Michael Reibel Boesen

March 7, 2021

📕 Book Review: Bill Gates — How to avoid a climate disaster

I recently finished Bill Gates’ new book — How to avoid a climate disaster. The one-liner review is that it’s tech-centric (with weird blindspots), a kind of one-sided look at decarbonizing electricity and an extremely useful mental model for thinking about the climate crisis. Here’s the deeper review.

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Tech-centric (with weird blindspots)
In the introduction Bill clearly states that he’s a technologist and not a political scientist and that’s totally fair, hence he focusses mainly on technology and innovation as the key drivers of solving the climate crisis. IMO, the beautiful thing about that plan is that if we as technologists (for I’m obviously counting myself as one too) can just use innovation to drive down the costs of the technologies we need to solve the climate crisis, then we don’t need policy (although see later). I love that idea. Because TBH one reason I started Massive.earth was because I’m shit-scared of policy. He also really takes that position all the way to the end making it clear that to get to zero we need a plan for everything not just the “easy” electricity stuff, but also the harder challenges like alternatives to cement and so on.

But as much as I love this idea, that innovation can be used to solve everything, I just can’t map that to reality. While innovation is for sure needed to drive prices of technologies needed to solve the climate crisis down, innovation will only be a half of the picture. The other half is adoption. Adoption can be addressed by innovation (by e.g inventing new financial products or solving the scaling issues that is causing a slow adoption etc), but the most standard way of dealing with adoption is through policy and economic incentives. I feel he could spent a lot more time on the adoption piece. Because not talking about adoption forces the reader to ignore the time variable of the climate crisis, which we just can’t do.

Finally, I’m surprised that a skilled technologist such as Bill appear to ignore an engineering 101 fact, which is that as new breakthroughs are invented they will almost always be more expensive early on. The first Gen 4 nuclear power plant will be a lot more expensive than the 1000th. We have seen this in just about all aspects of technology and he even cites examples like how expensive microwave ovens used to be. So I don’t understand why he doesn’t appear to apply this to the technologies he advocates for himself. This means that while breakthroughs for sure is important and in some cases like cement is probably the only way to go, they won’t be solved by their invention. They will be solved by multiple years of additional research. Look at what happened with solar and other technologies. It has taken many years for it to get down in cost.
And here we also see the point that Bill McKibben mentions in his review of Bill’s book that Bill simply appear to use outdated numbers for solar and wind power (new numbers here), plus he ignores a lot of very high profile studies about how renewable energy can indeed power the world. Now I must admit that I side with Bill here to the point where if nuclear was an option it sure sounds a lot easier to solve our clean electricity problem with nuclear than with renewable energy. But as Bill also highlights nuclear is expensive and time consuming today due to various political and technical reasons. We’re not going to solve those issues with a new type of reactor.

One-sided look at decarbonizing electricity
I’m going to echo other reviews in saying that yes, Bill is very bullish on nuclear and especially 4th Gen nuclear being the solution here. At first I felt the energy chapter in itself was actually very balanced (compared to the critique he got for it). But throughout the book you get these small “hey nuclear is a really good option for this problem too”-sentences here and there. It becomes a little annoying. But unfortunately, also right. I think that the main problem is that he doesn’t seem to discuss the political aspect of nuclear which is a very thorny issues (for valid and invalid reasons). Again, I know he said he’s not a political scientist, but still this is a quite critical omission for his strong advocacy on nuclear I think. Also the fact that he doesn’t even as much as mention Gen 3 (the current) generation of nuclear as a solution, which is probably a lot closer to being able to solve the problem than Gen 4.

Green premiums
The part about the book that I really really love is his Green Premium concept. I love it so much that I think he should just have named the book “Green Premiums” and gone deep in that. OMG! It’s such a nice way to look at what we need to do. Bill uses it almost exclusively to focus on where innovation efforts should be focussed, but you can just as well use it to decide where to focus political efforts. In short, a Green Premium is the extra we must pay in a specific country to replace a dirty product with a green one. I.e. if replacing your gas furnace with an electric heat pump will be 10$ / month more expensive, the green premium for doing that is 10$ / month (the numbers are fictive). This tells us that we need to reduce the cost of electric heat pumps. This gives us a target for what to focus on. Either we must figure out how to make electric heat pumps more efficient through innovation such that it costs less to operate. Or we must look at ways to make the electricity it uses cheaper (e.g through a combined investment in solar power perhaps). Or we must look at policies or other incentives that will lower the cost. Or finally, we can see if we can invent a financial product that will make it cheaper in the long run.
An even more important use of the Green Premium is if it’s zero or negative for one solution. Because if that’s the case and it’s not widely adopted, then there must be “something wrong” with the deployment of the technology. Either it’s being hindered by policy or something else. This is the one point where Bill touches on adoption. His argument, I think, is very valid. That if a replacement of something actually saves people and/or businesses money and is green but people still don’t use it, then there’s “something” wrong. However, I believe that we’re seeing this at a global scale with a lot of different climate solutions right now. Prime example is renewable energy which is cheaper than any forms of energy, yet it is not being adopted at an acceptable pace. I really believe that the key to solving the climate crisis is breaking those barriers. And as mentioned earlier Bill doesn’t give this adoption part a lot of space in this book. But the Green Premium is also a great tool to identify solutions or technologies for which “something” is wrong with the adoption.

If you haven’t read the book I can highly recommend going to Breakthrough Energy’s website and read about Green Premiums.

Conclusion
I enjoyed Bill’s book. And I really don’t understand all the flak he’s getting for being a white billionaire trying to help. In his book I especially enjoyed the Green Premium part. Technology-wise though I’m not sure it contributes a lot to the discussion than existing research projects such as Project Drawdown. Some of his solutions are even opposed to Drawdown, such as his focus on fossil-free fertilizer (also important, no doubt) but which Drawdown says can be solved using regenerative agricultural practices. His part about that innovation must play a major role in reducing the costs of key solutions I couldn’t agree more with, but sadly he leaves out the adoption piece of said innovations, which is sad. It would have made the book so much better.

About Michael Reibel Boesen

Dad 👨‍👩‍👦‍👦, builder (🤖⌨️🏢), 💌 Weekly Climate, 🚁📸photographer, 🎧vinyl record collector and reseller, 🥃 distiller (Gefjun), 🎸guitarist, 🎹pianist, 🍷winenerd (WSET3), 🏃‍♂️runner and 🤓engineer/PhD.