Bill Gates is for many the Dr Evil of the corporate world. His Microsoft behemoth has had a stranglehold on the world’s personal computer market for the last two decades, and wrung hundreds of billions out of users in the process. All of which makes Mr Gates ridiculously rich.
So rich in fact that his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now possibly the world’s largest private charity. It recently pledged a staggering $10 billion to help develop and deliver vaccines for children in the so-called developing world. However, Mr Gates may have had something of an epiphany recently, in terms of his understanding of where the real threats lie.
Speaking at the weekend at the TED conference in California, Gates laid it on the line: “What we’re going to have to do at a global scale is create a new (energy) system, so we need energy miracles.” Here is how he outlined the challenge: the world has to pretty much eliminate carbon emissions by 2050, while cutting energy costs in half. For this to succeed would require the largest technological, political and cultural shift since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
“We have to drive full speed and get a miracle in a pretty tight timeline,” he said. Being an uber-techno geek, it’s hardly surprising that Gates is putting his faith in technology to ride to our collective rescue. In the circumstances, it’s perhaps as good a bet as the next one. Interestingly, Gates called climate change “the world’s most vexing problem”, and fixing it is more important than creating new vaccines or improving farming techniques, causes into which he has poured billions of dollars.
It’s a fair point. Vaccines may reduce mortality among the under-fives, but this will do little good if climatic extremes, as predicted, mean famine, desertification, water system failure, flooding and political chaos for many hundreds of millions of people this century.
Rapidly ridding the world’s energy portfolio of coal and natural gas is top of Gates’ list. Since this is impractical, the oft-promised but rarely seen carbon capture and storage schemes have to be attached to coal-burning plants in particular. Yes, this means energy will cost more, but considering the alternative is climate Armageddon, maybe this will come to be seen as a price worth paying.
Regarding alternatives, it’s a belt-and-braces approach: lashings of nuclear, wind, solar as well as geothermal are now needed in copious quantities to wean us away from carbon collapse. Jim Hansen’s recent book, Storms of My Grandchildren highlighted the utter inefficiency of current nuclear reactors.
Today’s nuclear plants are typically only extracting 1% of the energy from a uranium rod, leaving a huge problem of highly radioactive waste. Logically, a new generation of “fast-breeder” reactors, which burn up to 99% of uranium, leaving a much smaller mess to clean up and of course producing vastly more energy is an overwhelming imperative. Best of all, these reactors will be able to gobble up existing stockpiles of “nuclear waste”, so we get masses of energy and LESS radioactivity. QED.
Naturally, this will be bitterly opposed by some people who claim to be environmentalists because they just plain don’t like the very idea of nuclear. Move on people. We’ve got to plug this energy chasm, and plug it right now, or the last several hundred years of human progress (in all its hues) is about to topple off a cliff.
The cliff face is much, much closer than we think. A report in the Wall Street Journal last week on a group called the Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security. It concludes that, recent economic hiccups notwithstanding, Peak Oil is now no more than five years out. That’s 2015. The paper quotes Chris Skrebowski, of the Peak Oil Consulting firm as stating that mid-2015 is when the crunch hits. “This is when capacity starts to be overwhelmed by depletion and lack of new capacity additions.” To be fair, the International Energy Agency has been telling anyone who’ll listen about this for some time too.
Peak Oil is about so much more than having petrol for the car. Oil is the black blood of industrial civilisation, we depend on it for trade and transport, food production, heating, plastics – you name it, and you’ll find oil at the heart of its production or distribution. Of course, it’s not just about oil, it’s about cheap oil.
Push oil prices north of 150-200 dollars a barrel and bang, economic crash. Yet oil depletion and scarcity of cheap oil guarantees the stuff is going to get and stay permanently expensive. In mid-2008, it was just under 150 dollars a barrel – this undoubtedly was one of a small number of key ingredients that helped trigger the September 2008 financial system crash. Sputtering oil supply and demand, along with price spikes and slumps is the shape of the landscape as we begin our perilous descent down the far slopes of Hubbert’s Peak.
While sections of the media gleefully pick holes in the outer fringes of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, the ship sails on regardless. Gates, to his credit, can see what lies ahead, and may just have the financial muscle and contacts book to start moving us beyond rhetoric. Put it this way: anyone got a better idea?
