Book Report V: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

"The book is still the greatest manmade machine of all - not the car, not the TV, not the smartphone." 

Ken Burns, 2016

In our Book Report series, we'd like to introduce ourselves via our bookshelf and share the books that most shape our diplomacy. Our fifth book is How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates. 

Polar Embassy's mission is to have a net positive impact on the ecological environments around our products' development, transport, and entire life cycle. There are many pieces to running a business in the most sustainable way possible, but most important for the planet is the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions and the mitigation of its effects. We chose to read and review a book that sums up this challenge (it's terrifying) and gives an overview of some technological and political solutions towards safety. 

I remember doing problem sets in university to work out how much CO2 is emitted by the concrete used in windmills (not zero!) but I needed a refresher on the topic. I hesitated at first because, as Gates writes, "the world is not exactly lacking in rich men with big ideas about what other people should do, or who think technology can fix any problem.” But I wanted an overview on climate research, technology, and policy, and I think Gates' work in philanthropy and the green energy space has earned our attention for 230 pages. The book excellently contextualizes greenhouse gas emissions, gives us helpful critical frameworks to analyze climate solutions, and shares many of the promising technologies and policy solutions out there. 

Humans pump 51 billion tons of GHGs into our atmosphere every year by:
How we make things (31% of GHGs)
How we plug in (27% of GHGs)
How we grow things (19% of GHGs)
How we get around (16% of GHGs)
How we keep cool and stay warm (7% of GHGs) 

As a tarot card producer, we fall in the most impactful category. From the start, CO2 emission reduction has been a part of many of our biggest decisions: We chose a printer in Europe who over-offsets by 10% the CO2 they emit in production. We chose a carbon-neutral shipping provider that "offset[s] transport-generated carbon emissions through investment in climate protection projects." We chose to run our shop on Shopify, a carbon-neutral web platform. We're very happy with our partners, and these programs are important. But there are valid arguments against offsetting schemes too: they are hard to verify, their effects are slow, and they distract from the real goal, eliminating our emissions.

So how do we get 51 billion down to zero? Gates is a technologist and an optimist. His book focuses on expanding innovation and political action, walking us through the biggest levers and most promising solutions he's seen in the five "How we"s above. His advice for those who "make things"? Electrify as much as possible, choose decarbonized electricity sources, use carbon capture to absorb the remaining emissions, and use materials more efficiently. Our producer adds renewable energy back to the grid and offsets more than they emit. To Gates' list, I would add that makers should also be transparent about their products' CO2 output to empower consumers to make low-carbon choices. Producing each deck of our Tarot Cards emits about 0.84kg CO2 into the atmosphere (for which our producer offsets about 0.92kg CO2, making the net impact about -0.08kg CO2).

In his "how we plug in" section, there are the usual suspects: offshore wind, geothermal, batteries, hydrogen, carbon capture. The most controversial part of the book might be his advocacy for nuclear power: "it's the only carbon-free energy source that can reliably deliver power day and night, through every season, almost anywhere on earth, that has been proven to work on a large scale." He adds that among power sources, nuclear plants are the most efficient in terms of cement, steel, and glass (all with their own emissions), and by far the safest - safer than automobiles, certainly, and less deadly than generating energy from fossil fuels and living with the pollution from it.

The other "how we" sections are also worth reading to hear his case for plant-based meat, Green Premiums, and heat pumps. He zooms in to a personal level and makes some simple suggestions on what we can do as citizens, employers, employees, to reduce our impacts: local political action, buying green electricity, replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs, driving EVs, and eating less meat. 

I'll close by sharing Gates' critical framework for climate solutions - important questions that must be asked in every climate conversation to evaluate and prioritize the best and most effective solutions:
How much of 51B tons GHGs are we talking about?
What’s your plan for cement?
How much power are we talking about?
How much space do you need?
How much is this going to cost? 
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