Race Against Time: What I’ve learned from Bill Gates about how to avoid a climate disaster

By Robert Leonard Berkowitz

The Fire Next Time — Photo by author

We’re all familiar with William Henry Gates III. He is an American business titan, pioneering software creator, investor, author, and philanthropist. He co-founded the Microsoft Corporation and revolutionized the personal computer industry with the invention of Microsoft Windows. He co-founded, with Melinda Gates, the non-profit Gates Foundation — the world’s largest private charitable foundation. They have done more than just about any two individuals on the planet to fight disease and poverty, and advance education. He has used his outsized social media platform to stand up for science and global equity during the depths of the Covid19 pandemic, as well as help fund vaccine dissemination.

He has also recently authored the best-selling book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster — a science and fact-based diagnosis of the greatest threat in our 250,000 year history on planet earth and a prescription for how to circumvent it.

As Gates says in the introduction, his intent in writing the book is “to channel the world’s passion and its scientific IQ into deploying clean energy solutions we have now, and inventing new ones, so we stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.”

Let me first say he’s stirred my passion and awakened what little scientific IQ I’ve been blessed with.

Reading the book, and the background research it inspired, has been an educational journey for someone who in his seventh decade of nesting in the earth’s biosphere thought he knew all he needed to know about how to make it endure.

I was mistaken.

I’ve learned many things from reading How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, and things I already knew came into much sharper focus.

I learned that the earth’s carbon cycle was in balance in 1750, naturally absorbing as much carbon as it emitted.

That’s no longer the case. Today 51 billion more tons per year of the carbon dioxide equivalents, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydro-fluorocarbon gases, or what are collectively labeled greenhouse gases, are being added to the atmosphere than removed from it.

That’s an average of 7.3 tons for each person inhabiting the planet. For those of us who nest in America, it’s closer to twice that amount.

I learned, despite having taken physics for poets in college, that greenhouse gas emissions are unable to exit our atmosphere and diffuse into outer space due to the molecular nature of carbon and the peculiar wave-length characteristics of solar radiation.

I learned that those gases can linger in our atmosphere for thousands of years, which means that as more are released, they add to those already there, creating an ever-thickening ceiling of greenhouse gases.

I learned that in 1750, there were roughly 275 molecules of greenhouse gases for every one million molecules in the atmosphere, or what is referred to as parts per million (ppm). This year the ppm number will exceed 417 — the highest level in three million years!

I learned that those greenhouse gases reflect heat-warming solar radiation to the earth’s surfaces, and the more they build up in the atmosphere the more they heat it up. Ergo, the name greenhouse, and the year-in, year-out record-breaking global temperatures we’re now witnessing.

I learned that the “natural sinks” of our biosphere, such as its forests, vegetation, soil, crusty surfaces of sediments, oceans, rivers, sea ice, permafrost, glaciers, and the vast species of terrestrial and marine life that inhabit it, have historically played a vital, life-saving role in maintaining the earth’s carbon balance for millions of years by having absorbed roughly the same amount of greenhouse gases from our atmosphere as they released to it.

Regrettably, I also learned that our historically record-breaking global temperatures are wreaking havoc with these natural sinks. They’re melting the Arctic permafrost, breaking up the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and destabilizing the ice-like crystalline structures at the bottom of the ocean floor.

I was dismayed to learn that this havoc has not only compromised the ability of these natural sinks to absorb atmospheric greenhouse gases, but has caused them to release ever-increasing amounts of previously-stored greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere.

I was unnerved to learn that this epochal inversion of the role played by these natural sinks has greatly raised the odds that a positive climate-change feedback loop kicks in where overheating begets melting, melting begets overheating, which begets more melting, and on and on…

I was rattled to learn that even if we’re able to halve the current rate of growth of global greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll still hit the perilous 450 ppm atmospheric concentration level by 2050 that keeps climatologists awake at night. When that happens, the planetary temperature is projected to hit the two-degree Celsius warming mark. At that level we will have entered completely uncharted territory in terms of planet warming, and sharply increased the odds of triggering an out-of-human-control planetary catastrophe.

I was less than surprised to learn that, unlike the five previous planetary carbon imbalances that extinguished most life on earth and were the result of such natural causes as asteroids and volcanic eruptions, the current carbon imbalance is almost entirely the consequence of human-driven behavior, and due largely to two activities:

— The extraction and combustion of long-stored geological deposits of fossil fuels.

