Recap: How to avoid a climate disaster by Bill Gates

Recap: How to avoid a climate disaster by Bill Gates

  1. Very structured and top-down
  2. Illustrative numbers (scales/prices/deadlines)
  3. He writes that he is tired of reading information that is all over the place and decided to put it all together. Very strong multidisciplinary aspect
  4. Find some time to read the notes, you will not be disappointed

Big idea

  • We need to reset decades of greenhouse gas emissions, and then learn how to collect it from the atmosphere and regulate the global ecosystem. Requires new inventions + world-wide distribution. I believe in humanity
  • Everything emits CO2: heating/air, mining, industry, transportation, construction, agriculture
  • This huge goal is very important for humanity, as soon as possible. We need breakthroughs in science and engineering, need a societal consensus (which is not there at the moment), we need a supportive policy to push the shift for zero CO2 emissions

Why is global warming bad?

  • Global warming is definitely caused by humans, take a look at the graphs for XX century, the question is just in the pace of it - whether it's going to be significantly warmer in 30 or 50 years
  • Causes draught and extreme rain, poor population (0.6 - 1 billion) all around the world which rely on agriculture and cattle will be forced to relocate to save themselves from starving. The food prices will rise, too. Even if global warming will not become an existential crisis within the next generation, it will deepen inequality

What should we do?

  • Faced the problem in 2005 in Africa while fundraising, saw problems with cheap energy, didn't pay enough attention but then realised
  • In 2015, he established a multinational coalition Breakthrough Energy, which also included 40 rich individuals (Jack Ma, Vinod Khosla, Ray Dalio, Seth Klarman, Jeff Bezos, etc.). Invested several billion dollars into 50 start-ups, as well as advocacy initiatives
  • Developed nations must lead the transition to cleaner energy. 16% of the world's population is currently responsible for 40% of CO2 emissions (rich countries).
  • The energy consumption will rise by 50% by 2050 = equals to monthly adding one New York but for 40 years, due to rising living standards

CO2 emissions originate in

  • Manufacturing (steel, concrete, plastic) 31%
  • Electricity 27%
  • Agriculture (including cattle) 19%
  • Transportation and planes/land transport/ships 16% (half of it = 8% - personal cars). (The winning side: i.e Elon Musk works in the 8% sector, even though the outstanding capacity is 12 times greater?)
  • A/C modules, fridges, heating 7%

The scale of the energy industry

  • Energy industry - a huge historical flywheel: the share of coal in the overall energy industry rose from 5% to 50% between 1840 and 1900, oil rose to 40% in 60 years starting from 1910, gas to 20% in 60 years starting from 1930
  • CPUs became a million times faster since the 70s but it is an outlier, other technologies don't improve that radically. There is no way in 50 years to create a car that would be a million times more energy-effective. The solar panels 50 years ago had a 15% efficiency, now it is 25%, etc
  • Power industry: turnover of 5 trillion dollars and is fully regulated (in contrast to, for example, the Internet). Quick process in software, takes years in biotech.
  • The regulation is now outdated, we need something new. 97% of the scientists agree that climate change is caused by humans, but there is no consensus among society and the government that we need to take action

How can we think of the proposed actions? I have read a lot and information is scattered, no cohesiveness. And I am very top-down. I now use this framework:

  1. What % of overall emissions amounting to 51 billion tonnes will this technology influence? (if successful) (their VC fund Breakthrough Energy will only invest if the potential impact is greater than 1%)
  2. Solutions are needed in all 5 sectors of CO2: energy, manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, AC/heating
  3. kWh = 1 house. GWh = middle-sized city. Hundreds of GWh = a big rich country
  4. How many Of the planet's surface is needed for this technology?
  5. Green Premium = what would be the increase in price relative to the current lifestyle dependent on fossil fuels? Can middle-income countries afford this?


