📗 How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, by BillyG

This book delivers what you’d expect from BillyG – lots of data, compact prose and a techno-optimist view of what we can do. He really doesn’t buy any of the large-scale “de-growth” solutions, probably due to his experience with the Foundation seeing how growth can improve health outcomes in the developing world.

So it’s all focused on how we can innovate our way out of this mess, and lower “Green Premiums” (the current premium you have to pay for the carbon-free alternative when there’s a choice). There’s so much to cover so it all stays pretty high-level… but will lead me to lots of jumping off research points. (For example, I want to learn more about electrofuels and why the hell there aren’t more heat pumps installed)

My notes follow! (and here’s his op-ed in the FT which is a more eloquent summary)


  • We put about 51B tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere every year
  • Global emissions dropped by about 5% in 2020 due to Covid. Shows that we can’t get to 0 just by flying & driving less.
  • ~860M people don’t have access to reliable electricity. It was 1B in early 2000s, with half in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Extreme poverty 36% in 1990 -> 10% in 2015. A lot undid by Covid (including vaccination programs for other diseases)
  • In 2019 he and the Foundation divested all oil & gas company holdings
  • COP 21 (2015)
    • Many VCs had pulled out of “green tech” which hadn’t had returns
    • He announced new fund Breakthrough Energy at the conference
    • 26 countries got together for Mission Innovation (named by Modi at the conference) “unlocked $4.6b/year of new money for clean energy research)
  • Personal offsets / lifestyle justification: buys sustainable jet fuel, Direct Air Capture offsets, R&D investments. Doesn’t want to shame people who use energy

Why Zero?

  • ~1/5th of the CO2 we emitted today will still be there in 10k years
  • CO2e (equivalents) for a lot of the accounting. Brings Methane (120x more warming but doesn’t stay in atmosphere as long), nitrous oxide etc
  • We’ll probably have 1.5-3C of warming by 2050, 4-8C by 2100
  • Storms getting stronger
    • Hotter -> more evaporation of water vapor into clouds and then back down
    • Hurricane Maris in 2017 set Puerto Rico’s infrastructure back by more than 2 decades
  • More sever droughts
    • “Hotter air can hold more moisture, and as the air gets warmer it gets thirstier, drinking up more water from the soil”
    • Threatening Colorado River which supplies drinking water to 40M people + irrigation
    • Worst drought ever recorded in Syria – 2007 to 2010 – 1.5M people left farming areas for cities, set stage for the conflict. 13M Syrians displaced.
  • Sea levels going up
    • Because polar ice is melting and seawater expands when it gets warmer (metal does the same thing, so you can loosen a ring that’s stuck on your finger by running hot water on it!)
  • Extra heat effect on plants & animals
    • Corn especially sensitive to heat (#1 crop in US)
    • Southern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa crop yields at risk
  • If temperature rises by 2C coral reefs could vanish completely
  • Health impacts
    • Mosquitoes start living in new places (that are now hot/humid enough) -> malaria & others spread
    • Heatstroke risk more likely (“if air can’t absorb your sweat, it can’t cool you off”)
    • Estimates that by 2050, 14 extra deaths per 10k per year (same as Covid). By 2100 75 per 10k.
  • Sudden catastrophic possibilities. Permafrost melts and releases trapped methane. Way worse than predictions, may need geoengineering

This Will Be Hard

  • Fossil fuels are everywhere. World uses 4B gallons of oil per day. Energy industry $5T/year.
    • Oil is cheaper than a soft drink! (prices don’t reflect damage caused)
  • Rising demand: predicted +50% by 2050
    • 10B people by 2100
    • Buildings: “putting up another New York City every month for 40 years” (developing countries eg China, India, Nigeria)
  • Natural gas boom in the US because became cheaper than coal so was adopted. Not for climate reasons
  • Solar panels efficiency: 1970s convert 15% of sunlight energy, now 25% (not huge gains). “Theoretical limit” 33%
  • If everyone meets the 2015 Paris Agreement, we reduce annual emissions by 3-6B tons/year (<12%) by 2030

