Gates on Climate: it's Not About Nuclear

Gates on Climate: it's Not About Nuclear

March 19 2021

In his recent book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates has done a full-frontal assault on how to deal with climate change. Gates, a self-proclaimed late-comer to climate action and previously known as an advocate for nuclear energy solutions, is now far more focused on generating clean utility scale electricity from solar, wind, and batteries, and cutting the other big emission categories: industry, transportation, buildings and agriculture. Gates says we need to cut to zero the 51 billion tons of CO2 equivalent emissions from the combination of these sources. Here is his roadmap:

Electric Utilities Produce ~27% of global emissions, which needs to go to zero. Coal and gas fired power plants need to be fully phased out. The cost of building utility scale solar, onshore and offshore wind is now lower than operating coal-fired power plants and may soon be cheaper than building and operating new natural gas fired power plants. Gates proposes continued innovation in carbon free electricity (eg: nuclear fission and fusion) but acknowledges the main challenge is to improve battery storage. Even though utility scale battery costs have declined by 90% over the past decade and more storage was deployed in 2020 than in 2013 / 2019 combined, Gates says further R&D is needed to drive down battery costs.

Vehicles and Transportation Produce ~16% of global emissions and ~28% for the US. Electrification of vehicle fleets, powered by clean electricity, will go a long way toward eliminating emissions in this sector. The sticker price of EVs will soon fall below gas/diesel vehicles. Moreover, hydrogen and alternative fuels promise additional ways to power big trucks and heavy machinery. To further speed up the transition to a zero-carbon fleet, Gates says we’ll need further federal incentives, a price on carbon and a widespread network of charging stations.

Buildings Produce ~7% of global emissions. Gates advocates for advances in technology to make heating homes and hot water more efficient. He cites the massive efficiency gains already achieved for heat pump and HVAC technology, appliances and lighting. He suggests new buildings need to be net zero. Existing buildings need Government incentives and penalties (like a Carbon tax) to force further efficiency gains like better windows, insulation, HVAC systems etc.

Industry Produces ~31% of global emissions. An enormous amount of fossil fuel is required to make cement, steel, aluminum, plastic, fertilizer, paper and many other products and materials. Innovations to reduce the emissions from these processes are still in their infancy and are complex. Europe is going all in on making green hydrogen gas for its manufacturing processes, and many see it as the most promising way to cut industrial emissions. Meanwhile, if we cannot solve the industrial high heat issue with clean energy, we’ll need to absorb the remaining emissions with carbon capture sequestration technology, an area needing a step-change in innovation to reach scale.

Agriculture Produces ~19% of global emissions. Cattle and pig burping, farting and pooping, the main source of agriculture emissions, can be solved by genetically modifying breeds to burp and fart less. Modifying diets can help too. Overapplication of nitrogen fertilizer can be tackled by innovating more efficient fertilization methods. Gates says clearing thousands of acres of forest and jungle each year to create grazing land for cattle and for Palm oil plantations, needs to stop. As does the destruction of this vital “carbon sink” from our ecosystem. Eating more chicken or plant and cell-based meat would also greatly reduce our agricultural footprint.

Gov’t investment in Innovation. Gates points out we cannot solely rely on revenue oriented, venture capital and private companies for investment in these breakthroughs. Many innovations are nascent, on work benches or still in their inventor’s head but all need support to succeed. Gates therefore calls on governments, foundations and philanthropists to fund the scientific research that can make these ideas a reality, and to tap into the market of scientists and universities seeking grants to research ideas. Gates concludes that the US should lead on innovation, as it has in the general technology arena, not simply to cut emissions at home but to drive down costs of critical technologies for countries rich and poor, and to avoid a climate disaster for the entire planet.

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