— The disruption of natural processes of carbon sequestration, including deforestation, the burning of biomass, and evisceration of land and marine ecosystems.

To put it in the most benign light, I learned that the climate crisis threatening our one-and-only habitat is due to the well-meaning activities of ill-informed homo sapiens to raise their living standards, and enjoy all the conveniences of modern-day life.

I was also skeptically relieved to learn there are pathways to restoring the earth’s carbon balance, but they will have to be embraced as if our lives depended on them, and if we hope to elude what author Elizabeth Kolbert has called the “Sixth Extinction.”

So how, according to Gates, are we to avoid a climate disaster and dodge the fate of Tyrannosaurus Rex?

First, we’ll have to stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2050. That means going from 51 billion net tons of emission a year to a net of zero in just under thirty years.

Second, after 2050 we’ll need to begin restoring the planet’s atmospheric concentration level to that which existed circa 1750, and do it a lot faster than the two-and-half-centuries plus it took to get to our current, lethally-high level. That means we’ll have to begin absorbing a lot more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than are being released to it.

And, we’ll need to reach these targets as we face a staggering fifty percent increase in the projected demand for global energy and food between now and 2050 — a trajectory expected to continue into the next century.

So how, according to Gates, are we going to hit these herculean targets?

First, we’ll need to shift at lightning speed to renewables, especially wind and solar, as the primary source of energy for electrical power generation. Since electricity use, or what Gates calls “plugging in,” accounts for 27% of all greenhouse emission and promises to grow by leaps and bounds in the decades ahead, shifting to wind and solar will be the most critical pathway to zero emissions.

Second, we’ll need to quickly electrify the transportation sector, especially passenger vehicles, and light and medium-weight trucks and buses. Where that’s not feasible, or where internal combustion engine vehicles are still on the road, low carbon bio and hydrogen fuels will need to be “dropped into” gas tanks. Since the transportation sector, or what Gates calls “getting around,” relies almost entirely on oil-based petroleum and accounts for 16% of all greenhouse emissions, deploying low-carbon fuel substitutes will make a big dent in the amount spewed from tailpipes into the atmosphere.

Third, we’ll need to electrify what Gates calls “keeping cool and staying warm.” For heating, that means replacing gas- and oil-powered furnaces with electric heat pumps able to plug into an increasingly de-carbonized electric power grid. Where electrification is not feasible, or where furnaces are still being used, compatible, low-carbon substitute fuels will need to be “dropped in” to power them. Alternative low-carbon refrigerants will also need to replace hydro-fluorocarbon gas, one of the most potent of greenhouse gases used in air conditioners. Although heating and cooling buildings accounts for just seven percent of all greenhouse emissions, they will still need to be zeroed out if the overall target of net zero is to be met by 2050.

Fourth, we’ll need to de-carbonize what Gates calls “making things.” Since such basic products as steel, concrete, plastics and petrochemicals require super-high temperatures that can only be generated by the burning of fossil fuels, Gates believes we’ll need to seriously consider technology for capturing greenhouse emissions during the extraction, transmission and burning of fossil fuels, as well as safer, cheaper, and less waste-producing zero-carbon emitting nuclear reactors that can also generate the requisite heat levels during the manufacturing process.

The hard reality, Gates tells us, is that even under the rosiest of scenarios, fossil fuels and nuclear energy will be around for decades to make things and generate electricity, and unless proven carbon-capture technology and safer, low-carbon nuclear reactors are fast developed and rolled-out, it will be well-nigh impossible to get to net zero emissions by 2050.

It is worth remembering that the human activity of making things, which accounts for nearly one-third of all greenhouse gases, encompasses not just the materials that go into making cars, ships, trains, bridges, and buildings, but those that go into making the blades, rotors, turbines and towers of the wind farms, the tempered glass and mounting racks of solar rooftop panels, and the transmission lines, storage batteries, and power grid stations that make up the entire renewable energy supply chains — all of which will have to be produced in massive quantities if we hope to get to net zero emissions by mid-century.

Fifth, we’ll need to de-carbonize agriculture, or what Gates calls “growing things,” including farming crops, raising livestock and foresting. That means we’ll need to:

— Develop low-carbon alternatives to synthetic fertilizers that vastly increase the crop yield/land mass ratio. (Synthetic fertilizers are responsible for the annual release of more than 1.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions.)

— Shift to a low-meat and dairy diet based mainly on plant-based or cultivated real meat alternatives. (The world’s one billion meat and dairy-raising cattle annually emit two billion tons of greenhouse gases just from burping and breaking wind.)

