Bill Gates released his latest book How to avoid a climate disaster in February 2021. I found the book quite interesting and valuable, and am providing my review. I hope you find it useful – Narasimhan Santhanam, Director, EAI (You can find a copy of this post on LinkedIn over here )
One sentence summary of the book
Cleantech has a good chance of averting a climate catastrophe if governments, industries and researchers worldwide get their act together to strategize and innovate around key solutions for net zero CO2 by 2050.
That taken care of, I’m providing a more detailed feedback on the book.
Betting big on big-tech
In 2011, as part of EAI’s consulting work, I was guiding a two member project team from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to meet researchers and organizations in India working on fecal waste management – specifically those working on technologies working on converting human waste to energy. Both of them were from the Foundation’s headquarters at Seattle, and I came to know their team personally presented to Bill Gates a few times every year. It is not everyday you meet someone who had actually met Bill Gates, so I took the opportunity and asked them, “So what do you guys really think of him?” While they were obviously impressed by his intellect and energy, one of them also mentioned, “But what is striking about Bill is that he strongly believes technology can solve most of world’s problems.”
I have never been fascinated with technology being the key lever to solve world’s problems, more so in the case of climate change where advances in technology have been a prominent cause of the problem, but that sentence has stuck in my mind for a decade. And when I finished reading Gates’ latest book yesterday – 236 pages in one sitting – that is the sentence that sticks out as the main theme from the book.
Bill Gates is batting for technology – especially big, scalable technologies and breakthroughs in them – to get the world to a stage where the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere had reached satisfactory levels. And this theme is emphasised in almost every section.
Relying mainly on technology – and that too big, deep tech – to solve climate change may not please everyone, especially when you consider that it was the advancement of such big tech that is at least partly responsible for climate change in the first place. But if you really think about it at length – as we have had to in our work – you will not see an alternative to tech to solve this problem within a relatively short timeframe. Expecting over seven billion people to become super responsible and drastically change their behaviour within the next decade or two is, I think, just a nice, romantic idea.
Along with big-tech, he reminds us that we should not lose sight of the big-picture while trying to get 51 billion tons of (CO2 equivalent) greenhouse gases down to zero. A valuable suggestion: In our race to achieve our moderate targets by 2030, we should not end up building stuff that hinder our path to net zero targets by 2050. Something on the lines of “let not good become the enemy of great”.
…while not forgetting the small facts
While his focus is mostly on big-tech, it was nice to see his attention also to some small but important details for many of these solutions.
I really liked the way he has taken efforts to simplify concepts and organize inputs so that important insights jump out and at least a few them are likely to stick in our heads long after we have finished reading. At the same time, he has just about managed to take the reader’s understanding one level deeper. For instance, he has shown why fuel cells need a more critical review when compared to batteries, by illustrating that for fuel cells, one uses electricity to first generate hydrogen and then use this hydrogen to generate electricity back again, whereas in batteries you directly store the electricity and release it when needed (so, the overall efficiency of fuel cells will be much lower compared to batteries). While these important granular concepts may be well known to industry professionals, even very good mainstream magazine reports do not explain these well to the non-specialist.
Gates’ book is written not only for industry professionals like me, but also to the public at large. With this in mind, he has taken efforts to structure chapters in a manner that his target segment can relate better – discussing decarbonization around “how we plug in”, “how we make things”, “how we grow things” and “how we get around”. He also has gone the extra mile to explain the basics of many of the technologies and solutions – and this was the reason I finished reading the book in under five hours as I was able to skip many sections and paragraphs that were familiar.
Even so, I was surprised to find that there were a few things I did not know or realize – either because I had not dug deep enough or I did not have the perspicacity to grab the idea while staring at it. For instance, I did not know that hydroelectric dams emit large amounts of methane due to the rotting of vegetation in the water – a quick online research suggests this could be equivalent to 3-4% of total global CO2 emissions, a significant amount. I should have figured this easily given that a good part of my work so far has been in anaerobic digestion – I just was not thinking deep while working on our hydro energy assignments (and the project owners were obviously not obliging enough to enlighten me on this!).
The perceptive reader will find a whole many such useful insights spread out in this work.
The interesting concept of green premium
While tech and tech breakthroughs loom large throughout the book, the other theme that Gates has emphasised all through is the concept of green premiums. I’m not sure if this is his idea, but regardless, he has done an excellent job of articulating it, and also how this concept could make a big difference to getting the world to net zero.
