Bill Gates’ Path to Zero

*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. Knowing the green premium of different technologies helps us set priorities with regards to which technologies to implement first. 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. These actions should be implemented immediately. The green premium can be high for other technologies in which the low-carbon alternatives are undeveloped, technically complex, or much more expensive, such as steel and cement. 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 that supplies as much of our energy needs as possible from electricity, while reducing our demand. He refers to these as the “easy” things we need to do – even though they are far from universal adoption.

The easy actions will take vigorous implementation and wide public support. They should be implemented immediately and need financial incentives, education, and marketing. 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. These essential technologies have a large green premium so he refers to these as the “hard’ things we need to do.

A good start is being made on some of them, 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; and 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.

Not all of this research and development will work out, which is why he advocates researching a variety of technological approaches. In case some of these hard technologies end up having too high a green premium or encounter other problems, he advocates for research into developing more cost effective carbon capture and storage. That involves capturing carbon from smokestacks of fossil-fuel powered industries and other industrial processes that we may not be able to get to zero carbon – and/or removing carbon directly from the air.


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.

The same thing needs to happen with low carbon cement, steel, plastics, and hydrogen technologies. Even though these technologies need more research, jumpstarting existing versions of these technologies through financing, marketing, government procurement, and corporate purchasing policies will increase demand. After they are scaled up and in widespread production, innovations will increase and prices will come down. As Gates notes, the dramatic decrease in the cost for solar panels came from “learning by doing – the simple fact that the more times we make some product, the better we get at it.”


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 topselectric vehicle chargers, advanced air sealingsuper 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.

Every building erected in the next 10 years that is NOT all-electric zero energy or zero energy ready is a lost opportunity for progress. Constructing inefficient buildings during the next decade adds an unnecessary carbon burden because they will continue demanding energy for generations to come. On the other hand, aggressively incentivizing, requiring, and marketing all-electric, zero energy homes and buildings can quickly bring a whole package of existing “easy” technologies into widespread use, helping to further lower their price and drive innovation. From all-electric zero energy homes it is a short step to zero-carbon, positive energy homes and buildings that power electric buildings, vehicles, and more.

The building industry can also help advance some of the “hard” technologies by searching out and specifying the low-carbon concrete options that are currently available and using cross-laminated wood products instead of steel. Using life cycle assessment software as part of the design process will help lower a building’s carbon footprint and build demand for some of the harder zero-carbon options.

Homeowners can electrify their homes , purchase highly efficient heat pump systems and appliances, and air seal and insulate their homes as they renovate. We all can plan to purchase an electric vehicle when replacing our existing one. People looking for a new home can purchase zero energy and zero energy ready homes. While challenging, these “easy” actions are already available and everyone needs to get on board now if we want to get to zero by 2050.


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. Because of its comprehensive, thoughtful, and systematic approach to the challenge, and because of the urgency of the matter, Bill Gates’ book should be in the hands of every citizen. It is a roadmap we all must follow together.


Joe Emerson is an article author at Zero Energy Project.


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