Climate realism: the solutions that might work at scale

Taken from the October 2021 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

James Dacey reviews How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates

Earth timer With the effects of climate change already becoming apparent across the world, the need for solutions and action is increasingly urgent. (Courtesy: iStock/peepo)

Bill Gates begins How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by acknowledging that he is an “imperfect messenger”. The Microsoft co-founder knows he is a billionaire technophile with a legacy carbon footprint the size of a small planet. Gates admits he flew into the 2015 Paris climate conference by private jet and wolfs down his share of Seattle beef burgers. For some readers, these facts may be too much to stomach.

But realistically, Gates’ influence and investment power are hugely significant. The book offers a pragmatic look at renewable energy and climate mitigation options from someone who profoundly understands how to innovate for mass markets. An alternative strapline could have read: “I’m ploughing my cash into these technologies because some might work at a meaningful scale.”

A key theme is that the green transition should not reduce living standards, especially in developing countries where the right to economic growth is sacrosanct. Gates’ priority is reducing the “green premiums” that customers pay for alternatives to carbon – because they will only help if average earners can afford them.

He professes his love for Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, the 2008 book by the late University of Cambridge physicist David MacKay. Indeed, Gates shares MacKay’s knack for cutting through the hype to estimate scales, be they power outputs, costs or the amounts of land required. He insists that nuclear should remain in the mix because of renewables’ intermittency and the absence of a Moore’s law for batteries, wryly noting how much he has lost on battery start-ups.

Recent reports suggest Gates might not be the affable nerd he was once marketed as. But anyone who believes we should tackle the climate crisis while leaving the lights on would be naive to ignore this tech magnate’s opinion.

  • 2021 Allen Lane £20hb 272pp

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