Cumulative Emission

“(T)he most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”   David Foster Wallace

Bill Gates has both a new book and education campaign on mitigating climate change. Mr. Gates personifies successful, transforming innovation. His book is just coming out now but he has been following the evolution of our climate problem for some time and his insights about innovating to decarbonize our society are germane, well thought out, imminently Bill Gates.

We should be welcoming his leadership in focusing the attention of business and innovation leaders in the US and globally on the demanding climate mitigation problem. We need action led by a business class that has mostly been on the other side during three failed decades of obfuscation, denial and cynical delay. We need innovation – innovation is essential if there is any hope of effectively reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions so as to protect a safe climate future. Gates is excellent in explaining how governments and business must work together developing policies for innovation into the future.

But while we need Mr Gates innovation plan, it is by itself both not enough and dangerously misleading. We definitely need his leadership but we also have to know that several of his assumptions about what effective mitigation now entails could be wrong. There are real carbon budget problems with Mr. Gates 2050 timeline. More importantly, his plan is not responsibly precautionary in recognizing climate’s predicted existential dangers and, given his influence, his plan and educational initiative might convince Americans that climate change isn’t an emergency but solvable in our present governance and economics.

We might have to figure out how to incorporate Bill’s innovation ideas into a broader mitigation plan that can work

A little background:  the dominant conception of climate mitigation is decarbonization. This conception, formulated during the 90s, is of renewable energy – solar, wind, nuclear and hydro too – out competing fossil fuels in existing markets, aided by carbon pricing and/or governmental support of energy innovation.

If this decarbonizing approach to reducing emissions had been implemented and supported in a large part of the global economy during the 90s we would have radically reduced our use of fossil fuels by now, GHG emissions would be winding down to zero, and we wouldn’t have catastrophic warming threatening all we know and love, and maybe even humanity itself.

But we didn’t get on the decarbonizing bandwagon when it was still possible and three failed decades and many gigatons of GHGs later we need a new, broader conception of climate mitigation. Unfortunately Bill’s big plan is just another 100% renewables plan and therefor just another form of new climate denial.

Why? We no longer have three decades to decarbonize. Gates’ energy mentor Vaclav Smil has correctly pointed out that energy transformations take a long time to play out – half centuries. If we initiated strong societal mobilization and support we could probably speed up this process to maybe three decades. Net zero by 2050 has become the embodiment of starting now to finally peak global emissions – which are still increasing, and reduce emissions to zero before their accumulation in the atmosphere leads to an increase in global temperatures that climate scientists have predicted to be a dangerous threat to our global civilization.

Problem is that the emerging science strongly suggests we have already spewed too many GHGs into the atmosphere:  we are already far past temperature target guardrails that could guarantee continuing climate safety. Holding human induced warming to just a 1C rise from pre-industrial revolution levels (keeping carbon dioxide and other GHGs to less than 350ppm) should have been our climate bottom line. Instead human induced warming is close to exceeding the Paris Accord safe global temperature guardrail of below 2C – as close to 1.5C as possible. And human induced warming threatens to unleash latent positive feedbacks like permafrost and burning forests adding more GHGs in the atmosphere, with ever increasing warming.

Mr. Gates knows the dimensions of our climate problem and that we need effective action but like most successful actors in our society he plays by the present economic and political rules – he’s an exceptionally good player within these rules – but they blind him to what mitigation actions are really needed. This leads to several fundamental flaws with both his conception of mitigation and his plan.

The main problem is his mitigation timeline. Think of it this way:  Gates notes that we are producing 51 billion tons of GHGs annually and need to reduce this total to zero. Reducing emissions from 51 billion tons to zero from 2020 to 2050, thirty years, so you could plan to reduce emissions by 1.7 billion tons a year, 17 billion tons a decade. But following such a ‘straight line’ plan we would exceed our total emissions limit, our carbon budget to stay even semi-safe under 2C, before 2040.

Because our 51 billion tons per annum present GHG production uses up so much of our remaining carbon budget, a plan to stay under 2C would have to frontload much more of the emission reduction to the 2020s. Net zero by 2050 is dangerously misleading – we (developed nations) first require something like a 60% reduction of emissions by 2030.

CO2 Budget

(You can find a more detailed explanation of how straight line, 2050 timeline emission reduction won’t achieve the Paris Accord targets for Australia and for Europe. Countries with big individual carbon footprints using up their carbon budgets rapidly and then using up developing countries room for emissions has been termed ‘climate colonialism’ by informed commentators like Kevin Anderson and David Spratt.)

