Bill Gates is the world’s most generous philanthropist and has made curing malaria and combating viruses of all kinds his new goal in life (see Mosquitoes, Malaria and Education by Bill Gates (TED) for the video). However, he’s changed his focus to climate change because, though preventing disease is a huge concern for the third world, rampaging climate change will make many more things far worse for the world’s poor. As he put it in his talk, Innovating to zero! by Bill Gates (TED):
“But energy and climate are extremely important to these people, in fact, more important than to anyone else on the planet. The climate getting worse, means that many years their crops won’t grow. There will be too much rain, not enough rain. Things will change in ways that their fragile environment simply can’t support. And that leads to starvation. It leads to uncertainty. It leads to unrest. So, the climate changes will be terrible for them.”
Bill provides a good overview of the effort needed to address climate change as well as pragmatically explaining what it means to do so and what, exactly, such efforts entail. The equation he presents is CO2 = P × S × E × C. P stands for popoulation, which he sees headed to about 9 Billion people from our current 6.8 Billion. He expects that estimate to come down by about 10 or 15 percent “if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services”. This does not mean that Bill plans on peddling vaccines that will kill the world’s poor—as has been seriously suggested is his intent on less reliable news sources—but that populations with access to “reproductive health services” and especially societies in which women play a bigger role and have more to say about social life—those tend to have lower birthrates.
Suggesting that population should be cut even more drastically or by means that are less evolutionary is currently still a no-no. Gates has faith that technology will get us all the energy we need with zero emissions, so the question of how many members of the human race should the planet be expected to house can be safely tabled for another day.
The S stands for services and is somewhat less controversial, as long as he leads by saying that “it’s a great thing for this number to go up” so as not to perturb any capitalists and only suggests that members of the first world “probably could cut back and use less”, but doesn’t require it. It’s the no-sacrifice plan: Keep breeding and using energy as much as you like, ‘cause we’re going to figure out how to get it without further screwing up the planet. You’re welcome.
The E is efficiency, in which an increase is not necessarily a good thing. That is, increasing efficiency doesn’t usually mean that less energy is used overall: Rather, it means that the more efficient service just got cheaper and gets used even more than ever, raising the total energy usage. Again, this is not a problem if you put all your money on the final letter in the equation.
Finally, we have C, which is the amount of CO2 put out for each unit of energy used. This is the one that Gates thinks will go to zero and save us all. It’s kind of the one that has to go to zero because we’re not going to enact any population controls (à la China). We’re also not going to enforce service reductions because once you’ve given people something, you can’t take it away—and once people see other people getting something, they’re all going to want it too (and justifiably so). Even if you’re not going to enforce cuts in lifestyle (services), you could still enforce efficiency standards to make that lifestyle less energy-intensive, but, as mentioned above, an increase in efficiency is likely to be negated by an increase in usage of that service (because it got cheaper).
So, we’re left with hoping that there is some magical fuel source out there that uses no CO2 and is cheap and safe and increases male potency. As Gates puts it, we need energy miracles. Gates goes through the usual suspects—fossil fuels, nuclear and renewables—and points out the weaknesses of each: Fossil fuels are CO2-intensive, nuclear power is complex and expensive and renewables suffer from an energy density & storage problem.
Gates is backing the Terrapower horse:
“The idea of Terrapower is that, instead of burning a part of uranium, the one percent, which is the U235, we decided, let’s burn the 99 percent, the U238. It is kind of a crazy idea. In fact, people had talked about it for a long time, but they could never simulate properly whether it would work or not, and so it’s through the advent of modern supercomputers that now you can simulate and see that, yes, with the right material’s approach, this looks like it would work.”
This sounds quite interesting, as burning a pile of U238 is a much more controllable reaction and coincidentally also burns up most of the waste left over from traditional fission reactors. The pile would basically smolder in the ground for 60 years until it had burned its way through all the fuel. Energy is harvested in the traditional way, with steam generated by the heat of the burning pile driving turbines.
Sure, there’s a lot of work to do, but there are at least a couple of decades in which to do it. Of course, the last Copenhagen conference didn’t go very well and pretty much no country hewed to its required reductions under the Kyoto agreement (5% reduction from 1990 levels by 2012) and the latest financial meltdown has not been met by any real regulatory reform in any country with a big hand in financial markets. And, hey, it only took the U.S. nearly two years to come up with some regulatory reform that will likely die on the floor of the Senate. And it only took over a year to get a gutted corpse of a health care bill to almost be passed—and then only because nearly the whole budget for it will be promised to America’s most important citizens: Corporations. So here’s hoping that Bill and Terrapower can save us from ourselves: Because our governments sure as hell aren’t politically capable of doing it.