reliable and affordable electricity for offices, factories, and call centres, for lights to read by and for keeping vaccines chill in working refrigerators 24/7?”
The first parts of the book give readers an idea of Gates’ intellectual journey. He cites the Cambridge physicist David Mackay who showed the link between per capita income and per capita energy use. This historical correlation between energy use and standards of living led Gates “to think about how the world could make energy affordable and reliable for the poor”. The work of economist Vaclav Smil on the essential role of fossil fuels in the evolution of human civilization is also commended by Gates.
The Link between Climate and Energy Use
It was only later, in 2006, when Bill Gates began to focus on the link between energy and global climate. In his words, “I kept learning everything I could about climate change. I met with experts on climate and energy, agriculture, oceans, sea levels, glaciers, power lines and more”. Gates read up on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and consulted the work of experts such as Prof. Richard Wolfson who gave a series of lectures on the Earth’s Changing Climate. “Eventually it sank in”, Gates says. It dawned on him that for global health and development, energy had to be not only cheap and reliable but also “clean”. Gates was now convinced that “the world needs to provide more energy so that the poorest can thrive, but we need to provide that energy without releasing any more greenhouse gases”.
Soon, Bill Gates was convinced of three things: to avoid a global climate catastrophe, we have to quickly achieve “net zero” emissions of greenhouse gases; we have to deploy tools we already have (like solar and wind power) “smarter and faster”; and we need to create and roll-out “breakthrough technologies” to get us the rest of the way. For Bill Gates, it all came together around the meetings leading to the 2015 “COP 21” climate change conference held by the UN and the resulting Paris Agreement. He decided “to do more” and “speak out more often” on climate change, joining an illustrious group of visionaries and VIPs that had long been at the vanguard of the climate change establishment such as Prince Charles, Richard Attenborough, former Vice President Al Gore, and former UN climate head Christina Figueres.
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Having established why net zero is necessary (to avoid global catastrophe) in Chapter 1, the author then explains why the goal of net zero is so hard in chapter 2 (energy use is pervasive with modern life, and net zero would require wholesale changes in all aspects of society, economy and politics). Chapter 3 guides the reader to having an informed conversation about climate change, as the author tries to “cut through the noise” of conflicting statistics and uncertainties in climate science. Chapters 4 to 9 bear the good news that “we can do it” despite the hard tasks ahead, with various clean energy options available now and potential technologies of the future to handle emissions in the electricity generation sector (“how to plug in”), manufacturing (“how to make things”), agriculture (“how to grow things”), transport and mobility (“how to get around”), and the buildings sector (“how to keep cool and stay warm”).
Cool Technologies and Breakthrough Inventions
In these chapters, the reader is introduced to an array of new technologies and hoped for breakthrough inventions, ranging from solar and wind power to “green hydrogen” via electrolysis using clean electricity, batteries, pumped storage hydropower, thermal storage via molten salts, direct-air carbon capture, heat pumps (to replace gas or oil-powered heating), modular nuclear technologies and so on. Gates the technophile gets into his element as he describes “cool” technologies that would electrify every process possible, decarbonize the electricity grid, capture and store carbon, and use materials more efficiently. Chapters 10 to 12 conclude by proposing “a plan based on guidance by experts across all disciplines” in the hard and social science, with a focus on the policies that governments can adopt and what each of us can do to play a role in the quest for net zero.
For Gates, the case for net zero is “rock solid”. The science is settled, and he is convinced that “the only way to avoid disastrous outcomes is to get to zero”. For readers already convinced of the “climate crisis” and the imperative to go to “net zero” by 2050, this book holds no surprises. For those more sceptical of popular discussions of climate change, what is most striking is that Gates – among the world’s most celebrated and successful data scientists — is so curiously unaware or indifferent to data that challenge many of the presumptions contained in the book.
Thus, for example, while Gates is aware of the low energy density and intermittency of solar and wind power (when the sun sets and the wind does not blow) and the prohibitive costs of batteries to store electricity at grid-scale, he nonetheless finds it imperative that we have policies “to force an unnaturally speedy transition”. Net zero “requires the US to build as much wind and solar we can build and find room for”. Indeed, it would seem that Gates’ optimism sees nothing but promise in affordable decarbonization. Getting the US electricity system to zero-carbon would increase retail rates by 1.3 – 1.7 cents per kwh, roughly 15% more than what people pay now or $18 per month premium for a household – “pretty affordable”. He cites a European trade association which suggests that decarbonizing the power grid by 90 – 95% would cause average tariff rates to go up about 20%. Again, this seems “pretty affordable.
