The Gates of climate hell

| 22nd February 2021 |
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Bill Gates has made billions and understands capitalist markets - from the perspective of an investor. To confront climate breakdown we need to see things as human beings.

The bottom line is we have to solve this problem. A Green New Deal would do that.

It’s easy to ridicule Bill Gates and his book on climate change. Just point out that he’s a kajillionaire who owns both a private jet and a company that designs nuclear power stations.

Download Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs for free now!

But the problem is not his money. Rich people are often intelligent and interesting. The problem is that Gates makes four key mistakes.

Those mistakes matter because the book will be influential. Gates has been able to promote the book on media platforms all over the globe. He can be convincing, because he clearly cares, he has done his homework, and he asks the right questions. But because of those four mistakes, his answers cannot work.

Innovation

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The first mistake Gates makes is to concentrate on the innovations we will need before we can cut emissions to almost 100%. But this is red herring.

We already have all the technology we need to solve the problem now.

The second mistake is that Gates concentrates on costs. Gates assumes that green technologies will have to compete in the market against fossil fuels and other polluting technologies. The green alternative, he assumes, has to be cheaper or it won’t succeed. That’s why, according to Gates, we have to wait for the innovations that will bring down the costs.

The third mistake is that we will have to wait ‘several decades’ before we can get anywhere near reducing emissions by 90%. This is because, Gates argues, we will have to wait decades before we can develop the technology which will allow us to do what we need to do cheaply.

The three mistakes are linked, and they lead to the worst mistake of all. From the title of Gates’ book, you might think it is about How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. The first few chapters reinforce that understanding.

But read on, and you get to all the new technologies we will need to deal with climate disaster. And you will get to his explicit admissions that the whole process will take too long.

Gates estimates that if we do everything he recommends, we can get close to 100% reductions in the rich countries in 30 years time. The rich countries currently account for 38% of global emissions.

The not-rich countries account for 62% of global emissions. Gates says it will be “decades” after 2050 before not-rich countries can bring their emissions down.

Put those numbers together and it will be 50 or 60 years before all those technologies come on stream, the non-rich countries reduce their emissions, and we can solve the climate problem. That’s too long.

Gates explains, clearly, and with a mass of supporting detail, why his approach is not going to work in time.

Hovering in the background of the book is the Green New Deal. Gates never mentions the those three words, and the words are not in the index. But one of the things he is doing, as he does say in interviews, is showing why a Green New Deal cannot work in time. And, quite explicitly, he is showing why his approach cannot work in time.

Alternative

Luckily for all living things, Gates is mistaken. I am sure of this because I have just published a book that is more or less a mirror image of his. Mine is called Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs. It is published by The Ecologist.

Like Gates, I have been researching these matters for more than a decade. We both start from the same basic question. Greenhouse gas emissions are currently the equivalent of about 51 billion tons a year. How do we reduce those emissions to almost nothing?

Gates and I approach the answer in the same way. We ask the technical questions: where are the most emissions, and what will work?

Then our answers diverge. Let’s take one example – lithium batteries for electric vehicles.

Gates points out that there is not enough lithium in the world, and it is too expensive. That means we need innovation in order to build cheaper, reliable batteries.

My answer is that ‘cars had used batteries for almost a century before Sony developed a commercial lithium battery in 1991.’ The advantage of lithium batteries is that they are lighter and cheaper. But we could fill the world right now with electric vehicles with old style batteries.

It is the same for many other technologies. For example, rare earth metals are used in many renewable technologies, and they are expensive to mine. The point in rare earth metals is that they make technology lighter, and screens look better. But there is always another, heavier, more expensive way to make the technology we need without rare earth metals. Maybe we get bigger, clunkier more expensive smart phones. But we can still text and make phone calls.

The same is true of storage for electricity. Gates and I agree that we need a great deal of energy storage if we are to balance an electricity grid that runs mostly, or almost entirely, on renewable energy. This is because the supply of wind and solar energy fluctuates.

For Gates, this means decades of research to find cheaper batteries and cheaper means of storage. I argue that there are a myriad of different kinds of storage we can use right now, and that we can build larger supergrids that share electricity across borders, and across great distances.

There are many other comparisons to be made. In each case, I argue that we have a ‘shovel ready’ technology right now. Gates argues it is too expensive.

Jobs

The reason we see different answers is not malign. Our different attitudes to costs reflect our different experiences. Gates sees himself mainly as an investor who has already changed one industry by technological innovation. So now he is looking for ways to invest his money in new innovations that he can sell cheaply enough to dominate in a market.

That makes intuitive sense to him.

