Policy Research in Macroeconomics

Bill Gates: Save the jetset

With acknowledgements to Taras Grescoe @Grescoe

Bill Gates: How to avoid a climate disaster : Review for the Times Literary Supplement, published on 12 March, 2021.

When I first began to use computers in the 1980s, my Techie pals in the opensource community were dismissive of Microsoft’s ‘clunky’ and vulnerable software and advised me against using its products. But I disagreed. In the eyes of geeks, the software may have been badly coded but it was accessible for me, a non-geeky beginner. For each glitch I just hit ‘update’ and Microsoft programmes were patched up.

Bill Gates brings those breezy and accessible characteristics to his book How to avoid a Climate Disaster. In explaining the technological solutions he believes necessary to tackle climate breakdown, he is careful to use laypersons’ terms, making his book as accessible as were those early MS programmes.

True to his original profession as a coder, Gates reduces the challenges the world faces to two numbers: ‘51 billion’ and ‘zero’.

51 billion tons, he writes, is the total annual emission of the flow of greenhouse gases – adding to the stock of emissions already out there. Half of emissions are captured by oceans and plants. The other half builds up in the atmosphere, hence the rising concentration of carbon. To avoid catastrophic weather events, and for humanity to survive on this planet we need to reduce that flow to zero and tackle the concentration of CO2 stocks – urgently.

In explaining what ‘zero’ means, Gates offers an analogy. The climate he argues, is like a bathtub that’s slowly filling up with water.

Even if we slow the flow of water to a trickle, the tub will eventually fill up and water will come spilling out onto the floor.

Gates avoids discussion on how to “pull the plug” on the flow of emissions by drastically cutting demand for fossil fuels. Instead, the book is mainly about the potential supply of technological solutions to “slow the flow to a trickle”.

Gates examines each share of the world’s total emissions – and finds that most are down to the way we, the people, plug in, make things, grow things, get around and how we keep cool and stay warm. His assumption is that it is almost impossible to expect us to change our habits.  Instead, he offers alternatives and describes technological and potential breakthrough solutions to address those habits. In doing so, he puts his money where his mouth is and admits to having invested in many of the solutions outlined. The book can thus be viewed as a tour d’ horizon of his own investment portfolio.

In a chapter on ‘how we grow things’ Gates – the biggest owner of farmland in the United States – barely suppresses his excitement as he reports on a tour of the Yara fertilizer distribution facility in Dar es Salaam – “the largest of its kind in East Africa”. A photograph has him beaming, surrounded by bags of “magical’ fertilizer. The caption reads: “I’m having more fun than it looks.”  In granting fertilizer ‘magical’ powers, Gates pays homage to a 1908 breakthrough by two German scientists, Fritz Harber and Carl Bosch, who worked out how to make ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen to produce fertilizer, thereby launching the Green Revolution in India.   Expanding the supply of fertilizer will create a Green Revolution in Africa Gates argues, to raise crop yields, earn farmers more money and ensure they and their families have more to eat.  

Gates’s enthusiasm for fertilizer sharply contradicts the experience of those who’ve lived through the Green Revolution. Dr. Vandana Shiva, a world-renowned Indian scholar and environmental activist, has harsh words for synthetic fertilizers describing them as “war chemicals made from fossil fuels.”  She points out that the Green Revolution has faded in the Punjab. Yields are declining. The soil is depleted of nutrients, and the water is polluted with nitrates and pesticides. 

“Research ..found that after a few years of bumper harvests, crop failures at a large number of sites were reported despite liberal applications of NPK fertilizers. The failure came from micronutrient deficiencies caused by rapid and continuous removal by “high-yielding varieties”.

In the end Gates is obliged to admit that what “Haber-Bosch giveth, Haber-Bosch taketh away”. Fertilizers were responsible for roughly 1.3 billion tons of GHG emissions in 2010 and expanding their use would defeat the goal he has set of getting to zero.

While enthusiasm for, and investment in new technology may be profitable for Bill Gates, there are many who doubt that it could help drive down that 51 billion number. In a globally interconnected world of finite, scarce ecological resources can the constant expansion of old and new technology really save the planet?   Climate scientists think not.  Without radical system change and drastic cuts in demand for fossil fuels, simply slowing the flow of emissions by deploying tech solutions, will, as Gates himself admits, take a very long time. But Gates knows we do not have time.