  • Electricity now is 27% of all CO2 emissions, if we solve this, we can start transitioning manufacturing and transportation. In other words, the share of green energy in overall CO2 emissions will rise.
  • Visited a power plant with my son, "I'm in awe of our physical infrastructure" ("but I'm a nerd")
  • Less than half of the population in equatorial Africa have reliable electricity. You need to go to a store, charge your phone there ($0.25 for one time, a hundred (!) times more expensive than in developed countries)
  • Turns out that flooding an area for a hydroelectric power station releases methane from the soil and it takes 50-100 years of operating this station to mitigate this unexpected effect
  • The electricity prices have fallen 200 times from 1900 to 2000, just 2% of the current US GDP. It is connected to subsidies during the 20th century, currently subsidies for fossil fuels reach $400 billion a year (according to IEA). In 2019, the total output of newly-built coal power plants alone was 250 GWh (equals to 60 Chernobyl NPPs)
  • A US family uses 29 kW a day. Additional cost of green energy in the US might be around 15% = +$18 monthly = bearable. Except for the poorest who already spent 10% of their income on electricity. In the EU it's +20%
  • The smaller additional cost in the US is possible due to solar panels in the South, wind turbines in the Midwest, hydroelectric power in the north
  • Harder to implement in Asia and Africa. China has helped hundreds of millions of people to get out of poverty by lowering the costs of coal power plants four times. Now we need to talk about India, Indonesia, Africa, etc. How can these countries choose?
  • Renewables are not equally distributed around the globe, in some places, it is cloudy or less windy = must be brought from afar (and the transmission costs equal to 1/3 of the final electricity price. However, the key aspect is power reserves and stability in peak times)
  • The higher the share of green energy, the harder it is to cover peak time consumption with it. I do not believe in batteries - it is prohibitively expensive (currently = $100 per kWh) for such scale: adjusting to Li-Ion battery charging cycles, the price of lighting during the night will be three times higher than during the day + the scale: Tokyo consumes $400 billion worth of batteries in just three years (at current manufacturing rates, this amount is manufactured in 10 years). It is best to temporarily turn on gas power plants. And waiting a five-fold progress in batteries...
  • But the seasonal nature of renewables is the biggest problem. In Ecuador, the sun shines equally throughout the year, in Seattle, where I live, the difference is two-fold, in Canada and Russia - it's 12 times the difference. Nuclear and gas power plants will help us.
  • Germany is implementing an ambitious plan to reach the 60% share of renewable sources of energy by 2050
  • If we start shifting metallurgy, etc. to electricity, the volume of generated electricity by 2050 must be 2-3 times bigger than today. It is +75 GWh per year for the next 30 years (current input is 22 GWh)
  • Between 2010 and 2020, the cost of solar panels has fallen 10 times
  • To use renewable source we need to build high-voltage lines across the whole country (from Midwest where it is windy and from the south where it is sunny - to urbanised coastal areas). I'm financing a study that emulates the US power network accounting for renewable energy + such model is needed everywhere in the world
  • Power input for each house should be at least doubled = a very large-scale infrastructural project
  • Burying power lines is 5-10 times more extensive + the overheating problem stays, we need new technologies
  • The US was lucky with sun and wind but the world needs new inventions in clean energy

Nuclear power plants

  • Only nuclear power plants work day and night + without seasonal influence. 20% of power in the US, 70% in France (solar+wind power around the world = 7%)
  • If compared based on the production of 1 kWh, construction of a hydro power plant/wind turbines/ solar panels needs 10-15 more concrete/steel/glass than building a nuclear/gas/coal power plants. If we include the idle time of wind turbines and solar panels which amounts to 60%, the difference grows three times more. Uptime of a nuclear power plant is 90% (= 10% idle time)
  • Three Mile Island/Chernobyl/Fukushima stopped the process of solving problems and mistakes, the sector has frozen. "Cars kill people, let's not produce them"
  • TerraPower was established in 2008 to invent a new-generation reactor, currently on supercomputers but working with the US government to create a prototype


  • Thermonuclear reactors: like Sun - gas-like hydrogen is charged with electricity to turn it into plasma; temperature is 50 million degrees, hydrogen turns into helium and releases a colossal volume of heat. This is maintained using a magnetic field or a laser. Main value - rare-earth elements (uranium) are not needed, just hydrogen from water. Been trying for a long time, no one has managed to do so. "Thermonuclear will always be 40 years ahead of us" (c) joke in the business
  • EU+6 have been building ITER in France since 2010: first plasma by 2025, electricity by late 2030s = 30 years

Wind turbines

  • US consumes 1000 GWh of electricity (= 250 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plants)
  • England and China are providing massive subsidies for coastal wind turbines. Very regulated in the US, taking into account interests of coastal property owners, tourism, fishermen, ecologists

Geothermal energy

  • Rarely available, absolute capacity small: can only give a few per cent of current global electricity consumption at max

Preserving energy

  • Batteries - I spent the most time and investments on start-ups like this. Seems that we can triple it, no idea when
  • Water reservoirs - should be enough on a scale of the city, you basically fill a reservoir for a hydroelectric power plant using electric pumps
  • Filling underground reservoirs with pressurised water is also tried
  • Hydrogen can revolutionise the world as PCs did. Using green energy you extract hydrogen, it can be transported, stored, it doesn't emit CO2 if it oxidises. But the molecules are so small that, if pressurised, they will leak through metals. Electrolysis is expensive, we need a breakthrough invention