I think the ‘no-nuke’ argument was reasonable at the time, given the technology and the accidents, but it’s interesting how the no-nuke lobby takes no account of technological advance. As a physicist, I would say a 4th generation reactor is as different to Chernobyl as a windfarm is to a coalmine.
At the same time, society seems to have swallowed whole the technological myth of ‘clean coal’. It’s sad to think that the Greens in Germany may, in the long run, have done more harm to the environment than good.
Just finished Hansen’s book – alarming more than alarmist, it’s not an easy read. My only criticism is that a shorter version would be more effective
Wired had an excellent piece on Thorium Nuclear recently, it is well worth a look:
Basically, if it can be made work you get a cheap source of nuclear energy without the proliferation risk associated with uranium reactors – and thorium is also more abundant and easier to process than uranium.
In fact the reason that development of these was abandoned during the cold war was simply because they could not be used to generate weapons grade material, so what was a ‘negative’ then would be seen as a positive now…
A supply crunch is not the same as peak oil. Citing the IEA in support of a 2015 peak oil prediction is a bit of a stretch.
It’s hard to comment on the rest because I haven’t seen Gates’ talk and you don’t provide a link.
In the field of health, my impression is that the Gates Foundation looks for techno-fixes, i.e. vaccines for infectious diseases, over mundane improvements in indoor air quality, clean water etc. that would have a bigger impact. So it would make sense to me if Mr Gates was attracted to silver bullets like nuclear and clean coal rather than energy efficiency for example.
Gates talk is now available at http://www.ted.com
If I can direct you to the archive of articles published in the Irish Times over the last couple of years, you’ll find addressing the population bubble gets far more mentions from me than techno solutions.
You asked about starting “a frank and honest discussion about providing food/water/shelter/power for 9 billion people over the next 50 years…” Again, couldn’t agree more. I have however been using every channel available to me for more than three years trying to get those very issues onto a wider public agenda. All of foregoing does not preclude us from looking closely at every new idea, from whatever source, however repugnant we may find it.
I reckon the pickle we’re in is going to require a belt-and-braces approach on a grand scale, combining rapidly stabilising and then reversing population growth, dismantling the current lunatic phase of the “consumer society” as the only possible way of addressing resource depletion and protecting resources for future generations.
Along with these, we’re obviously going to need to get smart on energy, and everything I’ve read and everyone of note I’ve spoken to or listened to in recent times says renewables haven’t a snowball’s chance of providing more than a fraction of our total energy (even allowing for energy efficiency gains) anytime this side of 2050. The chasm this creates means we either self-immolate on a pyre of fossil fuels or we come up with some pretty smart zero-carbon alternatives that can be deployed massively, and soon. An energy crash will annihilate industrial civilisation, and with it, any chances we have to invent our way out of this crisis.
Does that really sound to you like denier-speak?
Can’t disagree with you about Gates’ standpoint, but as outlined above, our choices are few and diminishing by the month. We’re going to need a lot more than just silver bullets. Add in iron will, brass cajones and, staying in a metallurgical vein, a golden touch to ride out the coming storms.
Glad you got to read Hansen and interested to hear that, wearing your physicist’s hat, your not ruling out the possibility of getting “fast breeder” 4th generation nukes into play in time to ride to our rescue. Agree entirely about ‘clean coal’. Looking at the godawful mess burning billions of tons of coal, oil, etc. creates in terms of CO2, it seems fanciful to think we’re going to somehow develop the gigantic carbon capture, transfer and storage systems that cleaning this lot up would actually entail.
CO2 is the problem, and burning more and more of the stuff to produce energy (leaving aside the other massive environmental impacts involved in fossil fuel production and burning) sounds like continuing to dig our own collective mass grave.
Thanks, I’ve watched the talk now.
It’s great to see him give decarbonisation such importance and emphasise that we need many solutions, not just one. However, in the second half of the talk he seems to pick just one solution (terrapower) that he claims will be enough on its own, but which will not even be ready for over 40 years, best-case scenario.
His analysis of the situation is not backed up by his investment policy, at least on the basis of this talk.
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