by Mat McDermott
January 21, 2010
In case you haven't seen it, Bill Gates has a
new piece over at
Huffington Post where he argues that,
"We need innovation, not insulation,"
concluding that the world is distracted from what counts in terms of
dealing with climate change "in a big way."
Too bad nearly every thought in between those is
In the interests of setting Bill back on his
feet, here we go: Emission Reduction Dates' Importance Confused.
Gates takes his first tumble (in the opening two lines) by asserting that,
"People often present two timeframes that we
should have as goals for CO2 reduction - 30% (off some
baseline) by 2025 and 80% by 2050. I believe the key one to achieve is
80% by 2050."
Well, there are a whole lot of climate
scientists, with far greater credentials on this issue than Gates, who would
The fact of the matter is that while both goals are important - and the 2050
goal probably should be higher if you're referring to reductions in the rich
nations of the world - without strong reductions by 2020-2025 (about 40%
below 1990 levels is a decent benchmark) the chances of that 2050 goal
making much of a difference in,
keeping global average temperature rise below
keeping our oceans from becoming hopelessly acidic
potentially catastrophic biodiversity loss
increased water stress
yield declines, etc.,
Contrary to Gates' assertion (if the we he's referring to means the
international community, particularly the United States) if anything we are
not focusing enough on that first target.
Remember that the target the US put on the table
in Copenhagen was an effective 4% below 1990 levels by 2020, (17% below 2005
The "some baseline" matters a great deal.
Happening, Implementation is More Important
It's true, as Gates says, that to reach a strong 2050 goal we are going to
have to reduce emissions from transportation and electricity to near zero
and that innovation is needed to develop new forms of power generation.
How about stating the obvious?!? Bill, where have you been?
From the United States, to the EU, to China, to India, to Brazil there is
all sorts of innovation going on in developing,
...etc. etc. etc.
Obviously more needs to be done here in terms of both innovation and
implementation (the latter perhaps most of all), but to preface thoughts on
"We don't distinguish properly between
things that put you on a path to making the 80% by 2050 goal and things
that don't really help," tells me you're not really paying attention.
Energy Efficiency is
Some Pretty Ripe Low Hanging Fruit
"If addressing climate change only requires
us to get to the 2025 goal, then efficiency would be the key thing. But
you can never insulate your way to anything close to zero no matter what
advocates of resource efficiency say. You can never reduce consumerism
to anything close to zero."
True enough, but I'm not sure any advocate of
energy efficiency would say it can get you to zero emissions.
What some of the most vocal of them do say though - I'm thinking of the
Rocky Mountain Institute here - is that we could
reduce electricity demand
by 34% through efficiency improvements in the United States.
That alone could replace 62% of coal fired
That's not just saving "a little bit of energy" and goes beyond the overused
phrase 'low-hanging fruit', that's a really big deal in fact.
Big Difference Between Consumerism and
Oh, by the way, while it's true that you will
never get consumption of goods, use of natural resources, down to zero,
there's a huge difference between a standard of consumption based on human
need and ecological sustainability and the dominant paradigm of
consumerism-based, aggregate-growth-fetish culture spreading around the
Check out the latest
Worldwatch Institute State
of the World report, if you haven't.
It's worth a read and goes deeply into this.
There's Is Danger In
Thinking This Will Be Easy...
That said, we do have some common ground here:
It's true that there is a
danger that people think they just need to do a little bit and things will
That's a huge danger in fact. Agree entirely.
The scale of the co-joined issues of climate change, peak fossil energy,
population growth, biodiversity loss, and natural resource overconsumption
are such that even those of us who deal with them on a day in day out basis
have trouble grasping the big picture all at once.
We're talking massive paradigm shift, behavioral changes, economic changes,
even changes in consciousness I'd argue, to deal with them. All of them will
be forced upon us in varying degrees depending on locale.
And you know what, you're right technological innovation is part of the
"A distributed distribution system of R&D;
with economic rewards for innovators and strong government
encouragement" is indeed a key part of that.
...But There is No One
Solution, Definitely Not Technological Innovation
But, discounting energy efficiency, discounting strong science-based targets
for emission reductions by 2020, discounting the importance of policy
measures such as renewable energy portfolio standards, and setting a price
on carbon, let alone incorporating environmental externalities into the
price of consumer goods, is dangerous, irresponsible, myopic, and frankly,
you should know better.
It's entirely cliché to say so, I admit, but there is no silver bullet to
any of our environmental problems.
Sorry Bill, more technological innovation alone
isn't it. It really disturbs me to think that someone with as much economic
and social reach such as yourself would think so.
But in a way it doesn't surprise me.
It's that sort of either/or thinking that is far more part of the problem
than the solution.