Bill Gates' Vision of Combating Climate Change is Mostly Myopic, Out of Touch, and a Little Bit Scary


photo: World Economic Forum/swiss-image.ch via flickr.

In case you haven't seen it, Bill Gates has a new piece over at Huffington Post where he argues that "We need innovation, not insulation," concluding that the world is distracted from what counts in terms of dealing with climate change "in a big way."

Too bad nearly every thought in between those is upside down. In the interests of setting Bill back on his feet, here we go:Emission Reduction Dates' Importance Confused
Gates takes his first tumble (in the opening two lines) by asserting that "People often present two timeframes that we should have as goals for CO2 reduction--30% (off some baseline) by 2025 and 80% by 2050. I believe the key one to achieve is 80% by 2050."

Well, there are a whole lot of climate scientists, with far greater credentials on this issue than Gates, who would disagree entirely.

The fact of the matter is that while both goals are important--and the 2050 goal probably should be higher if you're referring to reductions in the rich nations of the world--without strong reductions by 2020-2025 (about 40% below 1990 levels is a decent benchmark) the chances of that 2050 goal making much of a difference in keeping global average temperature rise below 2°C, keeping our oceans from becoming hopelessly acidic, stemming potentially catastrophic biodiversity loss, increased water stress, crop yield declines, etc., drop significantly.

Contrary to Gates' assertion (if the we he's referring to means the international community, particularly the United States) if anything we are not focussing enough on that first target. Remember that the target the US put on the table in Copenhagen was an effective 4% below 1990 levels by 2020, (17% below 2005 levels). The "some baseline" matters a great deal.

Innovation is Happening, Implementation is More Important
It's true, as Gates says, that to reach a strong 2050 goal we are going to have to reduce emissions from transportation and electricity to near zero and that innovation is needed to develop new forms of power generation.

How about stating the obvious?!? Bill, where have you been?

From the United States, to the EU, to China, to India, to Brazil there is all sorts of innovation going on in developing solar power, wind power, geothermal, aviation biofuels, electric cars and the infrastructure to charge them, high speed rail, bicycle infrastructure, etc. etc. etc.

Obviously more needs to be done here in terms of both innovation and implementation (the latter perhaps most of all), but to preface thoughts on this with "We don't distinguish properly between things that put you on a path to making the 80% by 2050 goal and things that don't really help," tells me you're not really paying attention.

Energy Efficiency is Some Pretty Ripe Low Hanging Fruit
Moving on... "If addressing climate change only requires us to get to the 2025 goal, then efficiency would be the key thing. But you can never insulate your way to anything close to zero no matter what advocates of resource efficiency say. You can never reduce consumerism to anything close to zero."

True enough, but I'm not sure any advocate of energy efficiency would say it can get you to zero emissions.

What some of the most vocal of them do say though--I'm thinking of the Rocky Mountain Institute here--is that we could reduce electricity demand by 34% through efficiency improvements in the United States. That alone could replace 62% of coal fired electricity.

That's not just saving "a little bit of energy" and goes beyond the overused phrase 'low-hanging fruit', that's a really big deal in fact.

Big Difference Between Consumerism and Consumption
Oh, by the way, while it's true that you will never get consumption of goods, use of natural resources, down to zero, there's a huge difference between a standard of consumption based on human need and ecological sustainability and the dominant paradigm of consumerism-based, aggregate-growth-fetish culture spreading around the world. Check out the latest Worldwatch Institute State of the World report, if you haven't. It's worth a read and goes deeply into this.

There's Is Danger In Thinking This Will Be Easy...
That said, we do have some common ground here: It's true that there is a danger that people think they just need to do a little bit and things will be fine. That's a huge danger in fact. Agree entirely.

The scale of the cojoined issues of climate change, peak fossil energy, population growth, biodiversity loss, and natural resource overconsumption are such that even those of us who deal with them on a day in day out basis have trouble grasping the big picture all at once.

We're talking massive paradigm shift, behavioral changes, economic changes, even changes in consciousness I'd argue, to deal with them. All of them will be forced upon us in varying degrees depending on locale.

And you know what, you're right technological innovation is part of the picture. "A distributed distribution system of R&D; with economic rewards for innovators and strong government encouragement" is indeed a key part of that.

...But There is No One Solution, Definitely Not Technological Innovation
But, discounting energy efficiency, discounting strong science-based targets for emission reductions by 2020, discounting the importance of policy measures such as renewable energy portfolio standards, and setting a price on carbon, let alone incorporating environmental externalities into the price of consumer goods, is dangerous, irresponsible, myopic, and frankly, you should know better.

It's entirely cliche to say so, I admit, but there is no silver bullet to any of our environmental problems. Sorry Bill, more technological innovation alone isn't it. It really disturbs me to think that someone with as much economic and social reach such as yourself would think so. But in a way it doesn't surprise me.

It's that sort of either/or thinking that is far more part of the problem than the solution.

Global Climate Change
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Stopping Deforestation, Greening Agriculture, Better Than Carbon Capture & Storage, UNEP Says
Prosperity Without Growth: Economics For a Finite Planet

Tags: Carbon Emissions | Energy Efficiency | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Solutions | Renewable Energy