*adapted from a Zero Energy Project article by Joe Emerson
In his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates identifies the need for the world to get to Zero Carbon by 2050 and the consequences to the global population if we do not. He uses Zero to quantify and provide a tool for measuring the effectiveness of various technologies for getting us there. Currently, the world emits 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year, and we need to get to Zero by 2050. The steps are measurable. The goal is ambitious but achievable. It will not be easy!
THE GREEN PREMIUM
Gates uses the idea of the “green premium” to describe the cost to replace an existing carbon-emitting technology with a zero-carbon technology that performs the same function. The green premium can be low or even negative for many energy conservation measures and some renewable energy sources because these cost less than the current practices. The green premium can be high for other technologies in which the low-carbon alternatives are undeveloped and technically complex. Gates suggests that technologies with a high green premium need significant funding for research and development with the goal of bringing down prices so they can be implemented worldwide before 2050.
THE “EASY” TASKS
Several significant zero-carbon technologies with a low “green premium” are poised for widespread acceptance, such as electric vehicles, solar and wind power, and heat pumps. Gates urges us to electrify everything we can and to move forward with a renewable smart grid. Gates emphasizes that we are not implementing the easier stuff at anywhere near the scale needed. “We should be building out renewables 5 to 10 times faster.”
THE “HARD” TASKS
Gates describes the more challenging technological breakthroughs that we will need to implement to get to zero, including:
- making zero-carbon cement, steel, and plastics
- formulating aviation, shipping, and long-haul trucking fuels
- implementing climate positive agriculture practices
- building integrated super smart grids
- handling the intermittency (both daily and seasonal) problem posed by renewable power generation.
For that, he calls for research into improved battery storage, clean hydrogen, and small-scale, safe, inexpensive nuclear power. To get transportation fuels to zero, he advocates for more research and development on clean hydrogen and low-carbon biofuels. And he stresses the need for more research into zero-carbon steel, concrete, and plastics to make them price competitive with existing materials.
GETTING TO ZERO BY 2030 OR 2050?
Gates believes that a 2030 target to reach zero carbon is an unrealistic deadline and that shifting to natural gas to reduce carbon by then is a dead end. We should develop and implement solutions that get us to zero even though it may take more time. While we are doing the crucial research on the hard tasks, we need to go full throttle with implementing the easier ones. To do that, we need to lower the green premium across the board.
LOWERING GREEN PREMIUMS
Gates points out that the price differential between electric vehicles and gas-fueled vehicles will disappear by 2030 due to increased scale of production and ongoing innovation. He indicates that the greater fuel savings and lower maintenance costs of electric cars already brings the green premium very close to zero. This downward curve that is happening with EVs is also happening with solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, as well as energy-efficient heat pumps and induction stovetops. Lowering the green premium for these technologies could be as simple as creating an aggressive nationwide program of education, marketing, and financial incentives.
ZERO ENERGY HOMES AND BUILDINGS
Here are some suggestions for building professionals to help lower green premiums. These are not specified by Gates, but are in line with what he believes is needed. Over the next 10 years, we can immediately use a wide variety of easy off-the-shelf technologies, such as heat pumps, solar panels, induction stove tops, electric vehicle chargers, advanced air sealing, super insulation, and high-efficiency factory homes. These technologies can best be implemented by constructing all-electric zero energy or zero energy ready homes and buildings, with the goal that all new construction be zero energy by 2030.
A BREATH OF FRESH AIR, A COLD BATH, AND A COMPREHENSIVE PLAN
Bill Gates’ path to zero is a breath of fresh air because it is based on science and economic realities. At the same time, it feels like a cold shower because the task is complex. He doesn’t greenwash the challenges, but rather, quantifies their complexities, asks the hard questions, and puts a price tag on the solutions. He challenges us to quantify the effectiveness and costs of the various strategies for getting from 51 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year to zero.
His plan for getting to zero carbon by 2050 calls on citizens, consumers, corporations, and governments to take appropriate actions. As a businessman and philanthropist, he stresses the need for zero carbon technologies to become more affordable than current ones, so they will be more accessible worldwide. Bill Gates’ book should be in the hands of every citizen. It is a roadmap we all must follow together.