Green Nudge Reviews

Green Reads: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and The Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates

May 21, 2021

By Kah Heng |

8 min

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Gain a sneak-peek into Bill Gates' latest book "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster" as our volunteer contributor, Kah Heng, shares her thoughts briefly on the book and dives into a quick summary of Chapter 3 - "Five Questions to Ask in Every Climate Conversation". In his book, Gates details the transformations -technological, political and social- necessary in order to mitigate the catastrophic effects of climate change.

Book cover of "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster" by Bill Gates (Image source: Amazon.com)

I was really excited when I saw this book sitting amongst the new arrivals at our libraries, what can I say? I’m a climate change and green investing nerd.

The subtitle read “The solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need” – Sign me up! My brain was whirring at the possible investment opportunities that lay within the pages and I excitedly texted my investing kaki to tell him of this find. Spoiler alert, the investment ideas I was hoping for were not handed to me on a silver platter through this book. However, I assure you, there are tons of other nuggets of gold hidden between the pages. 

I spent the next two weeks slowly digesting the book because #workingadultlife. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster details the transformations-- technological, political and social-- necessary in order to mitigate climate change. If we continue not taking aggressive action, it would cost even more lives than those lost to Covid-19, many of which would be the poor who have done the least to contribute to the problem. 

I’m sure others with a similarly keen interest in learning how we can mitigate climate change would find this book enjoyable too! In fact, it’s extremely accessible and succinctly written with minimal jargon. I would recommend it to anyone looking to understand how literally everything we do could contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and how climate justice is social justice too. I found the book to be a good starter pack for anyone keen on developing a critical lens when evaluating climate solutions. Bill detailed the technological innovations currently available while evaluating them based on a practical framework he shared in chapter 3 titled “Five Questions to Ask in every Climate Conversation”. I’ll try to summarise this chapter for other busy folks out there as I found this chapter to have the most actionable advice.

 

“Five Questions to Ask in every Climate Conversation”:


1.   How much of the 51 Billion tons are we talking about?

Every year, we add 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) to the atmosphere. Hence, 51 billion tons is our target amount of GHG to remove from the atmosphere per year if we are to avoid  a climate catastrophe. I’m sure we have all read reports suggesting that X innovation could potentially cut 5 million tons of carbon emissions if it can scale up, or that Y country produces 2 million tons of carbon annually. (P.S.: Don’t bother figuring out what innovation or which country I’m referring to as I literally plucked the numbers from the GHG-filled-atmosphere.) But how do we make sense of those numbers? Objectively speaking, cutting 5 million tons of carbon emissions sounds fantastic! However, 5 million is only 0.009% of global emissions which suddenly sounds kind of pathetic especially if the costs to scale up said innovation is really high. Therefore, to put things into perspective, Bill recommends that we always compare figures to 51 billion tons. I thought this tip made a lot of sense and it helps readers cut through the noise when reading reports regarding GHG emissions in the future.

 

2.   What’s your plan for cement?

Oftentimes, electricity and passenger cars tend to steal the spotlight when conversations veer to the sources of GHG emissions and where they can be reduced. This question Bill posed reminds us that we need to look beyond transport and electricity to consider other significant sources of GHG emissions. Just as we learnt in question 1, we have to put things in perspective: Passenger cars account for less than half of emissions from transport, contributing to less than 8% of global emissions. By comparison, cement and steel production alone accounts for roughly 10% of emissions. Out of sight, out of mind causes the conversation of how we make things to be neglected despite it producing the lion’s share of GHG emissions. Keeping this in mind helps remind us that we ought to include how we can reduce the amount of GHG produced in the way we make them as well. 


Here’s a summary of the percentage of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity (Gates, 2021):

o Making things (cement, steel, plastic): 31%

o Plugging in (electricity): 27%

o Growing things (plants, animals): 19%

o Getting around (planes, trucks, cargo ships): 16%

o Keeping warm and cool (heating, cooling and refrigerators): 7%

We must ensure that we cover all 5 abovementioned bases in our quest to get to net zero.

 

3. How much power are we talking about?

This question relates to electricity and is another call for us to put things in perspective. I'm just as lost as the next person when I hear terms like “kilowatt” and “gigawatt”. How does one visualise how much that is? Pro-tip from Bill Gates: Whenever you hear “kilowatt”, think “house.” “Gigawatt,” think “city”. A hundred or more gigawatts, think “big country” (Gates, 2021). I found this comparison helpful.


4. How much space do you need?

There are many suggestions for alternative power sources including pumped hydro.


Here’s an infographic that illustrates the idea of how a pumped hydro project would work. Though it can generate a lot of power, without both a hill and reservoir the project is moot. Artificial reservoirs displace communities and can bring knock-on effects on biodiversity in the area too.
(Image source:
Rise Renewables)

Though space should not be the only consideration when evaluating whether the solutions are practical, they are an important part of the conversation. Power density is a key concept related to space; it tells us how much power you can generate from different sources given the same amount of land. Clearly, the higher the density the better.

I thought this consideration was especially relevant for Singapore given our land scarcity. I’m heartened to see that the alternative energy solutions Singapore has been adopting, such as solar power, are creative and tap on our unique geographical advantages.

Related articles on solar power in Singapore:


5. How much is this going to cost?

Green premiums are the cost difference between the dirty source and its clean equivalent. Everything has its green premiums. For some, the green premiums are prohibitive while for others, the green premiums could be negative (i.e. it’s cheaper to use the green option than the dirty one). Knowing the green premiums helps move the conversation forward by giving clarity to follow-up questions like “Why aren’t we already choosing the clean option?”, “How much should carbon tax cost in order to encourage the switch?” so on and so forth. It also helps us prioritise where money should be channelled for R&D in order to reap the most benefits. Together, we need to bring green premiums down so low that low and middle-income nations are motivated to make the switch as they have the dual burden of developing while combating climate change.  

Bill Gates repeatedly reiterated why the impact of climate change would disproportionately impact the poor despite it being largely caused by the richer populace. Therefore, he argues – and I wholeheartedly agree—that the rich have a moral imperative to do more. Let me leave you with a powerful anecdote Bill shared about how he pleaded with people in charge of foreign aid budgets not to cut vaccine budgets in favour of a more climate-sensitive budget. “The best way we can help the poor adapt to climate change is to make sure they’re healthy enough to survive it. And to thrive despite it.” Chills.


Read How to Avoid a Climate Disaster through these sources:

  • Reduce your carbon footprint by borrowing a physical copy, ebook or audio book from our Public Libraries.
  • If you would like to own a physical copy and don’t mind a second-hand copy, try thrifting from thriftbooks.com
  • Finally, if you really, really want a brand new copy, try book depository.


References:

Gates, B. (2021). Five Questions to Ask in Every Climate Conversation. In How to avoid a climate disaster the solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need (Large print edition ed., p. 74). United States of America: Random House Large Print.


Gates, B. (2021). Five Questions to Ask in Every Climate Conversation. In How to avoid a climate disaster the solutions we have and the breakthroughs we need (Large print edition ed., p. 77). United States of America: Random House Large Print.

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About the writer: 

Kah Heng is a volunteer contributor with Green Nudge. She is a librarian who enjoys curating green reads by day, and an amateur investor who loves to discuss investing with anyone with willing ears by night.


Disclaimer:

The content written in this blogpost are purely the views and opinions of our external volunteer contributor. Green Nudge is independently-owned and does not claim ownership of the views put out in the content written above. For questions, please email us at team@greennudge.sg.

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