But in Bill’s plan we will gear up for innovation during the 2020s and do the heaviest lifting in the later decades of the 2050 timeline. After the cows have wandered far from the barn. This is a plan to fail. Yes, you can hypothesize negative emissions in the second half of the century to maybe roll back this overshoot of the guardrail target, but this has a number of problems including moping up the increasing GHGs from the now not so latent feedbacks like melting permafrost. Better to actually achieve the 2030 climate safety target.

Mr Gates has stated that he thinks the postulated Green New Deal target of 100% by 2030 is impossible, and in his conception of mitigation it is. But the science is still clear:  we need at least a 60% reduction by 2030 or it will be already game over.

Furthermore Mr. Gates downplays the existential danger from predicted ‘dangerous climate change’ – abrupt and/or runaway climate change – in favour of a monotonic, linear warming that suits his three decade incremental climate plan. As an afterthought, late in the book (page 176), he does mention ‘tipping points that could dramatically increase the rate at which climate change happens’ – methane hydrates is his example. If this happens, say in the 2040s, he suggests that we will need to consider geo-engineering. Because it will then be far too late for just emission reduction mitigation.

The main danger with the Gates initiative is that it promises a workable transition over the next 30 years when we don’t have thirty years and if we follow his plan we will be backloading the transition, held up by the inertia of a fossil fuel based economy and path dependence. We will have wasted some if not most of the crucial 2020s decade, and will have missed the super important opportunity to rebuild back better – with substantially less GHGs – in the Covid recovery.

Well than it’s impossible; do we just give up?

The problem is in how Mr. Gates – like almost everybody – has conceptualized climate mitigation as orthodox decarbonization, as substituting renewables for fossil fuels in our present unchanged political and economic business as usual (BAU).

Let’s think outside this box. What is needed is a rapid wind-down of our production and use of fossil fuels. We could theoretically stop producing and using fossil fuels immediately and then emissions would fall immediately to zero. But we can’t do this of course because with this sudden and complete loss of energy our society would collapse.

But isn’t it possible to conceive of a regulated managed decline of fossil fuel production and use on a schedule that – with increasing energy from renewables keeping us from collapse – we could reduce emissions rapidly enough this decade to stay under 2C?

We would need governance innovation and multilateral co-operation, New Deal-style societal stabilization and support programs, AND the full implementation of the innovation program that Mr. Gates envisions. We would need to power down (at least in the short term) to a new stable post-carbon economy (which won’t be the present fossil fuel generated economy just powered by 100 renewables).

But this draconian regulation of fossil fuels is heresy to successful business leaders like Mr. Gates. Such a conception of mitigation threatens the safety of investments into the future. Against The Rules; not allowed, not even allowed as a theoretical mitigation conception.

Instead Mr. Gates orthodox decarbonization conception and plan promises effective mitigation with all of us staying in our very fortunate lifestyles. With political and economic business as usual; with energy growth predicted to double by mid-century; with fossil fuel production and use to continue little changed for the next decade and only reduced by less than half by 2040. Mr. Gates climate plan does not include policies to even shrink present fossil fuel subsidies to lower the ‘Green Premium’ on energy, or to limit new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Climate now requires emergency action. Bill Gates’ climate plan doesn’t recognize our responsibility as both dealers and addicts for a product that has been our economic lifeblood but which now has a profound accidental side effect that promises to be fatal.

It is irresponsible and unacceptable to continue to produce fossil fuels which will have negative effects on people (and those species which we presently share creation) for hundreds of years into the future.

It is irresponsible and unacceptable to stay within a failed conception of climate mitigation – even if you are trying to do the right thing – that is now more about protecting political and economic BAU from needed climate mitigation. As more and more governments and businesses jump on the net zero by 2050 bandwagon it gets easier to see that this conception of climate mitigation has become a vehicle to kick the can down the road; to not confront and substantially reduce fossil fuel production and use today, as quickly as possible.

The thing I’ve always appreciated about Bill Gates is that he is a learner, an avid reader with a thirst for finding appropriate knowledge. There is not a lot of time left for learning. We certainly need his leadership and his innovation smarts. But we can’t stay in continuing climate denial and miss what is likely our last chance to achieve effective mitigation. We need to be responsible and do what we should have started years ago – regulating a managed decline of fossil fuels.

How To Avoid A Climate Disaster, The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Bill Gates, Alfred A. Knopf pub., 2021.

Bill Henderson is a long time climate activist and Countercurrents contributor – bhenderson(at)dccnet(dot)com


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One Comment

  1. Gary W. Frase says:

    More of what Mr. Gates and his friends promote will do creation no good.