More Learnings From “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”

Although I finished Bill Gates “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” book a few months ago, I have been a little busy to get the learnings written up. In my last post I highlighted how emissions in US and Europe are going down, that electrification is critical, and the impact of manufacturing steel and cement.

In the second part of the book, Gates covers “How We Grow Things”, “How We Get Around’, How We Stay Cool and Stay Warm”, as well as diving into solutions and the role of government. Some of the takeaways I had cover

  • Consumption and impact of cattle
  • Why the government’s role is so important and how each level has a role
  • How as individuals we can take concrete steps

Consumption and Impact of Cattle

Generally, in the US and Europe we are blessed with the riches of abundant food supply, larger homes, and relatively cheap transportation. However, this also results in a very consumption-oriented mind set, that not only has a significant impact on greenhouse gases, but produces a lot of waste. A while ago I wrote about the “minimalists”, and while I certainly live a “first world” lifestyle I strive to be more conscious of my consumption.

Meat Consumption

According to the book, raising animals is for food is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. This sector is different than construction, since the food production generates methane which is 28 times more warming per molecule versus carbon dioxide. The issue is impacted by raising crops, animals, as well as deforestation. Overall consumption of meat is flattening in the western world which helps. However, as population growth and living standards increase in third world countries this will continue to put pressure on food consumption

“Around the world, there are roughly a billion cattle raised for beef and dairy, creating a warming effect equivalent to 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, accounting for 4% of all global emissions.”  What I had not realized is that where a cow is raised has a huge impact on the amount of methane it produces. Cows in South America emit 5 times as much methane as those in North America. In addition to eating less meat, be careful as to the source of beef can have an impact. In you live in the US, buying US beef is better, and also will have reduced transportation impacts.

The Role of Government

Governments around the world are the primary leaders and can make the biggest impact. Ultimately, it is the government’s responsibility to tackle large social and climate issues, as businesses are incented in short-term profits and growth. We have a history of success. In 1962 the US enacted the Clean Air Act, and in 1970, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency to help implement it. Since 1990 emissions of nitrogen dioxide has dropped 56%, and carbon monoxide by 77%. This is good progress, but is it enough? Clearly, we need to do more.

To make a significant impact on green house gas emissions, we need to accelerate the electrification. Electric vehicles, shift to heat pumps from oil or gas. However, this also requires infrastructure changes. The electrical grids are regulated at the state level. Building codes are controlled at the local level. At the national level, the government can provide incentives and tax breaks, such as exist for buying electric vehicles. According to Yale Climate Connections, who cite study in the journal Energy Policy found that government policies like Renewable Portfolio Standards have played a critical role in the more than 99 percent reduction in solar panel costs over the past 40 years.

At the local level there needs policies and education of the community. In Newton, Massachusetts where I live, city hall has created a Climate Action Plan, and hired a sustainability coach. The city is launching an program, called “4 our Future” around the following major initiatives: (1) Insulate to the max (2) Go solar (3) Update cooling and heating, and (4) Electrify your ride.

How Individuals Can Take Concrete Steps

Ultimately, it comes down to each of us taking some form of action. In the book, Bill Gates outlines several areas we can do. My self-assessment is here.

As a citizen

  • Phone or write your municipal government
  • Research and support the initiatives that the local, state, and federal government are putting in place
  • Run for office. While this might not appeal to many, you can also volunteer in your community

As a consumer

As an Employee or Employer

  • Set an internal carbon tax
  • Prioritize innovation in low-carbon solutions
  • Be an early adopter of environmentally friendly products
  • Connect with government funded research
  • Invest in early-stage innovations

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” is an excellent book, and easy read. I encourage both fully committed environmentalist and those trying to learn how they can help to read it.

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