The Carbon Challenge

In his new book entitled ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’, Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates summarizes the situation that the world faces in major headlines. He emphasizes that by 2050 we should aim for zero carbon emission. This is a transition from 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to zero in 30 years. According to Gates, the mindset should not only be reducing the emissions, but planning for net zero. Humans need to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and this relies on going all out to develop and deliver zero-carbon electricity globally cheaply; and advancing technologies, from vehicles to industrial processes, to replace the need for fossil fuels with electricity as much as possible.

Mr. Gates emphasizes that any comprehensive climate plan has to involve many disciplines of science to develop and roll out new energy sources. We will need biology, chemistry, physics, political science, economics, engineering and also perspectives crossing the boundaries of each discipline.

We have to avoid repeating the mistakes we did for the pandemic preparation with climate change. We have to ensure that while monitoring the progress of countries, we should look for the ones that are setting themselves up to get to zero, but not only reducing emissions. Also, innovative solutions should work for the poorest.

Innovations should not only be on the technological side, but also there should be new approaches–in terms of business models, supply chains, markets, and policies–to how these new inventions will be brought to each and every country on a global scale.

The crucial thing is, while expanding the supply of innovations, the demand for innovations must also be expanded. If there is no demand, inventors and policymakers will not have any incentive to push out new ideas. Buyers should ask for these green products to reach a steady state supply rate, and finally to get to zero emission.

As of today, the world has a couple of affordable low-carbon solutions to lower the carbon emissions, but we still do not have all the technologies we need to get to zero carbon emissions on a global scale. These new technologies should be cheap enough for middle-income countries to buy. In his book, Mr. Gates lays out the fields that need breakthrough innovations in order to tackle the climate change threat, the most prominent ones being:

·         Zero-carbon cement, steel, plastics production

·         Zero-carbon hydrogen production

·         Zero-carbon fertilizer production

·         Plant- and cell-based meat and dairy

·         Drought- and flood-tolerant food crops

·         Advanced biofuels

·         Grid-scale electricity storage that can last a full season

·         Carbon capture (both direct air capture and point capture)

The governments should prioritize investing in research and development (R&D) in the fight for climate change. Without public investments in basic and applied research; and novel/bold ideas, we cannot have breakthroughs in the areas that are needed. Here, government leadership is the key, since the bold ideas may not have immediate consequences or may even fail. Also, there should be government programs that integrate basic and applied research, since once the scientific discoveries are realized, they should be made available to people’s use through translational research. Here, governments and industries will need to work together to overcome barriers and speed up the innovation cycle.

Putting a price on emissions (raising the cost of fossil fuels) is one of the most important things we can do. People have to understand that if they consume products that emit carbon, there will be additional costs associated with them. Mr. Gates has a good point to let us think about: ‘Many economists argue that the money can be returned to consumers or businesses to cover the resulting increase in energy prices, though there’s also a strong argument that it should go to R&D and other incentives to help solve climate change.’

Dr. Burcu Aykaç Fas

References:

·         Gates, Bill. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need. Knopf, 2021.

·         https://www.gatesnotes.com/Energy/What-you-can-do-to-fight-climate-change

·         https://www.breakthroughenergy.org/

 

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