— Sharply reduce food waste that annually produces the equivalent of 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

— Cease the carbon-emitting burning of biomass for land clearance. (Almost three billion tons of greenhouse gases are emitted annually by burning trees and disrupting the ground soil. That’s nearly six percent of all greenhouse gases. Since 1990 the world has lost a half million square miles of forest cover — a lot of it from the burning of trees to grow food, create pastureland for cattle, and plant palm trees for their oil.)

— Reforest, reforest and reforest to begin to restore one of our critical natural sinks, though it will take eons to make up for what has been removed.

Because the activity of “growing things” accounts for nearly one-fifth of all greenhouse emissions and bears a great deal of responsibility for the increasing disappearance of our natural sinks, executing these “must do’s” will be vital to getting to zero emission by 2050, and drastically lowering atmospheric concentration levels thereafter.

So, what’s it going to take to make all these “must do’s” happen in the short span of three decades?

As Gates urges, we’ll need to robustly employ the research, procurement, financial and taxing powers of governmental institutions, and concurrently leverage the innovation, execution and scaling-up capabilities of the private sector and free market place in order to do at minimum three big things:

The first is to create a green economy infrastructure. That means, among other things, concurrently building:

-A network of high-capacity solar panel and wind farms to serve the world’s surging power needs.

- A smart-grid transmission network to deliver wind and solar energy to cities, towns, villages and rural communities on a year-round, 24/7 basis.

-A network of charging stations for electrical vehicles so drivers can charge their batteries as fast as it takes to fill up a tank of gas.

-An accessible, affordable and interconnected public transportation network to encourage off-road, low-carbon ways of getting around.

The second big thing that needs to be done is to innovate like crazy, and push to market technological breakthroughs in such areas as battery storage, electrical transmission and generation, alternative fuels, carbon capture, low- carbon materials for making and processing cement and plastic, small nuclear reactors and fusion power — the safest, 24/7 carbon-free form of nuclear energy that, as Gates bemoans, always seems scores of decades beyond reach.

The third big thing is instituting policies that:

- Create incentives to speed-up the development and scaled-up deployment of low-carbon technologies by the private sector, and to lower the extra costs of going green.

-Impose disincentives, such as a carbon tax on goods and services, to price in their environmental costs.

-Mandate and vigorously enforce tough low- and zero-carbon electricity, fuel, materials and land-use standards with onerous penalties for violators.

Last, and above all, we earthlings, especially those who nest in the developed world, will need to step up big time.

As consumers, we’ll need to drastically reduce our double XL carbon foot print. That means modifying what and how we eat, travel, acquire and dispose of things, and heat and cool our buildings. It means consuming less non-renewable energy, using it more efficiently where there’s no alternative, and relying more heavily on renewable energy as it becomes more plentiful and affordable.

In plain English, it means going on a crash carbon-light diet, and, in so doing, sends a signal to others — here and globally, that the future of our planet matters to us.

And as citizens, we’ll need to reach out to our representatives and demand they make a net-zero carbon world a top legislative priority, vote out those who don’t and vote in those who do. In Gates’ words, “Engaging in the political process is the most important single step that people from every walk of life can take to help avoid a climate disaster.”

The burning question that begs for an answer is, can we get to net zero emissions by 2050 and avoid the risk of the Sixth Extinction?

Gates acknowledges it will be “really hard.” That may be a bit of an understatement.

Despite extraordinary progress in renewables and their enormous potential going forward, we have far to travel in very little time. In 2019, fossil fuels still accounted for 84% of global energy consumption, and wind and solar renewables just over three percent.

And as Gates frankly admits, the breakthroughs we need to get to net zero “will take decades…to reach a big enough scale to make a significant difference.”

However, if it were simply a matter of innovations in technology, the odds are if we mobilized our collective resources and inventiveness, as we did in developing and rolling out a Covid19 vaccine in an unprecedented time frame, we’d have a shot at making the breakthroughs needed to get to net zero.

However, it’s the “if” that’s in question, and for many reasons.

There’s the absence of acute concern about the climate crisis and the threat it poses to life on earth. As Gates admits, “There isn’t as much of a climate concern as you think.” To cite one glaring example, in 2019, American consumers bought five million cars and twelve million trucks and sport utility vehicles. Only two percent were electric vehicles.