I have spent more than a decade working with unions in several countries on plans for ‘climate jobs’.

Our question has always been how can we convince governments to launch projects that will create many more jobs for unemployed workers and simultaneously reduce emissions to almost nothing.

That makes intuitive sense to me and to the union people I have been working with.

And the great advantage of a public sector climate new deal is that the government can promise that every worker who loses a job in the old fossil fuel economy will have a new, permanent climate job at the same pay, and where they live.

If we don’t do that, a climate new deal will divide communities, unions, working people, voters and nations. If we make that promise and keep it, all things are politically possible.

Costs also look different from a union point of view. Business people keep saying that stopping climate breakdown quickly will cost too much. We think: why does it cost too much? Because there is all that extra work to be done, all those new jobs, and all those people whose work and wages will fuel the economy.

So in Britain, for example, the Campaign against Climate Change and eight national unions have called for One Million Climate Jobs Now.

Finance

But how do we pay for the jobs?

Gates’ instinctive answer is that we have to raise the money from venture capitalists, banks and corporate finance. But, he says, this is hard to do because we will need enormous amounts of money, and they will insist on a profit. That profit can only come from selling cheap.

Unions think of the National Health Service in Britain, or wartime industry in the United States. In short, we think of a Green New Deal. Then we have an answer to where the money comes from. Let me explain.

The best way to do that, I argue in Fight the Fire, is for the government to provide the funding, and to hire the workers directly into a public sector National Climate Service or Climate Corps.

We also know how to pay for the Climate Service. The majority of climate jobs would be in building renewable energy and in transport. In return, people would pay for electricity and tickets. Moreover, every time an unemployed person gets a government job, they stop claiming benefits and start paying taxes.

In most countries those two ways of raising money will cover between half and two-thirds of the total cost of climate jobs.

That still means governments will have to raise between a third and a half of the cost. We can do some of that by taxing the rich. We can do the rest the same way governments saved the banks in 2008 and have paid for covid expenditures – deficit financing.

Gates is not completely unaware that this is possible. He mentions in passing that some other governments, like France or China, could raise the money themselves. But it cannot be done in the United States, he says. And his book is largely written for Americans, in America.

Concrete

If we favour jobs, not profits, as the way to reduce emissions, the contrast in our positions becomes sharper.

Let’s take a concrete example: concrete. Gates says that one question he asks every expert is ‘What is your plan for concrete?’

He’s right, it’s a central question. The reason, as he explains, is that the way you make concrete is to heat limestone enough to leach out the carbon in the rock. Then that carbon joins with oxygen in the air to make CO2. No amount of renewable energy can stop those emissions.

For Gates, the problem is to find a cheap replacement for concrete that has the same strength. Again, he avers that innovation will take decades.

I point out an alternative. We need concrete to build tall buildings. But tall buildings consume more energy simply by moving weight up and down in elevators. Tall office buildings with walls mainly composed of glass are, literally, greenhouses.

Building regulations can ban new buildings over five stories tall. Then we could build with wood, stone and many other materials. Cities too would be more beautiful and more liveable.

It’s the same with electric trucks. Gates says, rightly, that electricity from batteries is fine for cars, but can’t do the work of heavy trucks. So according to Gates we have to wait for innovation.

But again, as I have argued, there are alternatives. We could ban the sale of large new trucks, and use more, smaller electric trucks. That would provide many more jobs for truck drivers.

Or we could build overhead electric lines on motorways, just as we do for electric trains. The technology is mature, and it already works for short stretches of road in Germany.

There are dozens more examples of this same principle, in everything from shipping to forests to aviation to fertilizers.

There is not space here to deal with other important of problems with Gates’ approach, such as support for carbon taxes and carbon offsets. But I do take them up in the book in detail.

Persuading

As environmentalists, we need to be careful in arguing with Gates.

If we only criticise his wealth, his compromising investments and his corporate mindset, many people will assume that they are seeing a political disagreement. Gates is right, however, that the decisive questions are about technology. So our job is to persuade people by arguing through the details of every technology, truck by truck and tree by tree.

There is, however, also a political question here. If we follow the ‘shovel ready’ argument set out in Fight the Fire, and if the US government hired eight million unemployed Americans next year to do climate work, the US could cut carbon dioxide emissions by 90% in fifteen years.

The bottom line is we have to solve this problem. A Green New Deal would do that. And instead of making promises and waiting decades, we can start right now.

This Author

Jonathan Neale is a writer and climate jobs activist. He has published Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs with The Ecologist. You can download a free copy now. Jonathan tweets at @JonathanNealeA1.

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