Bill Gates on climate change: Planting trees is not the answer, emissions need to be zeroed out to avoid disaster

'Every country will need to change its ways' says Microsoft billionaire

Review Bill Gates' book How to avoid a climate disaster is a sombre but informative read.

This is a different Bill Gates from the author of The Road Ahead back in 1995, in which as CEO of Microsoft he tried to persuade the world that his company realised the importance of the internet. This is Gates the philanthropist; and he has set himself the not small task of presenting “a plan for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.”

His starting point is that planning to reduce emissions is futile. “We have to get to zero … unless we stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the temperature will keep going up.” What are consequences of failure? Frightening. Gates is matter-of-fact but firm in assertions such as “if the temperature rises by two degrees Celsius, coral reefs could vanish completely, destroying a major source of seafood for more than a billion people.”

Is he worth listening to? It is a valid question, not least because he himself says, “my carbon footprint is absurdly high,” and that “I can’t deny being a rich guy with an opinion.” He is also a celebrity though; and a celebrity who says he thinks “more like an engineer than a political scientist” is something to be treasured at a time when the world is plagued by opinions that are influential but ill-informed.

Bill Gates

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A chapter entitled “Five questions to ask in every climate conversation,” is a good one. Do not be conned by things like “equivalent to taking one car off the road,” he says. There are 51 billion tons of greenhouse gasses emitted annually, what is the percentage reduction a proposed scheme offers? “Technologies that will never exceed one per cent should not compete for the limited resources we have for getting to zero,” he writes.

Gates also sets out a table of activities that generate emissions. The biggest category is making things (cement, steel, plastic) at 31 per cent, then electricity with 27 per cent. Plants and animals account for 19 per cent, with travel at 16 per cent, although the last year has trimmed this somewhat, and with heating and cooling generating seven per cent of emmisions. “Getting to zero means zeroing out every one of these categories,” he opines.

Each one gets a chapter in the book, with some data on the current state of play, and proposals for eliminating emissions. Gates does not always have a concrete solution.

Cement, used everywhere in vast quantities, is a problem, he notes. In the materials chapter he writes that “Of all the materials I’ve covered, cement is the toughest case of all … limestone plus heat equals calcium dioxide plus carbon dioxide.” He resorts to proposing carbon capture and using materials more efficiently.

Follow the money

A key issue is the conflict between lowering emissions and business economics. It is no good running a business with zero emissions if what you make is too expensive to sell versus “dirty” alternatives and the business goes bankrupt.

Therefore Gates focuses on what he calls the “green premium,” how much more the green alternative costs. If the green premium is low or even negative, adoption should be immediate. If it is high, it is problematic and only government intervention can enforce or incentivise its use.

Should we plant more trees? “It has obvious appeal for those of us who love trees, but it opens up a very complicated subject ... its effect on climate change appears to be overblown.”

The questions Gates asks include how much carbon dioxide a tree can absorb, how long will it survive, what would have happened to the land if the tree had not been planted, and where is it? Trees in snowy areas cause more warming than cooling, writes Gates, because dark things absorb more heat. Trees in tropical forests cause cooling because they release moisture which becomes clouds. “Trees between the tropics and the polar circles are a wash,” he says.

When we remove trees, “you disturb the soil … and it turns out there’s a lot of carbon stored up in soil … that stored carbon gets released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide,” writes Gates. Therefore, planting a tree to replace one that has been cut down does not neutralize the impact.

The most effective strategy is to “stop cutting down so many of the trees we already have, he says. He also writes that “you’d need somewhere around 50 acres’ worth of trees planted in tropical areas to absorb the emissions produced by an average American in their lifetime.”

Time to get clean

A recurrent theme is the need for clean energy. “Electrify everything, and get the electricity from a power grid that’s been decarbonized,” writes Gates.

He looks at a number of potential sources of emission-free energy, and is (unsurprisingly) a fan of nuclear. “No other clean energy source even comes close to what nuclear already provides today … nuclear power kills far, far fewer people than cars do,” he writes.

What can individuals – as opposed to governments or perhaps billionaires – do to make a difference? It is import because many us shrug and think “not much,” and therefore not much gets done by anyone. One tactic is putting pressure on politicians, Gates advises.

“Make calls, write letters, attend town halls,” Gates writes, showing again that this is in part a political book. Or “run for office,” he suggests.

As a consumer, there are suggestions to buy an electric vehicle, try a plant based burger, and be willing to pay the "green premium" to stimulate the market. And also don't throw food away: not only does it increase emissions by requiring more food, but also “when wasted food rots, it produces enough methane to cause as much warming as 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year,” Gates writes.

“There are things you can do to help avoid a climate disaster,” Gates said in his post introducing the book. There are; but the problems he articulates are such that it is hard to be optimistic. Still, you get the impression that he has done his best to be reasoned, not sensational, and to inform the debate, all of which are good things.

“Those of us who have done the most to cause this problem should help the rest of the world survive it,” he writes. It is hard to argue with that, and a shame it is not echoed by more of his ultra-rich peers.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is published by Penguin Press, ISBN 9780241448304®

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