There’s the powerful, obstructionist forces in the halls of congress that believe wind and solar energy are job killers and just a lot of hot air. They’re unlikely to go away anytime soon — at least to the extent necessary to fully mobilize the resources of the federal government to build the infrastructure, drive the breakthrough advances in technology, and institute the tax and regulatory legislation without which getting to net zero emissions becomes a pipe dream.

There are all the other pressing issues such as inequality, racial justice, job training, education, long-neglected infrastructure projects to repair and modernize our bridges, highways, airports, and waterways, clean up pollution, create adequate and affordable health care, prepare for future pandemics, and even adapt to climate change. Addressing all these and the existential climate crisis on a scale, at a speed, and with the degree of concentrated focus and resources that is required will be a heavy lift.

There’s the uphill battle of building an international consensus in both word and deed to get to global carbon emissions neutrality by 2050, especially given the rising tensions with China and Russia, the proliferation of nations run by self-serving “strong men” for whom the environment is just another resource to plunder for wealth and power, and an abiding skepticism abroad that America will stay the course after four years of being AWOL from the U.N. Paris Agreement on climate change.

And, it is well short of encouraging that five of the six largest coal-producing nations, including China, Russia, India, Indonesia and Australia have announced plans to step up coal output and build new coal-fired power stations at a rate three times that of the rest of the world combined, despite verbal promises to substantially lower their greenhouse gas emissions. China, by far the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, does not even plan to begin reducing its emissions until after 2030.

There’s the endless deforestation of the planet. This past year more than ten million square acres of old-growth forest were cut down and burned — amounting to a land mass greater than Switzerland. At this rate of destruction much of the old-growth forests — the most biologically-diverse areas on earth and a huge absorber of atmospheric carbons — will be gone by 2050.

There’s the ocean floor trawling taking place on a breathtaking scale. An estimated 1.9 million square miles of sea floor was scraped in 2020, disturbing marine ecosystems and emitting stored carbon from ocean floors equal to that emitted by the entire German nation during the same time period!

All this during the global pandemic recession!

There’s the ballooning of the world’s population. Between now and 2050, it’s projected to increase by 2.2 billion, or almost 30%, and then by another billion by 2100 before leveling off.

Most of that population growth will take place in areas of the world where reliance on coal and gas is the greatest, and where the understandable demand for basic everyday utilities such as electricity, heating and cooling, as well as all the conveniences that the developed world takes for granted, is likely to explode. (Nearly 800 million people in the world are still without electricity).

Due to this soaring population surge and related urbanization boom, we’ll need to produce 70% more food, farm more land, raise more cattle, clear more forests, make more steel and concrete to erect more buildings, and install more air conditioners as summers become more scorching. As Gates tells us, the world is projected to build the mind-boggling equivalent of another New York City every month over the next forty years, and the number of air conditioners are projected to skyrocket from 1.6 billion to 5 billion over the next thirty years, with world demand for cooling tripling!

With an expected post-Covid19 worldwide economic rebound fueled by more than a year of pent-up demand for goods and services, it’s no wonder that international economists are forecasting a 50% increase in the demand for global energy and food between now and 2050 — a trajectory expected to continue into the next century. Nor should it come as a surprise that the International Energy Agency is forecasting a five percent increase this year in global greenhouse gas emissions — the largest increase in more than a decade.

In the face of all these daunting challenges and wrong-way trend lines, hitting net zero global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and eventually restoring the earth’s natural carbon balance to that of 1750 before it’s too late will be a very tall order.

There’s a character in the 2019 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Overstory. Her name is Patricia Westerford. She’s a botanist who has spent her life studying the ecology of forests. Her boyfriend Den asks her, “Do you think we’re hopeless?”

She replies: “Den. How is extraction ever going to stop? It can’t even slow down. The only thing we know how to do is grow. Grow harder: grow faster. More than last year. Growth all the way up to the cliff and over. No possibility.”

Gates acknowledges we are headed in the direction of the cliff, but firmly believes if we take the bold steps he has outlined with the sense of urgency they demand, we’ll have a shot at steering clear of it. With his faith and confidence in humanity fully intact, he insists “we can do it.”

Let’s prove him right, for time is running out in the race to discharge our responsibilities as care givers of our wondrous but very fragile habitat.

Robert Leonard Berkowitz is the author of The Long Damn Summer of ’42, 9/11 and the Holocaust, and other essays. They can be found on Medium.com

Robert was raised in Newark and nearby West Orange, New Jersey. He now lives in Guilford, Connecticut.

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