Book Review: What Bill Gates Gets Right--and Wrong--About Fighting Climate Change Bob Hinkle

July 27th, 2021


Although not exactly a breezy summer beach read, Bill Gates’ new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is certainly timely given that the climate crisis shows too few signs of slowing down. For this reason alone, Gates’ book is an obvious choice for Metrus’ fourth annual summer reading installment.

This book does three things exceptionally well. First, it clearly states the need to get to net zero by 2050 and connects that target to how businesses operate and how we live as individuals. Second, it distills key metrics related to both energy use and climate change in a way that is easy to understand and digest. Third, it makes a compelling case to invest now in the research and development of new technologies and solutions that can ultimately help us get to net zero.

Where the book falls short though is that it glosses over several critical, near-term actions that are imperative if we are to hit the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to “well-below” two degrees Celsius, and ideally 1.5 degrees. I kept waiting for a chapter dedicated to the need to rapidly accelerate greenhouse gas (GHG) abatement efforts through investments in energy efficiency projects using well-proven technologies and financing solutions, but it never came.

Although not likely on anyone’s best seller list, three important companion reads to Gates’ book include recent reports released by the International Energy Agency, the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

  • The International Energy Agency’s Energy Efficiency 2020 report estimates that efficiency upgrades can account for close to half of the emission reductions required to hit the Paris Agreement targets
  • Further, analysis in a SBTi report on the foundations for net zero shows that scenarios with a 66 percent chance of hitting the Paris Agreement targets require us to reach a level of abatement of 90 percent of all GHG emissions by mid-century. Think about that: to have what amounts to only a two-thirds chance of hitting the Paris Agreement targets, we’ll need rely almost exclusively on emission reductions from abatement projects, such as renewable energy, methane reduction and energy efficiency.
  • WWF’s Power Forward 4.0 is the single best summary on the Fortune 500’s journey to net zero. One potentially troubling data point highlighted in this report is that over 50 percent of companies with publicly stated energy efficiency targets are already behind on their plans.

In his conclusion, Gates cautions against placing too much emphasis on actions that have a 2030 target date attached to them since reaching net zero this decade isn’t a real possibility. Although he’s right on the timing to hit net zero—2050 is a more realistic if still steep hill to climb—he misses the bigger point and presents us with a false choice with his coal vs. natural gas-fired power plant example. You can still have a global goal of net zero by 2050 AND embark today on an all-out pursuit to reduce GHG emissions through the abatement efforts highlighted by SBTi. The reality is that we are playing catch up in the fight against climate change and we need to start taking GHG emissions off the board.

That fact that Bill Gates is putting his time and resources to fight climate change is uplifting and hopefully a final wake up call for those who might only be able to hear this message from an industry leader and icon like Bill Gates It’s still high summer; read his book and focus on the actions we can take to get to net zero.