BOOK REVIEW: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, a Technologist Perspective by Bill Gates

Lionel Grealou Digital PLM 5 minutes


I recently took part of a book review with fellow PLM experts from the PLM Green Alliance, discussing Bill Gates’ new bookHow to Avoid a Climate Disaster: the solutions we have and the breakthroughs We Need“—and expanding in a group discussion on enterprise platforms and digitalisation can enable sustainable innovations needed to address climate change challenges.

My take on the book

Overall, Gates’ book is a massive contribution to the subject of climate change; though the problem statements are somewhat described in basic terms, the book covers a significant brainstorming of solutions and “options” to address such a complex issue. From chapter 4 to 9, the book is “full on” with well-thought ideas and numerous examples—focusing on how technology and innovation can help getting from 51b tones to net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emission by 2050.

Unfortunately, the conversation about climate change has become unnecessarily polarized, not to mention clouded by conflicting information and confusing stories. We need to make the debate more thoughtful and constructive, and most of all we need to center it on realistic, specific plans for getting to zero.

Bill Gates, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” (2021).

Beyond a somewhat evangelistic list of personal significant investments he made toward technology innovation and perhaps to offset his own GHG contribution, key perspectives presented by Gates in his book can be summarised as follows:

  • Technology and innovation can bring us to net-zero by 2050;
  • Nevertheless, further innovations, breakthroughs, R&D investments and legislation are necessary to get there.
  • It is important to concurrently focus on both long- and short-term solutions; the “reduce by 2030” is only relevant as a milestone towards “zero by 2050”.
  • It is critical to look into facts; asking 5 core questions might help in climate change discussions:
    1. How much of the 51n tons are we talking about?—to put this into (relative) perspective.
    2. What’s your plan for cement?—to ensure that the “big hitters” are covered.
    3. How much power are we talking about?—to be able to size feasibility in terms of equivalent energy, based on the relevant unit of measure.
    4. How much space do you need?—same as above, in terms of space required.
    5. How much is it going to cost?—same as above, in terms of investment required.
  • The focus must be on Green Premiums: the cost difference between a clean technology and the one that emits a greater amount of GHG—like key performance indicators to track progress and improvement.
  • There are many Green Premiums to consider in a holistic manner across various zero-carbon options; then, there is also the need to balance and link these together (impact analysis and trade-offs to prioritise investments and policies).
  • Green Premiums span across 5 main clusters: making things (31%), electricity (27%), growing things (19%), getting around (16%), keeping warm and cool 7%).
  • Legislation and policies are required to create the relevant incentives…
  • Everyone must contribute, from large corporations, government to individuals.
  • And, solving the covid pandemic will be easy compared to solving climate change…

What’s remarkable to me is not how much emissions went down because of the pandemic, but how little.

Bill Gates, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” (2021).

Gates is going pretty quick over a number of subjects that are very complex and, by trying to cover as many examples as possible, makes it difficult to apprehend the relative interdependencies of these “options” or ideas. The ongoing references throughout the book to his personal “green economy” investments are somehow anecdotical, though a little bit too evangelistic at times. Having said that, he provides interesting and tangible examples to showcase his understanding of the technologies, and his personal “commitment” to the cause.

It is hard to see references to scientific research on GHG and, though the problem statement is clearly explained by Gates, more evidence would have helped readers wanting to learn more about the facts (to fight the arguments from global warming and science skeptics and associated climate change myths). Furthermore, the book is somewhat very politically friendly with little to no mention of government issues, industry lobbies, international misalignments, inequalities between industrialised (high-income) and developing (low-income) countries, etc.

My perception is also that the book appears to be written for Americans, rather than for every readers on the planet. Being such a public figure, words and opinions from Gates are likely to resonate, or at least be heard. The book is well written, like a personal journey of learning and investments. Undeniably, Gates had access to leaders and “big brains” of the world, and the associated knowledge is priceless.

On his blog GatesNotes, he described his book as a “plan for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions“; it is a positive albeit very draft map of technological innovations and associated opportunities. Surely, such “plan” would need more than a technology perspective to be implemented. I would have liked to see a draft roadmap of what needs to happen between now and 2050, bringing all perspectives in context (people, societal, political, process, data, technology, etc.), testing how these options might combine, the approach to prioritisation and trade-offs, guiding on how to manage complexity, and the role of technology and enterprise architecture in doing so.

Link to enterprise architecture… PLM, ERP and Industry 4.0

Enterprise platforms contribute to data traceability across material, product quality, plant process, service efficiency lifecycle. They can help with tracking process input / output, GHG requirements, compliance, causes and effects, FMEAs, alternate options, linking KPIs across costs, resources and other business parameters across customer and supply chains.

PLM and ERP integration can help with sustainability lifecycle assessment across the enterprise and the lifecycle of the product. As Gates mentioned, interdependencies and decision implications can be quite complex to measure, track or analyse, hence he did not focus on in his book.

Lifecycle assessment is an interesting field that involves documenting all the greenhouse gases that a given product is responsible for, from the time it’s produced until the end of its life. These assessments are a useful way to analyze the climate impact of various technologies, but they’re pretty complicated, so in this book I will focus on direct emissions, which are easier to explain and generally lead to the same conclusions anyway.”

Bill Gates, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” (2021).

Addressing climate change issues will require a systemic and holistic approach to tracking value creation. Industry 4.0 is about digitalisation and connectivity and is often described as a “hype”; some refer to it as the next “wave” of manufacturing intelligence, which might hopefully bring GHG tracking to net-zero to the next level, from R&D, manufacturing to asset utilisation in the field… Getting a clearer understanding of what GHG related information needs to be managed and within the product or plant lifecycle will require a holistic enterprise architecture perspective—covering data authoring and consumption, processes and interface hubs to connect the dots across business functions, as policies and compliance requirements mature.

What are your thoughts?


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Disclaimer: articles and thoughts published on v+d do not necessarily represent the views of the company, but solely the views or interpretations of the author(s); reviews, insights and mentions of publications, products, or services do neither constitute endorsement, nor recommendations for purchase or adoption. 

About the Author

Lionel Grealou

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Lio is founder and independent consultant with Xlifecycle Ltd—helping organizations make the most from their digital enterprise strategies and manage the 'Lifecycle of Things' across PLM, MES, ERP, IOT, SCM platforms.

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