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Will Bill Gates' solutions save the climate?

Lately, Bill Gates has been in the news a lot about the fight against global warming.

He has just published a book on the subject: "Climate: How to avoid a disaster - Current solutions, necessary innovations".

Naturally, when such a renowned businessman takes on a collective subject like climate change, it arouses media curiosity.

Bill Gates, although not really an expert on climate issues, has been invited on many platforms, in the United States.

But also in France, to give his opinion on the climate problem.


So, what does the founder of Microsoft propose to do about the climate?

Are his recommendations in line with those of scientific authorities such as the IPCC?

What are these famous "current solutions and necessary innovations" to solve the climate crisis?

Will Bill Gates' solutions save the climate?


Let's try to understand. (Will Bill Gates' solutions save...)


1. Bill Gates and the climate: the right statement

Before moving to the analysis of Bill Gates' proposed solutions, it must first be said that his analysis of the problem is rather solid.

Bill Gates rightly describes global warming as a vital emergency for human societies.

 

We emit around 50 billion tons of CO2 equivalents every year, and we have at best a few decades to divide this figure by 4 or 5.

Or even ideally bring it down to zero.

If we don't act quickly, we will face a growing number of very unpleasant consequences:

  • Deteriorating climate conditions, extreme weather events, declining agricultural productivity, health risks...
  • And by extension, this will lead to dramatic economic and social crises.

 

Bill Gates discusses these issues at length.

He gives the right orders of magnitude on the sectors that emit the most greenhouse gases:

  • Transportation, energy use in buildings, food production and industry.


It also mentions the fact that developing countries are more vulnerable to the consequences of global warming…

Even though, they contribute less than rich countries to climate change.

Contrary to many analyses on the subject, Bill Gates also takes the time to mention the problem of adaptation to global warming.

Since the climate is already deteriorating, and will continue to deteriorate in the future because of our CO2 emissions.

We must prepare for a different climate today, and adapt our social and economic systems.


2. What does Bill Gates propose for the climate?

But the central focus of Bill Gates' analysis is rather on ways to avoid the crisis.

By presenting two main solutions, to reduce our CO2 emissions and bring them towards zero.

To do this, Bill Gates proposes a relatively simple theoretical plan.

The first step would be to massively deploy "current solutions."


Such as renewable energies and nuclear power, in order to replace fossil fuels as much as possible in electricity production.

At the same time, it would be necessary to convert to electricity the maximum number of uses that are currently dependent on fossil fuels.

For example, driving an electric car instead of a thermal car...

But according to Bill Gates, these transitions pose a number of challenges that need to be solved in order to reduce our emissions sufficiently.


To solve them, he advocates a certain number of "necessary innovations":

  • New forms of storage and batteries to compensate for the intermittence of renewable energies.
  • New industrial and chemical processes to avoid the use of fossil fuels.
  • New generations of nuclear reactors to respond to the problems posed by current reactors...
  • Thermal storage systems based on molten salts, travelling wave nuclear reactors, solid electrolyte batteries, and the production of steel by electrolysis...

 

3. The rhetoric of "zero impact" technological solutions

In short, the underlying logic is as follows: We must develop zero-impact technologies that allow us to maintain our activities without degrading the climate.

Thus, according to Bill Gates, it should be possible to continue to eat fruit out of season, provided that we have zero-carbon transport.

That allows these products to travel from the places of production to the places of consumption.

We could continue to eat grapes in January if we could import them from countries where they are grown at that time.

All thanks to zero-emission vehicles.

This is an example he develops in his interview with the program “La Terre au Carré” on France Inter.

The problem with this rhetoric is that it is based on an assumption that is false from the outset.

It’s that there would be zero-carbon or zero impact technologies.

It is absolutely fundamental to understand that no technology today is "zero impact".


All technologies, even those labelled as "green", are responsible for a whole series of more or less direct environmental consequences.

 

For example, renewable energies, the central point of Bill Gates' "current solutions", although "low carbon", are not "zero carbon" for all that.

Manufacturing the components of a wind turbine, transporting them, assembling them, all contribute to the emission of greenhouse gases.

This is simply because these different processes require the use of fossil fuels, which emit CO2.

A wind turbine does not emit 0 CO2, but about 11 g of CO2 per kWh of electricity produced with current techniques.

These energies also have consequences on other environmental indicators.


The mining operations necessary to obtain the raw materials needed to manufacture wind turbines cause very strong environmental degradation locally.

Biodiversity and the state of water resources are affected by these activities.

It is the same principle for the electric car.:

It does not emit CO2 while driving, but the production of the car or the electricity generates significant environmental impacts.

In numerous interviews, the founder of Microsoft also mentions green hydrogen as one of the innovations to be developed for the future.

Hydrogen should be able to replace fossil fuels in road transport, in aviation or in industry.

The idea of green hydrogen is simple: we use "green" energy to produce hydrogen by electrolysis of water.

Once this hydrogen is produced, it is stored.

For example in fuel cells, which allow it to be released on demand in form of electricity, without CO2 emissions, by only releasing water.


Green hydrogen has all the advantages: it can store large quantities of energy, available on demand, without the autonomy constraints of traditional electric batteries.

It would therefore be possible to fly hydrogen-powered aircraft over long distances, without emissions.

However, here again, things are not so simple in practice. Indeed, for hydrogen to become a widespread "green" energy carrier.

Tens of millions of tons of hydrogen would have to be produced every year.

And to produce this "green" hydrogen, we would have to build millions of renewable or low-carbon energy production facilities.

It is capable of generating the energy necessary to produce hydrogen by electrolysis.

It would even be necessary to build more of them since the energy efficiency of hydrogen production is not very high.:

For 100 kWh of electricity, we obtain only 60 to 70 kWh of hydrogen.

But to build these installations, we would have to use... oil, to extract the materials, transform them, assemble them, transport them etc.

This would mean emitting large quantities of CO2 in the short term.


All the technologies considered today contribute in one way or another to the use of fossil fuels.

Or to processes that is affecting the soil, the water, or the ecosystems and animals that shelter them.

They are therefore not "zero impact", even if they may be of interest in improving certain processes or reducing certain ecological pressures.


4. Gamble of a global transition to clean energy

One of Bill Gates' bets is that we will eventually make these technologies truly green.

By progressively eliminating the use of polluting energies in their production processes.

For example, if tomorrow we were able to produce our wind turbines, solar panels or nuclear power plants using green hydrogen instead of oil.

This would create a kind of virtuous circle.


We could then produce hydrogen thanks to low-carbon energies and thanks to this hydrogen, build more low-carbon energy production capacities.

That would allow us to produce more hydrogen...

And so on, until all fossil energies are replaced by energy carriers resulting from low-carbon production, with the addition of advanced energy storage technologies.

This is how we could develop, as the billionaire proposes, decarbonized steel production methods, green airplanes, and low-carbon cars with unlimited range.


We would then have an economy "decoupled" from environmental impacts.

So, is this bet realistic? It's hard to say at first glance.

In absolute terms, it is not theoretically impossible that we will progressively create the conditions for the production of alternative low-carbon fuels and electricity.

Based on hydrogen or biomethanization, which will make it possible to replace tomorrow's fossil fuels.

That continues to be the norm, including in the production of "low-carbon" energies or technologies.

But at the same time, a few orders of magnitude allow us to understand that such a transition seems extremely complex.

 And that in any case, it will not be "zero impact".

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