06.05.21 How Bill Gates intends to save the world Author: Frank Schnellkamp • Reading time: 3 min.

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Summary

He founded Microsoft and became one of the world’s richest people. Now Bill Gates has a new mission: averting the impending climate catastrophe. Inspired by his belief in the power of innovation and drawing on insights from leading scientists and decision-makers, Gates explains what he thinks needs to be done in his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster (February 2021). Here are the book’s five most important theses.

1. Get from 51 billion to zero

Each year, about 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. To stop global warming and prevent the worst effects of climate change, Gates says this figure needs to be reduced to zero as soon as possible but by 2050 at the latest—even in the face of rising energy demand due to increases in population and prosperity. Yet dramatically cutting emissions won’t be enough, he says. To make this point, Gates compares the already warm climate with a bathtub: even if the tap is reduced to a trickle, the bathtub will still eventually overflow. Preventing this disaster, Gates believes, is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. It would require all countries to fundamentally change the way they live and do business. But Gates believes it can be done: humanity already has some of the tools it needs and can invent the rest.


2. Innovate

Across all industries and applications, Gates is convinced that it won’t be possible to reach net-zero emissions without ground-breaking technology. He’s equally convinced that human ingenuity can deliver the solutions. The billionaire, who is himself active as a venture capitalist, therefore calls for not shying away from investing in ideas that may at first seem crazy. He himself has invested more than a billion dollars in the development of sustainable products that include low-emission varieties of cement, steel, and meat. Additional research into geoengineering is important as well, Gates says. After all, by intervening in the oceans and atmosphere, this controversial method may eventually be humanity’s last chance to lower the rise in global temperatures.


3. Reconsider nuclear power

Gates advocates vigorous expansion of renewables, but finds it hard to image a future in which there’s abundant, affordable zero-carbon electricity without more nuclear power. He considers nuclear technology simply too promising to be ignored. The company he founded, TerraPower, is therefore researching the development of next-generation nuclear reactors that could generate electricity more safely and cheaply than current reactors while producing less waste. Gates is aware that a nuclear renaissance would be extremely controversial in the wake of Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) and because of the unsolved problem of nuclear waste storage. His counterarguments include that more people die every year from air pollution from coal-fired power plants than have died in all nuclear accidents to date.


4. Reduce the eco-surcharges

Fossil fuels remain relatively cheap because their adverse climate externalities aren’t priced in. This often makes it difficult for clean energy sources and sustainably or carbon-neutral products to compete with conventional energy and products. Gates calls this difference the eco-surcharge and believes it must be reduced, primarily through innovation. To accelerate this process, carbon-intensive technologies and fuels could be made more expensive through carbon allowances, carbon taxes, reductions in subsidies, and other mechanisms.


5. Compel policymakers to set meaningful targets

Politicians, says Gates, care about what their constituents care about. That’s why citizens and activists worldwide should vote, write letters, sign petitions, and participate in other forms of political action to compel their elected representatives to make climate protection their top priority. The measures required to tackle global warming are widely known. Policymakers and diplomats now need to make the necessary compromises, draw up binding climate protection plans, and implement them. Gates also calls on governments to increase their R&D spending on climate protection fivefold within ten years and to put in place effective carbon-pricing mechanisms. Governments can exert great influence. Gates therefore believes that getting involved politically is the most important step people can take to avoid a climate disaster.

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