Bill Gates has a really useful book about what we might call planning for sustainability. It is a practical approach on what we can hope to achieve. The book has a lot of critical information conveyed in a relatively easy-to-understand form. I’d certainly recommend it.
Before we start it is worth noting that some people seem to have strange attitudes to Bill Gates. Some of the things people say about him are clearly absurd. The idea of RFID chips in vaccines is simply not credible. Do these people not know how US healthcare works? If US pharma companies perfected adding RFID chips to vaccines no one would be getting the vaccines for free. They’d find some way to make those getting the RFID chips pay extra.
The Morality Of Sustainability
A running theme throughout Gates’ book is the idea that planning needs to be done with a view to both morality and the reasonableness of what we are asking people to do. It is simply not reasonable to expect the people of countries which never became wealthy to put their economic development on hold for the sake of the planet.
It would be immoral and impractical to try and stop people who are lower down on the economic ladder from climbing up.Gates (2022) page 41
The poor want to have better lives, and we have to find a way to help them get there. (But we have to do it in a sustainable way).
This progress is a good thing…. [People in traditionally poorer areas] are earning more money, are getting a better education, and are less likely to die young. Anyone who cares about fighting poverty should see it as good news.Gates (2022) page 102
Regardless of whether anyone thinks they should, it seems very unlikely that rich countries are going to willingly become poor by radically sharing their wealth. As such, Gates is keen to emphasize that we need innovation. We need to find ways to have good lives in a sustainable way. To Gates innovation is critical if we are to have a realistic chance of persuading people to behave more sustainably.
Where Do Our Emissions Come From?
A particularly useful point of the book is when Gates explains the sources of greenhouse gas emissions. He admits it isn’t quite as simple as he shows. For example, a major source of emissions involved in making things comes from the use of energy in the creation processes. As such, you can debate whether we should be adding this energy to the ‘plugging in’ or ‘making things’ categories. Still, clear and simple ideas can help us understand where the big wins could be.
Planning For Sustainability: Lowering The Green Premium
One idea Gates repeats consistently is the idea of a ‘green premium’. This is how much extra you need to pay to use a more sustainable option. Gates’ key point is that higher green premiums are less likely to be paid. Given this, we need innovation to lower the green premiums. If a green premium is high what can we do to make the change more affordable?
This isn’t the entire story of helping change happen. Some green premiums can already be quite low. Gates notes that a consumer’s overall costs will even go down (in most places) by replacing old equipment with an electric heat pump. How then can we encourage consumers to see that? What else needs to be done? Do we need to give them loans to help with the transition?
Things To Do
There are lots of things to do. We need to increase both the demand and supply of innovative new products. As someone who was recently trying to buy an electric vehicle, I can promise stimulating consumer demand alone isn’t enough. Finding an EV in Athens, GA was next to impossible. (Most manufacturer’s websites said EV cars have limited availability and were only in limited states. And those states did not include Georgia). Without proper supply of the cleaner products we need to adopt we won’t be achieving much.
Throughout the book Gates makes valuable points. We need firms, consumers, and governments to work on the problem. He is a realistic business person so he knows that we need to help create situations whereby the sustainable choice is the easy choice. Overall, Gates seems to talk a lot of sense.
Read: Bill Gates (2022) How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have And The Breakthroughs We Need, Penguin Random House, First Vintage Books Edition