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.

3 Things I Learned From “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” So Far

For the last couple of weeks I have been reading Bill Gate’s book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”. It is written in a very approachable way, and while in some cases very rudimentary in the explanations, it is an excellent book to bring the topic to a broader audience. It does a fantastic job laying out the challenges, as provides strong data points to re-enforce the urgency. There is also a good mix of optimism, which should energize each of us to double down on our climate change efforts. I am not an expert in the areas of the book drills into, so there were some great insights and facts that I took from the book.

I have not finished the book, but here are 3 things I have learned so far:

  • Emissions in US and Europe are going down
  • While electrification is critical, our infrastructure is not set up for the future electrical demand
  • How much the manufacturing of steel and cement contributes to emissions

The following is a brief summary on these topics.

Emissions Around the World

While it is encouraging that emissions have declined in US and Europe in the last 15 years, the bigger issue is that in China and India (and other emerging economies) they are increasing at a much faster rate. As more of the world’s third world nations strive to raise their standard of living the fastest & cheapest way will result in greater use of fossil fuels.

Electrification and Impacts on the Grid

Electrifying our life from cars, to heating, to energizing manufacturing will be important to reduce the overall impact of today’s fossil fuels. However, beyond just converting to renewable energy, we need to revamp the whole electrical grid. Most experts agree that as we electrify processes like making steel, and running cars, the world’s electricity demand will need to double or triple by 2050. As we shift from carbon-based generation, where plants for situated close to cities and consumption to wind and solar, we will need to send power across larger areas of the country. This is because the areas that can generate the power (southwest for solar, and great plains for wind) are not connected via the electrical grid to the largest cities on the coasts. Connecting the power sources with the consumers I not just an infrastructure investment question, but more importantly a political one. Building electrical lines over long distances impact so many businesses, and private land-owners.

Manufacturing of Steel and Cement

Most of the media and attention, and my personal focus has been on how we travel and what we eat. It is fashionable to drive an electric car, switch from oil heat, and eat less meat. These are important things, and what makes them appealing is that as individuals we can make an immediate impact ourselves by changing our behavior. However, the biggest contributors to emissions are manufacturing and generating electricity. If your electric vehicle consumers electricity generated from a coal power plant, how does that help?


Making a different in climate change comes down to making changes and choices in your lifestyle. The more you learn and understand the better equipped you are to act and also educate others. Solving climate change will be challenging, and Bill Gate’s book does a good job of education, but also highlights areas we need to innovate or suggests impacts our governments can take. Each chapter I read provides more context, and forces me to reflect on the actions I take.

KnowCarbon Good News – Apr 24

I am currently reading Bill Gate’s book – How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. There are both sobering facts and healthy optimism. I will post some thoughts in the next few days & weeks.

With Earth Day this past Thursday, there were many positive announcements, which is very encouraging, although still a lot of work for all of us. Here are a few of the “Good News” stories, I came across in the past few weeks.

101 Nobel Laureates urge cooperation at Climate Summit

Hannaford supermarkets announce zero food

HeatSmart Newton Will Help Residents Adopt Heat Pump Technology for Another Year

US report: Bald eagle populations soar in lower 48 states

Beautiful spring day out there. Take the time to enjoy and pick 1 or 2 things you can do to help fight climate change.

You Are What You Eat

As we gathered for another Easter during Covid, and look forward to better times for family get togethers, I was reminded about good food, and what we eat impacts the environment. Normally, we would have lamb for Easter, and I must admit it is a favorite. It is well known that eating meats has a much bigger carbon footprint than a vegetarian or vegan diet. If you are not ready to become a vegan, what are you to do?

First and foremost, educating yourself on the topic is the first step. The biggest impact is the food you eat. While this is easier to adjust when you cook at home, and there is an increasing awareness and choices in restaurants to be environmentally friendly.

There are a number of carbon food calculators available to understand and compare the climate impact of your choice choices. My beloved lamb has the greatest impact, generating 39.3 kg (86.4 lbs) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) for each kilo eaten – about 50 percent more than beef. Animal farming is responsible for 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, making it a significant contributor to climate change. Of those emissions, 65% comes from beef and dairy cattle. If you are not ready to give up meat (like myself), then there are still changes you can make immediately and still have a positive impact on your carbon footprint. This includes reducing the number of times per week you have meat, and substituting lower impact meats such as each chicken instead of beef. Finally, reducing the portion size of any meat that you eat. With these changes you can lower the carbon footprint from you diet by 30-50%.