Green premium represents the extra cost it takes to get a net zero technology to replace conventional solutions – if it is low, it costs you little to shift, and if it is high, good luck! To illustrate, if solar power costs 1 cent/kWh more than the 10 cents/kWh cost of coal power, solar has a green premium of 10% = 1/10, a fairly low value making shift easy (as is already being seen worldwide). If bioplastics cost $3/Kg against $1/Kg conventional (petro) plastics, bioplastics has a green premium of 200% – and you can well guess the chances of wide adoption (as once again evidenced worldwide).
Gates takes the green premium concept a bit further to assist in decision making. A key question on the minds of many top decision makers (from government, research and industry) is: What green technologies should I invest in now and in the near future – in the context of both monetary investments as well as investing in the form of support systems such as tax benefits (or its inverse – carbon taxes), subsidies etc.
The green premium provides a good starting point to answer this question: Where green premiums are high, significant investments in innovation and R&D are required to bring them down to acceptable levels or to zero. Where green premiums are low, stakeholders need to find out reasons for low adoption (it could be low awareness, for instance) and move in to remove the obstacles.
To students of management like me, such frameworks are exciting – because they give an anchor around which to design strategies and take decisions in such complex domains. To me, this is where Gates’ latest book adds excellent value – his ability to frame problems and possible solutions in contexts that make it easy to start building blueprints for decisions.
Will the CEO of Unilever, the President of World Bank, or the Prime Minister of India be able to take climate change decisions much faster with the concept of green premiums? Having assisted/worked with senior functionaries in all these three stakeholder segments (large corporates, multilateral agencies, government) in the last ten years, I can say this with confidence: If they use this concept of green premiums at the beginning stages of their strategic climate investment decision-making, they can in the very least avoid some big mistakes.
In fact, the mistake I’m referring to may not be what you think it is: A poor investment in a moonshine solution with a high green premium is actually a lot less of a problem than the mistake of not giving immediate, enormous policy and infrastructure support and massively scale impactful solutions with a low green premium. We are in a race against time, not against bankruptcy.
Taking the thought a bit further, the following is broadly what the action matrix could look like for decision makers in the context of green premium:
The horizontal options represent the extent of green premium and the vertical axis, the decarbonization potential.
The decision makers have the luxury and flexibility to fool around with the solutions in the top row, though they might want to be extra careful to avoid investing in solutions with high premiums in this set – what is the fun in investing a lot in something in which the best case scenario is that you win and yet make little difference?
The bottom two cells of the matrix are the more important ones for decision makers.
For those solutions that have a high impact but are currently expensive, enormous investments in R&D are called for – this is perhaps where all the bigheads and eggheads need to come together to ensure massive innovation investments take place. While these solutions are unlikely to make any difference until 2030, they will be critical if we are to reach the ambitious 2050 targets.
For high impact solutions with low premiums, in most cases it might really be a matter of scaling them – essentially, figuring out what is stopping the end users to shift to these and ensuring these roadblocks are removed. This is the set that decision-makers cannot afford to screw up on – in addition to helping us reach 2030 targets, their early success will give the much confidence and momentum for the 2030-2050 leap.
The solution list for innovation
A good portion of the book is devoted to Gates’ inputs and insights on the big technology bets that have a serious chance of getting us to net zero. While some solutions have already reached a level of low premiums (solar and wind power for instance), many other big impact solutions currently carry high green premiums.
There are about 20 technologies/solutions he has listed that can have a significant impact on decarbonization but which also currently carry high green premiums – according to Gates, these are the solutions on which the world needs to spend large amounts of research dollars to bring down their green premiums. I must say this list is a fairly well researched one, and that alone makes it highly valuable to many stakeholders.
From a specific stakeholder viewpoint, this list can be looked at and used differently by different stakeholders: if you are a researcher, you may want to work on one of these areas if you wish your work to have a very high impact; if you are a large corporate, you may wish to start forming alliances, partnerships or start investing in one of these solutions so your company has at least a small stake in a solution that could be world changing tomorrow (this is what Breakthrough Ventures is doing currently). If you are the government, you would want to align policies and priorities such that high emphasis is provided to creating research ecosystems for solutions that are most relevant to your country (a country like India could focus on advanced biofuels, Philippines on geothermal energy and a country such as Germany, known for engineering prowess in carbon capture technologies etc.)
I do not wish to spoil your fun (and deprive a poor man of his few dollars royalty from book sales) by giving the list here. I think it will be far more enriching if you read the book and then review the list. Just so you don’t think of me as a spoilsport, here’s at least something – the solutions are a mix of big tech bets for green power, green fuels, green materials and climate adaptation.
