Early in 2021, I heard of Bill Gates’ new book on the environment called “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs”. I wanted to read it because, for one, I am interested in sustainability, efficiency and progression, and two, it felt like a good start to get a better understanding of how the problem can be solved.
Bill Gates is one individual whom I may disagree with on a lot of information technology topics, namely the open source vs proprietary software discussion. Despite this, Bill is a person I admire a lot and humanity’s hope is that other rich guys like him do spend the same amounts of money in research has he as done with his and his wife’s Foundation.
But today, the discussion is not open source or proprietary software, but instead how can we solve the climate issue. This post is a mere reflection of ideas I wrote while reading and I thought of while reading the book. I definitely do not want to spoil the book, so if you are curious about it, or would like to know more about it, go and buy the book.
My generation is the first in Portugal that was brainwashed in schools for climate change. Why should we recycle, how to do it at home, why should we care for fair trade products and other general regards to sustainability. Intentionally, perhaps, we never discussed the weight and impact companies and our means of living take in the environmental crisis we are up against.
To my surprise, early in the book, Gates explains how the process of generating electricity is one of the core things we need to solve. Not just because the process in itself is the cause of many emissions, but because electricity is everywhere in our life and its usage tendency is increasing. We need to warm and cool our houses, our offices, our schools and hospitals, there are other numerous electronic devices everywhere in need of power and this is getting worse and worse.
I never thought generating electricity, in itself, was in fact one of the worst things to the environment. Schools never covered that, most likely because the returns were not that interesting in the end..
Figuring out a way to produce clean energy, is a stepping stone to solve the climate issue. Humanity will not stop consuming more electricity, and solving the source issue would allow us to do so, without collapsing economies everywhere or without ruining the planet.
The downside of this conclusion however, is that there is little to nothing that we, average people, can do. To come up with clean electricity sources, we will need a lot of financial investment and an equally herculean governmental effort.
R&D, sustainable projects, eco-friendly products, reform of outdated laws and ensure new ones are pro-climate, whilst ensuring a significant level of incentives for companies to invest in this sector, are just a few of the necessities we need to figure out to solve the climate issue. When I look at it, it rarely feels like startups, or tech people, can help solve the issue - unless you are wealthy and, in that case, you can invest in this industry. Naturally, recycling and aiming for zero emission helps, but it is just the tip of the iceberg.
Locomotion and the issue it represents
Another central discussion topic in the book are the means of transport. But not cars for people, like we get told that are in need of change: Buses, heavy-duty trucks, boats and airplanes. Those are the things we must solve first, because that’s where the emissions are coming from.
Despite sounding reasonable now, it took me a while to process how obvious this is. Instead of cars, we should be figuring out green solutions for heavy duty transportation! And it is funny that we are now reaching a level of affordable electric and hybrid vehicles, but for families. We keep focusing on low-duty transports rather, and this is incomprehensibly a mistake. Perhaps investing in clean transportation systems is a really heavy investment, and governments are not willing to make the change out of the blue.
Bill argues that for boats, trucks, buses and airplanes, there is no solution in sight yet. The technologies used in electric vehicles are not even worth considering because heavy-ducky transports need a high mile range. It has been increasing, but it is not enough for these vehicles.
Despite most truck/semi-truck manufactures are not there, I would argue how an adequate candidate the Tesla truck (not the cybertruck) can be, even if the mile range is not enough yet. If Tesla pushes this truck forward, considering they have been amplifying their fast recharging networks throughout the world, it might start to put pressure on other trucks/semi-trucks manufacturers to start thinking on electric/hybrid platforms, as it did with car manufacturers.
It was surprising to see no mention of this truck, and in fact Bill defends there is no solution in sight for this. He might be right, as Tesla’s idea didn’t take off, at least not publicly.
Agriculture and Technology
For a long time now, I believe technology will take a key role in the future of agriculture. With the rise of microchips like Arduino and the Raspberry Pi, I think it is easy to see those boards being used for a lot of other greater things.
If the reader thinks these are not enough in terms of performance or computing power, please keep in mind that Apollo 11’s computation power was inferior to the your smartphone, let alone a Raspberry Pi.
Despite what today’s machines can do, I think it is clear these small boards can take a huge role in agriculture automation. Surprisingly, Bill Gates never references automation in his book, even though he calls himself a nerd and we know he is a technology person.
A small chip like that can be instructed to turn on irrigation systems at a given time of the day, close or open ventilation systems, automatically apply fertilizers, and even provide metrics about crops and florestation.
If we dream big enough, we might even see systems that can use image recognition to alert the farmer if the crops are infected with any concerning plague. The system can even be smart enough to fetch weather data and adapt its controls accordingly. All of this can be achieved for a very, very low cost.
This might sound too much for an under-developed country, but automated solutions can be built with a very low cost and then sold to those countries that do not have the technical skills to do it on their own. Ideally, projects to help and teach people how to code in these countries can be sponsored, like their were in the past, thus increasing these people’s skills to use technology in their favour.
I am focusing on under-developed countries because, as Bill Gates states in his book, the solutions we find must all be accessible to poorer countries, and not just the rich. With this in mind, developed countries should be providing incentives for farmers to maximize the usage of technology in their farms, but not to produce laboratory food - but to generate sustainable, eco-friendly and natural processes for planting seeds, fruits and vegetables. This would take a lot of the load we’re causing to the environment, and definitely would incentivize people to create green spaces everywhere - which is something we also need to neutralize our emission levels.
With intelligent farming, you do not need much space - You don’t need hectares of space, just a few square meters to have your own crops and the mechanisms going on.
Reflections and the future
For a normal person with interest in the topic, this book made me realize how little the average person can do, and this was hard for me. When I bought the book, I was somehow hoping to see an opportunity for me to do more than just recycling, or buying electric cars. On the other hand, it made me realise that if climate change is not being properly addressed by our politicians, is because we are not putting enough pressure on them so they know we want this. And by we, I mean people everywhere around the world.
For one thing, people should really put climate change on the table. They should be properly educated about it, and I know younger generations are, and we should demand high quality politicians to effectively and efficiently handle sensible topics like this.
It is funny that this problem has to be solved by everyone. Not just politicians, not just people, nor enterprise. Everyone will take a role. And there is no turning back now, with all the wrong decisions we took in the past. Plus, it does not matter if one country is sustainable and the other is not. Everyone, at the same time, will need to push in the same direction, otherwise we will face the horrifying and long-lasting consequences of messing with nature’s equilibrium on Earth.
Thank you for your time reading, I’ll see you next time.