How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

This last week I finally read How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates, a newly released book that was a self Birthday gift couple of months back. A book that is timely in many respects – some people (organisations, agencies or publications) prefer to call it climate emergency rather than climate disaster or climate change. The magnitude of the problem is huge, but Bill Gates sets out the agenda at the very beginning with a hope, saying it would be hard but not impossible, as long as we have the tools, the will and the plan to solve for it.

With the two lockdowns in India between 2019-2020 due to Covid 19 pandemic, common man has begun to realise how little we need in everyday life. And the resultant pollution that gets generated on daily basis with the frenetic pace of our everyday activities. With limited travel, factory operations, closure of malls and other high social activities, the air has become much cleaner, so have the streams and rivers. People have sighted the Himalayan ranges from urban areas where it wasn’t visible earlier. Instead of noise of traffic horns, it is cry of birds that breaks the monotony of telephone conversations and zoom calls.

But the cyclones originating in the Arabian Sea on the west coast of India, limited monsoon rains in many parts of the country, higher or lower temperatures than normal, unusual rainfall or dust storms, extended winters are all pointing towards the effects of global warming.

While the conversation around nature has become more common, we are still not willing to change our lifestyle. And that’s because apart from knowing that plastics are harmful and travelling causes emission of gases, as do factories and power plants, the common man really doesn’t know much about climate change.

With the name of Bill Gates, the release of the book has been covered by most of the major television networks and newspapers in many countries, and more people are aware of the book than what it would have been if anyone else would have written it. Written in a very lucid and easy-to-read style; the book simply but powerfully explains the state we are in, why it is imperative to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and how do we go about it. Like I didn’t know that cheeseburgers or more specifically eating of meat also causes climate change – I didn’t have to read the book to learn this as the spoiler was part of every television interview on the book with the author.

The 51 billion ton of carbon emissions every year are a result of not just the way we travel (16% of emissions), our manufacturing activities (contributing to 31% of emissions) but also generating electricity using carbon or coal, natural gas and oil that contributes to 27% emissions. Growing our food and keeping ourselves and our buildings cool or warm depending on the climate result into balance 18% and 6% respectively of global emissions. For me a big takeaway is that clean electricity using renewable sources of energy or lesser dependance on fossil fuels solves a huge number of problems in many areas where the source of climate disaster lies namely production of goods and movement of goods and people.

As Bill Gates says it “ad infinitum or ad nauseam” in the book, it is about the focus on innovation and research where the solution to the problem mainly rests. Whether in increasing the output through solar and wind power, or increasing the storage capacity of batteries, or capturing the carbon in the air or at the site of emission and storing them in a neutral form like limestone, production of clean fuels using other means like nuclear geothermal power, even modifying the meat production or grain production through bioengineering, or utilising geoengineering techniques for short term measures and many other such ideas in the book.

But this kind of research needs perseverance and investment where many ideas would fail and few would have made through the filter of being useful, productive and economical through the various stages of adoption. Which needs Government involvement through sponsorships, subsidies and policy changes for the new technology to reach the markets and end users.

One of the big stumbling blocks to the whole agenda of Climate Change has been the tussle between developed and developing nations. Bill Gates carries this argument forward and lays the onus on rich nations to carry the agenda forward – not just because they have been the forerunners to contributing to green house gases through the decades but because they can afford to invest in research and technology. He argues that the clean energy and fuel need to reach the cost of being economical to the masses as much as currently the fossil fuels are, and till that time, we cannot force the developing nations to stop the use of current available technology they need to move forward. As more and more people in these countries continue to come up the growth curve, the consumption of fossil fuels through manufactured goods and other services will rise and thereby, forcing more development. Make the alternative methods so cheap and it becomes prudent to use them in favour of current methods.

The book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates makes me look at things differently, it is not just about making a move away from plastic to say glass and other natural products for storage – they also consume energy and contribute to emissions, but how much clean energy they use for production and how much Green Premium I am willing to pay as a consumer to invest in something more expensive. Bill Gates asks that as consumers be inquisitive, change habits that leads to demand creation.

The book has been criticised for its simplicity, how dated some of the arguments are and why there is no focus on reducing consumption as well. As almost a beginner in this subject, I somewhat agree to this because in last few days I have already read how the technology has moved considerably in the solar and wind power generation. Or how some companies are moving to testing out the carbon capture technology albeit currently at a huge cost – the company developing the solution has investment by Breakthrough Energy Ventures – a firm founded by Bill Gates. For the layman, the book simplifies the concepts of carbon emissions and Green Premium that makes it possible to understand and question the clean sources of energy, production, other means for transports and all other various consumption items we come across daily. This book presents some of the solutions that we already have and the breakthroughs we need to tackle this problem. It is not a complete encyclopaedia on the topic of climate disaster but details out what we need to do.

I think the book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates would have served its purpose if more and more people started discussing the problem of climate emergency and making small efforts to reach the mission of net zero emissions. The time has come that if we have to control the increase of average temperatures to 1.5o C pre-industrial levels, and prevent other resultant disasters which could threaten the livelihoods as well as lives of humans and other species the agenda needs to come out of conference rooms beyond scientists, researchers, technocrats, environmentalists and even, politicians and take this urgent discussion into every household.

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