This might remind some readers of the former German federal environment minister Jürgen Trittin who famously said in 2004 that the burden placed on households by the renewable energy surcharge of Germany’s famed Energiewende green policies would amount to “only around one euro per month, the price of a scoop of ice cream.” But the renewables boom of the following years quickly inflated the green surcharge, making Trittin’s figure obsolete and an easy target for ridicule.
Follow the Science
One looks in vain for Gates to assess the actual evidence to date regarding the experience of countries and states that have done precisely that, “forcing an unnaturally speedy transition”, such as Germany, California and South Australia. There is no attention paid to the deleterious impacts of shutting down coal and natural gas plants on electricity prices (Germany for instance has among the world’s highest household prices for electricity), grid stability (with California now entertaining regular rolling blackouts as the norm caused by green energy regulations) and energy poverty in rich countries such as the UK. Nor does Gates find it necessary to engage with substantive arguments in well-researched published work by well-known environmental sceptics such Bjorn Lomborg (who recently published “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet”) and Michael Schellenberger (the best-selling author of “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All”).
Either Gates is not aware or finds it inconvenient that the very authorities he consults with hold views at odds with the assertions made throughout the book. Vaclav Smil, the widely-respected energy scholar praised by Bill Gates (among others), concluded that it would take 25-50% of all land in the US to go 100% renewable, a practical impossibility. Today, the US uses just 0.5% of its land for energy. In 2009, David MacKay, another leading authority on energy technologies that Gates cites favourably in the book, showed that providing all the UK’s energy with 100% renewables would require a greater area than the landmass of the entire country, an “appalling delusion” as he called it.
Gates’ book is meant for the general reader concerned with climate change, one who needs the “noise” removed from statistics and scientific uncertainty as the author promises to do. In this context, it is rather disconcerting to find that what Gates often asserts as facts seem to be in stark contrast to what a cursory search of the literature (“ask Google GOOG GOOG ”) might suggest. Let’s take the case of heat pumps. Furnaces and water heaters, utilizing fuel oil or natural gas, account for a third of all emissions that come from buildings. According to Gates, the “good news” is that electric heating and cooling by heat pumps “saves you money”. Whether you are retrofitting or starting construction from scratch, according to Gates, you will save money if you replace a natural gas or oil- powered furnace (for heating) or an electric air-conditioner (for cooling) with an electric heat pump.
Yet, the UK government’s Committee on Climate Change recently conceded that heat pumps would be ‘the heating solution in fewer than 200,000 homes’. Despite thousands of pounds of subsidies offered since 2011, only 30,000 units are currently being installed each year – just two per cent of the 1.5 million replacement boilers sold annually. Indeed, there have been just 16 million heat pumps installed in the entire world, across all sorts of buildings – not just homes.
Bill Gates appeals to a world whose imminent end he prophesizes. In the missionary style of exhortation, his book paints a catastrophic future which is convincingly described, even “proved”. After a sermon of warnings and threats which accompany the horror of a predicted Armageddon (rising sea levels, extinction of many species, extreme weather, food shortages, mass migration, etc.), a technophilic way forward is presented which offers the possibility of salvation. “Following the science”, as understood by Gates and his fellow illuminati, presents a clear way forward in a therapy of carbon conversion (“we can do it”).
Alas, ‘following the science’ is neither straightforward nor consensual. The diversity of scientific views on every aspect of climate change which one would have expected Bill Gates to be conversant with are not to be found in this book. Indeed, he dismisses contrarian arguments as products of “small and politically powerful groups not persuaded by the science”. In the meantime, the business of living by the vast majority of ordinary people of the world becomes inexorably more difficult as affordable fossil fuels become the target of “policy corrections”. Bill Gates’ proposed environmental salvation – forced by policy elites and activist businessmen in “an unnaturally speedy transition” towards decarbonization – will be a fearsome sight to behold, a road to hell paved with good intentions.