There is however, hope – and there are more straightforward ways in which to rapidly shrink Greenhouse Gas emissions. Regrettably they are not tackled in this book. For while Gates is clear about the wider public’s failings, he steers clear of the role played by the world’s richest people and biggest corporations, in leading us towards “climate disaster”.

The facts cannot be avoided. Global companies like Microsoft combine political lobbying and PR with monopolist practices like mergers and acquisitions to rid themselves of competitors, exert market power across the world and extract precious finite assets from countries like the Congo. They actively lobby for central bank protection from market forces yet avoid taxation and regulation; they use market power derived from state subsidies and guarantees to hike prices and crush their real opposition – new innovators and start-ups. Ironic, given Gates’s love affair with innovation.

Finally, while operating at global level, often beyond the reach of governments, Gates and other Silicon Valley billionaires directly benefit from government-granted patent and copyright monopolies over assets like software, apps, but also seeds, fruit cultivars, rootstocks, vaccines, oil and gas.  As the economist Dean Baker argues in a paper titled: Is Intellectual Property the Root of All Evil?:

Many items that sell at high prices as a result of patent or copyright protection would be free or nearly free in the absence of government-granted monopolies.

Billionaires like Gates, enriched by the high prices that are a result of the system of patent or copyright protection, would be worth a great deal less if markets were genuinely free.

Multinational corporations use government-backed intellectual property rights to wield market power over seeds essential to the survival of poor country farmers. Dr. Vandana Shiva claims  this has led to a new form of bondage and dependency for Indian farmers. They are trapped by rising debts to pay royalties on something as fundamental to their livelihoods as seeds – one of the reasons why 270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide, claims Shiva.

Despite an apparent commitment to ‘free markets,’ today’s rapacious capitalist system is both exploitative of labour and the ecosystem while simultaneously parasitic on the public sector.

With the active collusion of billionaires and global corporations, large amounts of taxation are diverted away from government treasuries by companies like Microsoft in tax havens like Ireland. We should not be surprised therefore that governments are plagued by the build-up of debts and deficits making the task of financing a transformation away from fossil fuels, daunting. 

Gates, who is honest enough to admit he flew to the 2015 Paris COP21 negotiations in his private jet, displays a studied indifference to the role played by the world’s the billionaire class – the 1% – in precipitating ‘climate disaster’. 

Fortunately, climate scientists have no such blind spot. They are clearer about the facts of greenhouse gas emissions.  As the physicist Prof Kevin Anderson explains, globally about 50% of all CO2 is emitted, not by the average citizen, but by the top 10% of the population. If that small group were to “reduce their carbon footprint to the level of the average European” the outcome would be an immediate one-third cut in global emissions.  Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester. If the world succeeds in targeting the top 10%, he argues then

we don’t have to aim our policy at 7.5 billion people, we can tailor our policies towards the top 10%.

If we are to avoid a climate disaster, then governments must now focus on limiting the vast demand for, and consumption of, fossil fuels by the top 10% of the population in rich countries. That means, amongst other things, curtailing the endless flights on private jets undertaken by billionaires like Bill Gates. It also means curtailing technological flights of fancy and facing the reality of nature’s finite ecological resources.

 Reality, I suspect, will prove challenging for people like Gates until governmental regulation reins in their high levels of consumption. But reality must be faced. For as the physicist Richard Feynman  argued when investigating the catastrophic explosion of NASA’s space shuttle Challenger and its crew, for technology to be successful, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled. (Emphasis added)

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a study in denial of the climate impact of both Gates’ own activities, and those of his fellow billionaires.

Gates’s wealth commands deference from both governments and the media, so his book has been glowingly reviewed. As a well-financed ‘public relations’ effort, it is designed to fool the people into accepting that billionaires must be allowed to carry on as before, because technological innovation will save us from disaster.

Given the influence wielded by his wealth, he will probably succeed in fooling very many of his fellow citizens.

But after all is said and done, Nature cannot be fooled.


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