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What I learned from *How to Avoid a Climate Disaster*

The importance of “getting to zero”

We’ve heard the word “zero greenhouse gas commission” many times in the news or magazines because greenhouse gases absorb heat, trap it in the atmosphere, and cause global warming and rising temperature. We already know that if we don’t reduce emissions, the temperature would still grow between 4 to 8 degrees Celsius in this century. But apart from the direct effect of days becoming hotter and sea levels go up (which is already horrible), there are some efforts that I didn’t think about before reading this book.

The first trouble from a hotter climate is more extreme natural disasters like hurricanes and floods that destroy infrastructures and cause disasters. Hotter weather means droughts in the river or soil lands and more frequent and destructive wildfires in California and Australia in the year 2020. Rising sea levels because of melting polar ice and expanding seawater size as it’s warmer is that some cities are shrinking because of higher coastlines. Singapore is taking some steps to prepare itself for future issues caused by climate change.

When the weather is getting hotter, animals and plants would be affected. Some would suffer when some thrive, affecting essential businesses like farming significantly. With seawater getting warmer, even only 2 degrees, some seafood would be wiped out.

And these effects are not working individually but on top of the others. According to Bill, climate change can be just as deadly as COVID-19 by mid-century and five times as fatal by 2100. Economic damage caused by climate change would be equally enormous.

To answer the question “why should we (as a country) deal with this issue?” the most persuasive answer is that countries that build great zero-carbon industries will be leading the global economy in the coming decades. Big energy breakthroughs would be significant and welcomed by the world.

Significant topics to consider about Climate Change

According to the data in the book, greenhouse gas is emitted by these five categories as a proportion of:

  1. Making things (cement, steel, plastic): 31%
  2. Electricity: 27%
  3. Growing plants and animals: 19%
  4. Traffic (planes, trucks, ships): 16%
  5. Keeping warm and cool (heating, cooling, refrigeration): 7%

Although electricity only accounts for just a quarter here, I think clean energy is the most important topic and can help with the other categories, like how electric cars help reduce carbon emissions. In the book, Bill talked about how to help with “zero greenhouse gas commission” for each category in different chapters.

Electricity One interesting new name I learned is “power density,” about how much power we can get from a square meter’s land. It turns out we can generate fossil fuels 500-10000 Watts per square meter, and for Nuclear, the number is 500-1000, when for Solar, it is 5-20, and for Wind, we can only generate 1-2 Watts per square meter. The author uses the word “Green Premium” to describe the extra cost we would need for switching to a zero-carbon option, and we need to find a new energy source that we can widely deploy with low or no Green Premium.

Today, natural gas and coal make up two-thirds of our electricity source because fossil fuels are cheap—fun fact: oil is more affordable than a soft drink. Bill discussed several other options that are possible to replace fossil fuels. Apart from the too much land needed problem, the sun and the wind are intermittent sources affected by weather, storing excessive electricity in batteries is super expensive, and hard to reduce the cost. If we want to use renewables for electricity sources, much faster innovations and more breakthroughs are needed about deploying renewables and improving transmission. According to this NYTimes review, the progress about batteries, solar and wind energy is more optimistic than Bill thinks.

Other options include nuclear power (fission and fusion), the only carbon-free and reliable energy source. France is already getting 70 percent of electricity from nuclear, while the US around 20 percent. The significant shortage is that it’s costly to build, and human error caused several nuclear accidents or disasters in history. In the book, Bill compared Nuclear power with Coal and Oil and said deaths caused per unit of Nuclear electricity are far less, and safety concerns shouldn’t block people from using it. Of course, the world needs to improve on Nuclear safety.

Materials Cement, concrete, and steel are the materials being used worldwide at a faster speed, and they generate much more greenhouse gases than plastics when plastics have the worst reputation for climate change recently. We manufacture enormous materials, resulting in copious amounts of greenhouse gases, nearly a third of the 51 billion tons per year. We need to get those emissions down to zero, but it’s not an option to stop making things. Instead, Bill discussed several ways to drive the premiums down when adopting the zero-emissions approach.

Farming As people get richer, they eat more calories, particularly more meat and dairy. The more meat we consume, the more plants we need to grow, as six calories of feed for every calorie of beef. When we need to produce more food, we need to reduce the emissions during producing the foods when farmlands are already being infected from climate change. Artificial plant-based meat is a popular alternative for real meat, and the author highly recommends this approach (as an investor in plant-based meat companies).

Planting trees has been viewed as a popular forest-related solution for climate change, as trees capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, it’s not as simple as I consider it before. A tree absorbs carbon dioxide in rather a low efficiency, and if the tree dies, it will release all the carbon dioxide it stored back into the atmosphere. If we eliminate a farm for a forest, that may lead to somewhere else trees being cut down, and the benefits are offset. The most effective tree strategy for climate change is to stop cutting down trees we already have.

Traffic 8.2 billion tons of carbon is being produced from transportation today. During Covid-19, travel and trade have been limited, but even this reduction is not enough for the zero-emission target by 2050. And stop people from moving is also not a valid option. Passager vehicles are the source of half transportation-related emissions. Electric vehicles are already trendy, and the Green Premium of EV is coming down. But the main concern is that if the electricity is not coming from a clean resource, we’re not reducing the emissions, as it’s equal to moving gasoline around.

In the last three chapters, the author suggested the specific steps we can do, from government policies and world leaders to companies and investors to every individual of us.

COVID-19 and Climate Change

Bill Gates warned us of a COVID-19-like pandemic — watch his TED Talk from 2015. Now he wrote this book to warn people about climate change. Still, he’s being optimistic, pragmatic and thinks the world can avoid a disaster, as countries are making real progress. The world becomes more committed after Covid to solve a global problem. In the next decade, Bill thinks that the world should focus on the technologies, policies, and market structures that will put us on the path to eliminating greenhouse gases by 2050.

Book review by the Guardian: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates review – why science isn’t enough

Published May 2, 2021

Software Engineer at Facebook. Loves football, volunteering, and exploring the world.