CO2 capture

  • It is possible to capture almost 90% of CO2 after burning on a thermal power plant, but it comes at a big cost for the operators, that's why no one's doing it and
  • It is hard to capture in the atmosphere. Just 1 molecule out of 2500 in the air is CO2


  • There is a bridge in Seattle, 250 m long, built on 77 floating concrete pontoons, an engineering miracle. China has produced 26 billion tonnes of concrete in 21st century, USA - 4 billion during the WHOLE 20 century + steel + plastic + glass + aluminium + fertilizers. The growth of wealth locally leads the planet to become inhabitable. That's why we need a green restart, to live how we did without it being dangerous for the planet
  • To make steel, coal is burned at 1700 degrees. India, China, Japan each are making more steel than the US does. The world will produce 3 billion tonnes of steel a year by 2050
  • For concrete, we also need calcium, which is extracted from limestone (calcium + CO2)
  • Plastic manufacturing is 10 times less than steel and concrete, but it is made of carbon which is extracted from oil (since the 1950s, a breakthrough in chemistry). Plastic is rather dissolving very slowly and realising acid than contributing to the greenhouse effect
  • Three factors of CO2 in manufacturing: 1 electricity for factories 2 heating (for melting, etc.) 3 manufacturing material (limestone for concrete). Transition to the electricity needed, where not possible (thousands of degrees heat) - capture CO2
  • The additional costs for a greener approach will be +10..15% for plastic, +15..30% for steel, +75..140% for concrete. Without govt regulation, such additional cost will not be reimbursed
  • Concrete cannot be made without CO2, so we need to capture it in production + from the atmosphere
  • The innovations lie in the field of manufacturing electrification, collection of recyclable materials, lowering consumption, wooden roads, etc

Agriculture and cattle industry

  • It releases methane (28 times stronger greenhouse effect than CO2) and NO2 (265 times stronger than CO2). Methane and NO2 are responsible for 80% of the greenhouse effect in agriculture, which gives 7 bln tonnes/year out of 51 bln tonnes/year of CO2 in general
  • Developed countries gradually increase consumption of meat, China does it faster. Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug improved wheat in the 60s and thus saved 1 bln people in the world from hunger. But by the late 21st century, the population will be +40% = 10-11 billion people = demand for food will still be high = we need several breakthroughs like Borlaug's
  • Fermentation happens in the stomach due to bacteria, methane is released, 1 billion heads of cattle, just due to farting = 4% of 51 billion tonnes of CO2. The same amount is released from manure and cattle's faeces. Also water, grass, grain for cattle (!). In South America and Africa it releases 5 times more because it is worse than mining = upside for optimization
  • It is hard to get rid of meat, including cultural reasons but it is possible to use plant meat = I invest in Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Or grow it using animal's stem cells - Memphis Meats Fertilizers
  • In 1908, Haber and Bosch discovered synthetic fertilizers, "the greatest invention still unknown to the majority of the people"
  • But plants only absorb half of it, the rest leaks into the soil, contaminates it, oxidizes and is released into the atmosphere = increases the greenhouse effect by 2-3%. No simple and cheap solution to this exists so far. Logging industry
  • Responsible for a third of emissions in agriculture
  • Not a question of technology but motivation of the society and politicians
  • Planting trees? Not really justified. In 40 years, one tree will absorb 4 tonnes of CO2. If it burns - all of it will be released back into the atmosphere. Effective if planted in rainforests. To mitigate the CO2 effect in the US alone, we need to plant 25 million sq.m - that's half of the Earth surface


  • The book was written by his speechwriter he works with for 14 years - Josh Daniel)
  • China wants to become carbon neutral by 2060. Biden will put the US back on that track after Trump
  • Global warming requires global cooperation + developed countries (just like with COVID) will spread clean tech around the world, not because of altruism but because temperatures will not fall in Texas until India keeps burning coal
  • Decarbonisation will destroy many workplaces in the oil industry, metallurgy, concrete and developed countries need to think about jobs for the working-class around the globe
  • We need a multidisciplinary scientific approach. Though the long-term output from R&D is the greatest, it has a short-term effect too: the US government investments into R&D in 2018 have directly or indirectly created 1,6 million jobs, $126 billion in salaries and $39 billion in taxes

Thanks to Victor Osika for the recap.