Can We Solve the Climate Crisis Without Ending Capitalism?

In approaching ‘net zero’ as an engineering problem, Bill Gates promises technical solutions to climate crisis. But does he deliver?

by Aaron Bastani

24 March 2021

Bill Gates at a UN press conference.
Bill Gates at a UN press conference. (UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferr)Ž

In 2016 Mark Carney, then Governor of the Bank of England, declared climate change was “the greatest commercial opportunity of our time”. In January this year, Larry Fink, co-founder of BlackRock, referred to the potential profits of energy transition as “historic”. Less than a month later Britain’s Daily Express, previously a bastion of climate scepticism, opined for a “Green Britain Revolution”, while in his recent budget Rishi Sunak declared the Conservatives were overseeing a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. 

Even for those sceptical of such a shift in rhetoric, what is undeniable is that climate change is no longer the preserve of direct action movements: it has become a pressing issue for many industrialists, media moguls and business tycoons. It is even at the heart of an acrimonious breakdown in relations between Rupert and James Murdoch.

The fact that almost everyone is now taking an interest in climate change has only rendered the perennial political question of ‘what is to be done?’ all the more contentious. For some, the answer is often self-evident: we must rapidly change the rules of the game, or else we will destroy the biosphere which sustains our species and life as we know it. But for billionaires like Gates, who have an enormous stake in the current system, this remains unfathomable.

Yet this does not mean that the Microsoft co-founder has nothing meaningful to contribute on the subject. Indeed, those who are most serious about the problem of climate crisis often neglect the technical aspects of a transition to ‘net zero’ because of their focus, instead, on the transformation of our economic and political systems; the belief that everything must change hardly lends itself to an obsession with iterative, incremental progress. Gates’ value, then, resides less in the answers he offers than the questions he asks. His new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, is not about political abstraction or strategy, but what is technically necessary to reach net zero by the middle of this century. Put another way, Gates’ concern is not the why of decarbonisation, but the how.

Gates’ practical orientation does not mean he downplays the scale of the impending ecological crisis. Indeed when forecasting temperature rises by 2100 Gates anticipates “between 4 and 8 degrees Celsius” in the absence of decisive action. Meanwhile, he says, in “the next decade or two” the economic damage caused by climate change will “likely be as bad as having a Covid-sized pandemic every ten years”.

To avoid all that, or at least mitigate, Gates impels his reader to retain two figures in mind. The first is 51 billion. This refers to the volume of greenhouse gas emissions we discharge into the atmosphere each year, 37 billion of which is carbon dioxide. The second is zero – this is what that first figure must fall to. 

Engineering net zero.

Because Gates regards ‘net zero’ as an engineering issue he proceeds to break the problem down into smaller parts – much like the process of decomposition or ‘factoring’ complex problems in computer science. He identifies the main sources of the 51 billion tonnes of emissions and labels them: ‘how we plug in’ (electricity), ‘how we make things’ (consumer durables and the built environment), ‘how we grow things’ (food), ‘how get around’ (travel), and ‘how we keep cool and stay warm’.

‘How we plug in’ accounts for 27% of the total, a figure which will only grow with the adoption of electric vehicles. Gates rehearses the usual criticisms of renewables for electricity, such as bottlenecks in storage and reliability. Yet for someone who is otherwise so fixated on technological solutions, he underplays the extraordinary improvements to wind power, solar power and lithium-ion batteries over the last decade. The cost of solar has fallen by 90% since 2010, while in the UK offshore wind power is now cheaper than nuclear. 

Next is ‘how we make things’. Gates’ focus here is welcome: while the built environment and the production of goods are the largest contributors to emissions at 31%, they are often neglected in comparison to travel and diet, which can be couched in the language of personal responsibility. Far from accidental, this is the consequence of decades of PR by special interests, with BP, for example, behind the creation of the first carbon footprint tool in 2004.

While Gates is refreshingly honest in his recognition of the impact of production on climate change, rather than consumption, some of his assumptions remain questionable. For instance, he argues that the consumption of concrete in the global south is an intrinsic marker of progress. This is not always correct. In China, for example, his assumption holds true for the high-speed rail network, but does it also apply to the country’s speculative housing bubble, which has created almost empty ‘ghost’ cities? It seems that Gates is ignoring an important point: more than sometimes tending to inefficiency, capitalism can be supremely irrational. This is why, for its critics, it can never underpin a rational and sustainable distribution of limited resources. 