5 Questions to Ask in Every Climate Conversation

  • How much of the 51B tons are we talking about?
    • “At Breakthrough Energy they only fund projects which could remove at least 500M (~1%)”
  • What’s your plan for cement?
    • Shorthand for remembering that there’s a lot more than electricity & transportation (which gets most coverage)
    • Steel & cement are 10% of emissions
  • How much power are we talking about?
    • World: 5000 GW. US: 1000GW. Mid-size city: 1GW. Small town: 1MW. Average American house: 1KW.
  • How much space do we need?
    • Particularly overlooked with wind & solar
  • How much is this going to cost?
    • Green premiums. Additional cost of the zero-carbon solution compared to the fossil-fuel counterpart (which doesn’t factor in emissions)
    • eg gallon of jet fuel $2.22. Advanced biofuel $5.35
    • If we aren’t deploying the zero-carbon options with low/no green premiums today, sign of outdated policies / lack of awareness
    • Green premiums can act as a measure of our progress

How we plug in (27%)

  • Hydropower downsides
    • Making a reservoir displaces local communities & wildlife
    • Cover land with water -> carbon in the soil turns into methane and escapes
    • Depending on where built a dam can be a worse emitter than coal for 5-100 years before it makes up for all the methane it’s responsible for
  • Share of power from coal (~40%) hasn’t changed in 30 years
  • Chinese firms brought down cost of coal power plant by 75%. Making big play to export to India, Indonesia, Vietnam etc
  • Countries keep fossil fuel cheap. International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that gov subsidies for consumption of fossil fuels amounted to $400B in 2018
  • Sunlight variation based on distance from equator. Ecuador (no change winter/summer), Canada/Russia 12x change
    • Makes it very hard to plan/decide how many panels to put up in most parts of the world
    • eg Germany, goal of 60% renewable by 2050
    • During summer generates lots of excess and transmits to Poland and Czech Republic
  • Extremely difficult & expensive to store on large scale
    • Powering Tokyo on batteries for 3 days. Would require 14M batteries, $400B, annualised over lifetime: $27B/year.
  • Nuclear fission
    • “The only carbon-free energy source that can reliably deliver power day and night, through every season, almost anywhere on earth, that has been proven to work on a large scale”
    • France highest share: 70%
  • Terrapower founded by Bill
    • “Travelling wave reactor” design
    • Can run on waste from other nuclear plants
    • Can be run underground
    • “Fuel is contained in pins that expand if they get too hot, which slows the nuclear reaction down and prevents overheating”
    • Working on first prototype with US government
  • Fusion
    • ITER started in 2010, expecting to generate first plasma in mid 2020s, generate excess power in late 2030s (PoC scale)
  • Geothermal
    • Pump water at high pressure down into the rocks, which absorb the heat and it comes out another hole where you turn a turbine
    • Very low energy density. David MacKay estimate that geothermal would meet <2% of UK’s energy needs even if exploiting all its resources
    • 40% of wells dug for it turn out to be duds
  • Batteries “I think we can improve them by a factor of 3 not 50”
  • Thermal storage: when energy is cheap, heat up some material (molten salt is a promising material). 50-60% efficiency.
  • Hydrogen. Currently carbon-intensive to produce. Hard to store in small volumes pressurized. Expensive materials needed for it.
  • Carbon capture.
    • “Point capture” on existing plants – widespread
    • Direct Air Capture. Not energy-efficient currently to pick 1 in 2,500 CO2 molecules in atmosphere

How We Make Things (31%)

  • China installed more concrete in 2000-2016 than the US did in entire 20th century!
  • Melting iron-ore and mixing it with coke to make steel. 1T of steel produces 1.8T of CO2
    • Company trying to do “molten oxide electrolysis” instead of burning
  • Limestone (calcium + carbon + oxygen) burn to calcium used for cement. 1T of cement produces 1T of CO2
    • New way to recycle CO2 during this process, reduces by 10% currently
  • Plastics problem for landfills, oceans, but not really adding to emissions
  • Our only real option right now is carbon capture

How We Grow Things (19%)

  • Norman Borlaug who helped develop semi-dwarf wheat (bigger grains) helped defuse The Population Bomb (Ehrlich prediction of mass starvation)
  • Historically as people get richer they consume more calories and more meat
  • #1 “enteric fermentation”: 2B tons of CO2 from cattle burps & farts
  • #2 poop decompressing: nitrous oxide, sulfur, ammonia. Half emissions from pig manure, rest from cows
  • Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods
  • 40% food wasted in US. Europe, sub-Saharan Africa 20%.
  • “Green revolution” in yields / fertilizer largely bypassed Africa
  • Fertilizers (just making them) responsible for 1.3B tons in 2010, will probably rise to 1.7B mid-century. No practical zero-carbon alternative
  • Instead of adding nitrogen via fertilizer, R&D to add bacteria to the soil that produce it
  • Deforestation: 30% of agriculture emissions
    • 3% forest area decline since 1990. Nigeria 60% (exporting charcoal)
    • Trees burnt down immediately release their carbon, chopped off soil carbon emitted
    • Reforestation: would need to cover half the land mass of the world to offset just Americans’ emissions