When eating out we often look for different foods than we might cook at home, whether that is Chinese food, a Mediterranean salad, etc. In Newton where I live within 20 minute walk, I can easily get Sushi, Thai, Chinese, or Mexican, as well as the usually American fare. Almost all the these restaurants offer vegetarian options, and are still true to the flavor and culture of the establishment. Most will have a lower share of meat as a portion of the overall meal. For larger chains, I recently came across a cool web site called “Cool Food”. Cool Food helps people and organizations reduce the climate impact of their food through shifting towards more plant-rich diets. Panera are the first company with menu items to receive the Cool Food Meals badge. I love Panera, and have eaten many of their salads. Unfortunately, the one in Newton Center closed as a victim of Covid.

We didn’t have lamb this year. What are the steps you have taken? Any suggestions?

KnowCarbon Good News – Feb 13

As I sit in my warm house with the beautiful winter weather outside, I came across the following quote from John Boswell, “Winter, a lingering season, is a time to gather golden moments, embark upon a sentimental journey, and enjoy every idle hour”.

Here are a few of the “Good News” stories, I came across in my idle winter hours this week.

To Help Save Bumble Bees, Plant These Flowers in Your Spring Garden

A circular car industry could slash carbon emissions

Ozone Recovery Is Back on Track

We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

Nothing like a cold winter day to reflect in our impact and actions we can take.

Think Globally, Act Locally: 100+ Years Later

I have always loved the motto “Think Globally, Act Locally.” If it had not been taken, and I was more creative, I would have used it for this blog. Alas I am quite late to the game, as the term is attributed to Patrick Geddes, a Scots town planner and social activist over 100 years ago. It was incorporated into the climate change community in the 1970s. Since it was already taken, and I also wanted to incorporate optimism as a theme into my blog and had to come up with a different name. You can read about why I started this blog here.

Circling back to community, I firmly believe it is one of the most critical aspects of people’s lives. Giving back to the community is fulfilling and creates everlasting relationships. So in today’s world what is community, what does it mean for climate change, how an individual can make a difference?

With respect to climate change, community could take a multitude of forms. Some examples include (1) a local group of people interested in climate change; (2) a global organization that brings people together around climate change; (3) online groups of individuals with common values. While these are not all “local”, they create endless opportunities to be part of a community and make a difference.

Over the last 18 months I have learned more about Green Newton. It is a fantastic organization with an amazing set of programs that include educational programs on heat pumps, a list of actions you can take to lower your climate impact, and how to get a no cost home energy assessment. As I learned more, I reached out to them to volunteer and started by helping promote their programs within the local Newton community. Last year I also wrote a number of posts on my experience with Green Newton’s Take Action initiative. Earlier this year, I was asked and accepted to join the board of Green Newton. I am excited to spend more time with the team, learning and helping others participate in our programs. You don’t have to join the board a local environmental group, but I encourage you to research what is available to you and sign up for their newsletter, or make a donation. It’s a start.

The premiere global scientific organization on climate change is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). IPCC, created in 1988, is an organization of 195 governments that are members of the United Nations or World Meteorological Organization (WMO). What is amazing is that IPCC scientists volunteer their time to assess the thousands of scientific papers published each year to provide a comprehensive summary of what is known about climate change. I am embarrassed to admit that until a couple of years ago, I had never heard of IPCC. I learned about it from my brother, who is active in Ecology Ottawa. He is also an author. So what does this have to do with IPCC? My brother realized not many people know about IPCC, so he wrote a graphic novel to help spread the world – “Because IPCC.” You don’t need to write a book, but you could read one. You could also spend 15 minutes looking at the IPCC website to learn about their amazing work and dedication. Finally, if you are a scientist, and there are many in the Newton area, you can engage in multiple ways.

The third type of community I will cover is online. For me this last community is important for constant learning and encouragement to hear of the progress we are making and get ideas on what else I can do. There are quite a few groups on facebook, LinkedIn that I participate in as well as blogs and e-newsletters I read. I particularly enjoy “Climate Change – I Care!”, “Climate Change Guide Group”. I am still sorting through which blogs provide the “right” information for me.

To wrap up, here are three things you can do towards helping fight climate change.

  • Find a local environmental group and either volunteer, subscribe to their newsletter, or donate.
  • Pick one of the global non-profits, get to know their work and leverage it to educate your community, friends, and local politicians.
  • Join one online group and engage in the discussion. Pick one idea from the group to adopt in the next 30 days.

I remain optimistic about the possibilities. The past year with Covid-19 has been challenging for all, but communities are strong and help us get through the tough times.

KnowCarbon Good News – Feb 2

We are getting through it, and there are some great things to look forward to in 2021. Here are some of the good news stories on climate change I came across in the last few weeks.

The foods that reverse climate change

Electric vehicles close to ‘tipping point’ of mass adoption

4 ways the U.S. can reassert leadership on climate change

Global energy transition investment grows 9% in 2020, hits record $501B

Positive trends we can all build on. How are you accelerating some of these trends?

