How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

Reviewed on , book by Bill Gates

Part depressing, part optimistic, but wholly sober and easy to understand. The levelheadedness and simplicity of this book is wonderfully refreshing. The book’s quiet mastery comes from decades of capital allocation in climate change. I picked up this book with a bit of skepticism but put it down with admiration.

What I like the most is that everything is rooted in baserates: 51 billion tons of carbon equivalents emitted per year. Gates’ foundation doesn’t bother looking at anything that doesn’t have the potential to at least remove 1% of that a year. Relate every number back to that.

Ten million pie charts are floating around of what percentage of emissions come from what. Gates wins the simplification once again with this banger:

Making things (cement, steel, plastic) 31% Plugging in (electricity) 27% Growing things (plants, animals) 19% Getting around (planes, trucks, cargo ships) 16% Keeping warm and cool (heating, cooling, refrigeration) 7%

Boom. Another one:

World 5,000 GW USA 1,000 GW City 1 GW Town 1 MW House 1 KW

The book contains serious put-the-book-down-and-let-out-a-huge-sigh-of-defeat moments. Trees planted in the snowy north typically have a negative effect on global warming, as they tend to absorb more heat than reflecting snow (those in the tropics are great though). Sigh. Hydropower dams are often worse than coal for 50-100 years, as the reservoir will cover new soil and release serious amounts of methane. Deep exhale. Sea levels aren’t just rising because of melting ice, but also because water expands as it gets hotter. Exasperation.

Despite this, there is a strong sense of stolid optimism permuating the book. It is not defeatist, it is stoic.

Products that are lower emissions already exist. But they are still too expensive to replace the other products. So we need a carbon tax. Direct-air-capture (DAC) costs $100-200 per ton. That externality must be prized in: gas is cheaper than honey, maple syrup, yogurt, and every soda. Is that right? We could, if we can scale these technologies quickly, get to zero-carbon by investing ~6 trillion a year. That’s optimistic. But also makes it clear that subsidizing lower emissions steel is far cheaper, but also a harder back of the envelope calculation.

The book, like some climate change books, doesn’t include a direct roadmap. First I thought this would be a criticism, but I think the team’s smart enough to know that it’s outdated shortly. This is a snapshot of everything we know as of this moment, and it’s an impressive one at that. Highly recommended.