‘How we grow things’ accounts for 19% of all emissions. While Gates explains how a ‘western’ diet is not possible for a planet of 10 billion – Earth can support around 2.5 billion people eating a typical American diet – he fails to address how meat is not only a major source of emissions, but also consumes other precious resources such as land and freshwater supplies. Vegetarian alternatives are mentioned, and even the rise of cellular agriculture, but he gives far less technical detail about this than zero-carbon concrete and biodegradable plastic. What is more, biodiversity and the sixth great extinction are glazed over while hopes for rewilding are ignored. This is particularly strange given simply planting more trees, albeit on a vast scale, could be a major part of any solution.

The final two parts of Gates’ book, ‘how we get around’ and ‘how we stay warm and cold’, deal with the familiar questions of aviation and household heating, while noting that these two areas comprise only 23% of all emissions – with flying at just 3%.

On transportation Gates reduces his thinking to a formulation characteristic of his wider approach: “Use electricity to run all the vehicles we can, and get cheap alternative fuels for the rest”. There is no mention of cycling or micro-mobility, and public transit systems using renewable energy are barely discussed. Yet surely we also want fewer cars given longer commutes cause stress and waste time that could be put to better use? Cars remain unused 95% of the time while the average Angelino is stuck in traffic for almost five days a year. Whatever the source of energy, any successful transport system will resemble Amsterdam rather than Los Angeles.

The same misguided approach is applied to household energy. We’ve long had workable alternatives to burning fossil fuels to stay warm and cold, for instance, Passivhaus design, which employs design principles and high-energy efficiency to create buildings that require little power. While Gates thinks the state should be subsidising game-changing gadgets, he is less intrigued by large-scale retrofitting or smarter design – presumably because they don’t require innovation and are already cheap. In his obsession with new technologies, Gates often underplays the easy things we could, and should, be doing.

Green capitalism after neoliberalism.

Although it’s frustrating that Gates seems to venerate an abstract idea of technological innovation above surprisingly effective, low-tech solutions, the book nevertheless contains a number of positive surprises. One is an explicit call by Gates for the public to become politically active. While he admits consumers can make a difference and need “not feel powerless”, he remains adamant that involvement in the political process is “the most important single step” that individuals can take. This represents a shift from the usual platitudes which say real change starts with the individual, or that ethical consumption is a sufficient response. For Gates climate change is political. 

In an even more surprising turn, he deviates from the common sense of neoliberalism to admit that the state must play a central role in driving innovation. Such thinking evokes Mariana Mazzucato, for whom NASA’s Apollo programme offers a template for industrial policy. Similarly, Gates highlights the Human Genome Project, which between 1990 and 2003 saw collaboration between the US, UK and others to sequence the complete genetic profile of a single human for the very first time. Despite a massive outlay in time and resources – the project ultimately ran into the billions – every dollar invested by federal government eventually generated $141 in return.

Even in describing Microsoft, Gates appears more in favour of an interventionist state than the ‘Third Way’ politicians of yesteryear. “The personal computer business – including Microsoft”, he writes, “would never have been the success that it was if the US government hadn’t put money into research”. Gone is the rhetoric of the heroic entrepreneur, in its place a state which must ‘crowd in’ sectors of public interest rather than get out of the way. “Congress needs to provide funding for R&D [research and development], government procurement, and developing infrastructure” Gates opines,  “and it needs to create, modify or extend financial incentives for green policies and products”. This statement sounds remarkably similar to a Green New Deal, and is far further than many political parties, including Labour, appear willing to go. 

Yet politics, or rather political strategy, is also the book’s principal weakness. Organised labour is conspicuously absent while any discussion of the coalition needed to drive rapid decarbonisation is ignored. This is a major oversight, because until the politics of transition are also those of working-class prosperity, fossil fuels will remain one more front in the ‘culture war’.

Another weakness is Gates’ claim that we shouldn’t necessarily rush, and that “reductions by 2030 the wrong way might actually prevent us getting to zero”. This is a major claim, and given the high stakes (acting too slowly could leave us without enough time to prevent total climate breakdown), it seems strange that he gives no evidence to support it. What might reduce carbon emissions now but leave them higher in the long term? Eliminating consumption of beef? Public transport which runs on renewable energy? Retrofitting homes? In a book about avoiding disaster, Gates suddenly calls for dawdling – one suspects because the alternative represents a political rupture too profound. 

The climate crisis isn’t just greenhouse gas emissions but also the sixth great extinction, declining freshwater supplies and resource scarcity. The very possibility of perpetual economic growth is premised on the assumption of ‘cheap’ nature, food and energy – as much as cheap work and care. When you are willing to sacrifice so much, potentially even the biosphere on which your species depends, it’s time to say that it isn’t an economic model you’re defending, it’s a form of religion.

Gates, while breaking with conventional orthodoxy – and surprisingly so – is limited by his investment in the current system. Yet he contributes a vital insight: if the left is serious about climate change it can’t just talk about alternative futures, it has to engineer them too. 

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

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