Consumption, Minimalism, and Climate Change

Over the holidays I came across “The Minimalists” through their 2014 documentary, “Minimalism: A Documentary.” It struck me as appropriate to explore, as while Christmas is a wonderful time to spend time with family and friends, and exchanging gifts can create happiness, it is also the perfect time to reflect on the “good things in life”, which are usually not material. In the film, the principals – Joshua and Ryan, tour the country and evangelize people to live with less stuff, and focus more on the people and relationships in their lives. This is especially poignant this year with Covid-19, as many of us have not been able to spend as much time with the people we care about.

There are a few themes I loved about the approach Joshua and Ryan took in the film: (1) Their positive energy and enthusiasm about the world is contagious and uplifting (2) Taking time to think about what material things you really need, and how they contributes to your happiness is something we should all do (3) Their approach is not “preachy”, but provides people a vision, and encourages us to all do what we can and improve each day from there.

I am a long way from a minimalist, and in the consumer world we live in, I find it hard to encourage my kids to embrace the concept. However, given Christmas has just occurred and we had a flurry of gifts, the idea of focusing more on the people, and less on the stuff seems appropriate. When I look forward to a holiday or birthday, the thing I anticipate the most is a meal together, and the discussions that emerge.  This year my kids gave me some beer and cheese which was perfect. “Things” I love, and I could consume and share them in the company of people I care about.

All the things we buy have an impact on the climate. “The minimalists” reminded me to try to take a step each and every day to assess: Do I really need this? Will it make me happier? I started this blog a year ago to share my day-to-day thoughts and actions on how an individual can make a different fighting climate change. Adding to the questions about buying stuff I would include: what energy was consumed in making and transporting this? What happens when I am done with it? Does it end up in a landfill? Is there too much packaging?

To make an impact start with actions you can take every day. Ultimately, starting behavior that is sustainable is important. What are the steps and ideas you have?

Water Water Everywhere…

This fall we had to build a new garage since a tree fell on the old one last year. We took the opportunity to upgrade the design, from the 1920’s steel garage from Sears. However, with the new garage, the roof slopes to the front of the garage and funnels water directly onto the driveway and sometimes back into the garage. What do to?


My contractor suggested gutters across the front of the garage, which will keep the water siphoned away from the front doors. The challenge is where to send the water, to avoid erosion on the side of the garage? Some quick searches, and I came across the Great American Rain Barrel Company. As I did research, I learned that there are several environmental benefits of rain barrels. From the Great American Rain Barrel Company here are 5 Great reasons to use rain water.

Based on data from the EPA, the average American family uses 320 gallons of water per day, about 30 percent of which is devoted to outdoor uses. More than half of that outdoor water is used for watering lawns and gardens. Nationwide, landscape irrigation is estimated to account for nearly one-third of all residential water use, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons per day.

Rain barrels have the ability to save the average homeowner 1300 gallons of water. Water from barrels also creates healthy plants and soil since there are more organic nutrients. Finally, rain barrels reduce erosion. They can also reduce stormwater runoff, which can push excess nutrients from fertilizers, pet waste and other sources into rivers and streams.

We started by getting a couple of help the issues with the garage and if they work well, it will make sense to buy additional barrels for around the house. Many local communities offer rain barrel programs that fund the purchase, as the city of Newton.

Does a rain barrel make sense for your garden?

I Hate Raking Leaves

Every fall the leaves cascade down across my front and back lawns. I love the look of the various reds, browns, and orange leaves. The cooler days, fresh air and fall colors bring reflection on one of the best times of year in New England. However, I hate raking the leaves. Each year I try to wait until Thanksgiving before I rake. Usually there is a windstorm that blows most leaves off my lawn (and onto my neighbors) by the end of November. I would love to say this is motived by climate change, but it is mostly simply me being lazy.

When it comes to raking, there is a climate change concern I do take in mind. I don’t bag the leaves. Luckily there are some woods next to my backyard where I can dump the piles from the endless garbage bins that I fill. Avoiding the bagging is a simple way to avoid having the city having to pick up my yard waste. The trucks burn gasoline and create CO2 emissions.

This past week, I came across an article from the Mass Audubon society titled, “Leave the Leaves.” I was thrilled to learn that my laziness, was helping the environment. “The vast majority of butterfly and moth species don’t migrate but rather overwinter in leaf litter.” By not sending my leaves to the landfill, “our native pollinators, including bees, butterflies, beetles, and moths, who rely on leaf litter for food and shelter to help them survive winter.”

As I did some more research, the news kept getting better. In a USA Today story from last fall on raking leaves, they highlighted that “according to the EPA, 10.8 million tons of yard waste went to landfills, accounting for just under 8% of all waste in landfills.” Leaves take up space and they also can break down with other organic waste to create methane, a potent greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change.

I was glad to see some growing coverage from The Buzz from The Forest Preserve District of Will County, and the InsideHook, as this help in my leak raking negotiation at home. Lazy leaf-rakers unite!!