Bill Gates: a great disappointment
There is no doubt that Bill Gates is one of the people who has made and keeps making a difference in our time. His creation and management of Microsoft will have a lasting impact on the way we use computers. And then, as a young retiree with billions of dollars and in the tradition of the great American tycoons, he returns the favour through a foundation he created with his wife and to which he dedicates most of his time and attention. It takes a great deal of bad faith and mistrust to suspect dark intentions behind his philanthropic works or even to suggest conspiracies to achieve world domination. His actions for health in the Third World, in particular through vaccination, are remarkable and his professional, depoliticised and unbureaucratic approach to development issues is refreshing.
That said, his latest book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” is a disappointment, despite the common sense with which he tackles practical matters, especially energy issues.
He turns out to be the most climate-credulous person imaginable, taking at face value a simplistic correlation between temperature and carbon emissions, with no nuances as to the urgency and solely negative effects that warming would have on human life. He understands that every additional tonne of CO2 put into the atmosphere is one tonne too many that should be avoided. But he is only reproducing the exaggerations of the diagnosis, the hypersensitivity that the climate would have to a dose of CO2 and also the false threat of a tipping point that would soon overturn us. Similarly, he accepts without flinching the most incredible projections that are made using worst-case scenarios to sound the alarm and wash the brains that have remained insensitive. He even overdoes it because he aggregates the emissions of other so-called greenhouse gases such as methane or nitrous oxide as if their stability in the atmosphere were the same as that of CO2, thus increasing the invoice from 40 to 51 gigatons per year. Nor does he know that, in the end, the CO2 emitted in cement production will be absorbed by the lime used to make concrete, resulting in a zero balance. And he says straight away, without having been able to understand it since it is not true, that one fifth of anthropogenic CO2 would still remain in the atmosphere in 10,000 years, while 55% is continuously absorbed by the oceans and land biomass and the average residence time of CO2 in the air is about four years. Neither does he take into account that estimates of economic losses due to a warming of 3°C would only be of the order of two GDP points (between zero and four), which does not justify any expensive and ineffective climate policy.
The first disappointment is therefore to note the lack of critical spirit and even the lack of technical-scientific culture of a computer scientist who has become a legend. Like many, I am perhaps too inclined to attribute more qualities to quality people than they really have (whereas it is rare for a fool’s foolishness to be limited). He has become the captive of a scientific-technical elite whom he trusts while swallowing everything they say. Being himself part of this milieu, he should not be so naive.
Then arises a behavioural question: he is proud to have set up a network of billionaires to give their support to President Hollande on the eve of COP21, at which the Paris agreement was signed. This looks quite easy and irresponsible because their tens of billions bravely invested in companies that are more or less risky but enjoy state protection and support are only a drop in the ocean in the face of the thousands of billions that climate policies will divert from other social emergencies.
He is, nevertheless, well aware of the challenge of replacing the 85% of the world’s energy supply that today are provided by fossil fuels. Whether through substitution or CO2 capture and storage, the dimensions of the problem are beyond the realm of possibility because neither the resources nor even the technical solutions are available. They must first be discovered.
Making a seemingly simple but interesting point to get out of the debate on the social cost of carbon or other ratiocinations, he introduces a calculation of what he calls Green Premium, i.e. what it costs to add a “zero carbon” solution to the current cost of a product or service. For a change to be worthwhile, this additional cost must be modest, ideally even negative, in order to find investors. However, he pedals through the sauerkraut (as we say in French) by making bizarre comparisons between market price and cost of realization, such as the kWh paid by the consumer and the additional cost of greening it. Thus, for example, with estimates corresponding to the current state of the art, a 141% premium would have to be paid for an advanced biofuel on top of the current price of jet fuel, and for what he calls an electrofuel (derived from electrochemistry using hydrogen as a reagent) the premium would be 296%. So, a fuel that could be used in a modern aircraft would cost two and a half to four times more than current kerosine.
Green magicians will say it’s a good thing to do because it would be good for the planet, but Bill Gates remembers that such unattractive investments won’t have any takers and, on top of that, the energy used to make them wouldn’t be so green either as long as electricity supply, industry and transport still depend on coal, oil and gas.
This is why, and rightly so, he advocates for more and better investment in research and development, recalling also that public funds have always played an important role, although it should not be forgotten that military projects were often the source of decisive progress, the Manhattan project (A-bomb) or the internet for example.
He also advocates an artificial increase in the fossil fuel prices, supposedly to compensate for negative externalities, which would reduce the green premium to be paid and thus provide an incentive for change. This is misleading, however, because the total bill would remain unimproved. At this stage, one understands that, even if he is rich to the tune of billions, he does not realise that this zero-sum game is an economic illusion that would pass through the prestidigitatory hands of the public treasuries and be enjoyed first by the official stipendiaries and the usual suckers of subsidies and tax benefits at the expense of the ordinary taxpayer.
He understood well that significantly improved energy efficiency and reduced use of resources are what is needed. Adopting today the bad known solutions leads to three negative consequences: their excessive costs (Green Premium at its maximum), the formation of an infrastructure which, because it is bad, will quickly become obsolete but which nobody will want or be able to change (dismantling these wind turbines…), and above all a lack of aggressiveness to push R&D to go beyond its limits because one will declare oneself proud and content to have acted, although resting on lame laurels.
It is with a good dose of irony that – does he realize it? – Bill Gates suggests that, whether there is indeed a climate crisis, we will have to adapt and endure it for as long as it takes to make the hoped-for discoveries, and so without the sky falling on our heads until then.
This post is also available in: FR (FR)