Given my company’s work in this area past ten years, I think there are probably a few more that can be added to this list – recycling solutions for diverse products is something I can think right off the bat – but I’m sure the thought process and the framework used in the book will get other experts to add a few more to the list going forward.
Where Gates could have done better
And that brings me to portions of the book that one may not fully agree with or those that I felt have not been articulated as well as the rest of the book.
Bill Gates makes a strong case for nuclear power as a critical ingredient in the toolbox to take us to a net zero. There’s no denying the merits of nuclear – it is the only scalable, base-load, zero carbon power option today. And with the raw material resources available, the entire planet can be powered for well over a thousand years with nuclear power. Take a minute to think about the preceding two statements, and the true potential of nuclear power for decarbonizing the world sinks in. Yet, nuclear power’s challenges and the dangers it poses have kept it from becoming a large scale power source worldwide.
With his techno-optimism, Gates makes the case that these dangers can be taken care of, and quite well at that. Yet, radioactive waste sitting around anywhere with a potential to create dangerous emissions for over a thousand years is a prospect that sustainability minded folks are highly uncomfortable with – if sustainability means meeting the needs of the present generation without endangering the prospects of the future ones, how can nuclear be considered sustainable?
Unlike most other solutions Gates advances, nuclear is going to be the tough one to grapple with – the other could be geo-engineering, but that’s quite another matter. On the one side, you have the “idealists” who despise creating a synthetic ecosystem that could perhaps take us out of trouble now but with potential to create future harm, and on the other you have the “realists” who clearly feel that one got to be less mushy and take tough decisions in critical situations, and ideologies be damned – and what’s the point of ideologies anyway if we are all dead?
I doubt Gates’ book will make any difference to the stances of the various stakeholders in these controversial domains.
Towards the end, in sections where Gates is trying to summarize the recommended drivers and avenues for action, I felt it was crammed with too many suggestions. Even though I could not seriously disagree with any of the suggestions, I felt Gates, from his exalted position of status, power, access, intellect, and with his ability to make impactful presentations, could have done better. It would have been valuable if he were able to identify the top one or two drivers/avenues and dwelt further on how these could be applied to innovations or scaling up – and such prioritization could be the difference between a wish list and strategy.
Tens of powerful national heads and policy makers with their own political priorities, 100s of CEOs who have shareholders to answer to every quarter, dozens of investors sitting on pension funds and wary of bad investments, and bright innovators who have their own ways of doing things – trying to get all these stakeholders agree to doing many different and difficult things, and getting these implemented quickly, seems to me an unpalatable combination of a day dream and a nightmare. Gates quotes the example of how diverse stakeholders had acted in unison to repair the hole in the ozone layer – I’m not sure if success in that challenge with relatively limited causal factors means much for climate change efforts.
So what could help? I don’t know. And I don’t think this book has made me any more enlightened in this regard.
Recommended (and more so for engineers/scientists)
The fact that I was able to read a reasonably lengthy book in one sitting (about 5 hours) says two things at least: One, it is written in a fairly easy to read style, and two: it sticks to a focussed theme so your mind is not distracted by conflicting or diverse questions and discussions. I have a feeling that many others will find this book a fairly easy and interesting read.
Without his realizing (or perhaps he did), Gates’ book has the potential to spur an interesting movement. For some years now, I have been quite interested to find out how engineers and scientists from mainstream domains can get engaged in cleantech. Over the past ten years, at least a hundred students and professionals from science and engineering must have approached me to understand how they can contribute to this “new tech”. To almost everyone, I have said the same thing: Cleantech is not “new”, but is just an extension of the mainstream sciences and engineering.
Photovoltaics is mostly about semiconductors, wind power is to a very large extent mechanical and electrical engineering, biofuels is a basket of microbiology and chemical engineering (though there’s an increasing presence of biotech and genetic sciences), batteries are a mix of electrical, chemical and material sciences, geothermal is a combo of mining, construction and mechanical engineering…
In this book, the engineer in Bill Gates has laid out quite well the technical foundations of cleantech and the key technologies to focus on. That makes this book a valuable reading for science/enginering students and professionals with an interest in the (“new”!) cleantech. They can get a jump start on their understanding of cleantech and more important, a clear idea of technologies that matter the most. Gates’ accessible style – mixed with interesting personal anecdotes – makes it almost seem as though you are sitting next to him to get his ideas on cleantech. Something I doubt that will ever happen to me in my lifetime. Or to you in your lifetime, for that matter.
A recommended read if you had ever wondered what on earth the big boys of the world were planning to do about climate change – and especially so if you are an engineer or scientist.
This post has also been posted on LinkedIn.