How We Get Around (16%)

  • Transportation is biggest category of emissions in America.
  • EVs are 2% of new auto sales currently. Car average lifespan 13 years. If we wanted to have only electric cars by 2050, EVs would need to be 10% of new sales in next 15 years.
  • Most gasoline in US contains 10% ethanol (biofuel made from corn, sugarcane, beet sugar)
  • 2nd gen biofuels made from plants not used for fuel (switchgrass salad, farming residue)
    • Some will be “drop in” replacement
    • Can reuse oil infrastructure to move them around (tankers, pipelines)
    • 2x green premium. Field is underfunded
  • Electrofuels: combine hydrogen in water with carbon in CO2. Very expensive 3x green premium
  • Pound for pound, the best lithium-ion battery today packs 35x less energy than gasoline
    • Why you couldn’t run a jumbo-jet on batteries
    • Same with trucks which need long range
    • And also cargo ships (we should look into more nuclear-powered ships, as navy is already using)
  • “Use electricity to run all the vehicles we can, and get cheap alternative fuels for the rest”

How We Keep Cool and Stay Warm (7%)

  • 1.6B A/C units in use today, mostly rich countries
  • By 2050 estimated more than 5B using up electricity & F-gases (fluorine)
    • F-gases represent about 3% of emissions
    • 2016 commitment by 197 countries to reduce use of certain F-gases by >80% by 2045
  • According to the IEA, typical A/C unit sold today is 1/2 as efficient as what’s widely available
    • Poor labelling of the units and policy
Heat pumps: negative green premiums!
  • Unfortunately furnaces are slow to replace and outdated policy “to favor natural gas furnaces & water heaters over less efficient electric ones”

Adapting to a Warmer World

  • CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research)
    • drought-tolerant maize, “scuba-rice” which can survive floods
    • “every $1 invested in them generates $6 of benefits”
    • more investment in new more resistant & yielding crops
  • Shore-up natural defenses: planting mangroves (reduce flooding risk)
  • Water. Clean electricity and more desalinsation. Solar-powered dehumidifiers which need to be made cheaper.
  • Why: “Civil wars that don’t break out over water rights, farmers who don’t get wiped out by a drought or flood, cities that don’t get destroyed by hurricanes, waves of people who don’t become climate refugees”
  • Geoengineering: a “break the glass in case of emergency”. Yes it’s an experiment but we’re already running an experiment.

Why Government Policies Matter

  • We have a lot of experience regulating energy. eg Clean Air Act in US. UK, China dealing with smog.
  • Energy cos spend 0.3% of revenue on energy R&D (electronics & pharma spend 10% & 13%)
  • Carbon tax, increase price of carbon, reduce green premiums.
  • Remove barriers. Landlords who pass on energy bills to tenants so don’t upgrade.
  • Good progress on solar policies, cost down 90% since 2009

A Plan For Getting to Zero

  • Making reductions by 2030 the wrong way might actually prevent us from getting to zero by 2050
    • e.g might move all coal plants to gas (would halve emissions) but gas plants would still be running and not yet amortized by 2050
  • Use procurement power. All levels of government can really move the market with big orders.

What Each of Us Can Do

  • Pressure your local politicians
  • Sign up for green pricing with your utility
  • Set up an internal carbon tax in your co
    • Swiss Re recently imposed a cost of $100 per tonne emitted by each of its divisions.
  • Be early adopter of eg EVs for corporate fleets, lower-carbon materials for buildings, etc
    • Stripe supporting Carbon Capture
    • Hybrit project for integrating clean hydrogen into production methods
    • Utility companies buying long-duration storage solution for clean electricity

Further Reading Recommendations

Things Bill points out shaped his thinking:

  • Renewable Energy without the Hot Air, David McKay
  • Energy Transitions and Energy Myths and Realities by Vaclav Smil
  • IPCC reports
  • Earth’s Changing Climate lecture series from on the Great Courses site
  • Weather for Dummies 🙂


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