Bill Gates and “Energy Miracles”

Bill Gates is calling for “energy miracles” to tackle what he now recognizes as the two most important issues facing humanity: climate change and energy. Oddly enough, that’s the subject of Richard Heinberg’s latest monograph, “Searching for a Miracle.” We’ll spoil the ending for you: like unicorns and chocolate rainbows, energy miracles don’t exist.  Richard will deliver the second talk in Illahee’s 2010 Power and Change series on Monday evening, 22 February.

Gates laid out his agenda at last week’s TED conference in Long Beach. The big goal? Zero (as in 0) emissions by 2050. Not eighty percent reduction. Not ninety-seven percent. But zero. We should have taken better notes, (OK, we should have taken notes, period) but the talk was so surprising, that we just sat there mouth-breathing.

After all, here’s one of the brightest, richest guys in the world, who after twenty years of not getting it (The End of Nature came out in 1989, after all) finally recognizes climate and energy as the two keys to the future of civilization. Cool.

But his solution – 20 years of R&D, followed by 20 years of deployment – is flawed. We don’t have forty years. We need to crank out as much wind, solar and conservation energy as possible, starting yesterday. And we probably need to make arrangements for a more energy-scarce world. Fossil fuels are peaking; we’re at a plateau right now, and headed for a downward slope. Greenhouse gases are climbing, and likely to hit 500 ppm or more by 2050, especially if we follow Gates’ 20/20 strategy.

Joe Romm provides an excellent analysis of Gates’ talk, and finds it wanting, for reasons summarized above. It’s good news that Mr. Gates now recognizes climate and energy as the great challenges of our time, and that he’s promoting wind, solar, conservation and (gulp) even nukes. Indeed he spent most of his time talking about TerraPower, which proposes to use current nuclear waste in long-sustaining, stable reactions. We just need twenty more years of R&D, plus twenty years of deployment (on a technology that doesn’t exist yet, as versus proven ones?).

Alex Steffen describes Gates’ thinking in his essay in WorldChanging, summarizing the “Gates Equation.”

CO2 = Population x Services x Energy x Carbon Emissions

To get CO2 to zero, one of these terms has to equal zero.  Clearly that’s the last one, emissions – unless we all want to go away, as in “zero population.” But Steffan goes further, and stipulates that Gates’ equation needs a term for “nature.”  That is, we can’t degrade other environmental services like clean water, air, biodiversity, etc., in the quest for zero emissions. Hence, divide the whole equation by “N.”

Grist also provides a useful summary of Gates’ talk. Check the comments.

One final observation. Gates is obviously transferring high-tech / market metaphors to environmental and policy problems.  Some of them may work. Moore’s Law works for transistors, but it may not work for energy. Same with market driven solutions. Markets are great for a lot of things. But they may not be the silver bullet for climate change and energy supply. The problem here is that humans create markets, and human perceptions also limit the abilities of markets to address biogeophysical systems at relevant time and space scales. We’ve already pushed CO2 up to 390 ppm, degraded terrestrial ecosystems, and over-fished our oceans, even while scientists have been warning us about all these things for the past quarter century or more. Markets, as entities created by humans, have been unable to fully respond to these issues in a timely way.

So in addition to innovation, we need policy and market reform, informed by an understanding of our limitations as decision-makers. Gates understands this, to a degree – he wants a price on carbon, even if it means a tax. Are we up to the task? It helps that perhaps the most respected person in global civic life today has zeroed in (yes, pun intended) on the dual problems of energy and climate. Now we need to get the approach right.

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