Abortion, Anti-Vaxers, Battery Technology, Bill Gates, Carbon Capture, Carbon Concentration, Carbon Efficiency, Carbon Emissions, CO2, David Solway, Fossil fuels, Gates Foundation, Green Premium, Health and Fertility, Hydrogen Power, Industrial Policy, Kaya Identity, Lockdowns, Median Voter, Natural Gas, Net Zero Carbon, Non-Pharmaceutical interventions, Nuclear power, Power Storage, Renewable energy, Reproductive Health Services, Solar Power, TED Talks, Thomas Malthus, Vaccine Passports, Wind Power, World Health Organization
Bill Gates’ considerable philanthropic efforts through the Gates Foundation are well known. Much of the foundation’s activity has focused on disease control and nutrition around the globe. Education reform has also been a priority. Many of these projects are laudable, though I’m repulsed by a few (see here and here). During the coronavirus pandemic, Gates has spoken approvingly of Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (lockdown measures), which are both coercive and ineffective (and see here). He has earned the enmity of anti-vaxers, of course, though I’m not anti-vax as long as the jabs are voluntary. The Gates Foundation funded the World Health Organization’s effort to provide guidance on digital vaccine passports, which is a de facto endorsement of discrimination based on vaccination status. His priorities for addressing climate change also raise some troubling issues, a few of which I address below.
Squeezing Policy from a Definition
Gates put a special Malthusian twist on a TED Talk he did back in 2010 using an equation for carbon dioxide emissions, which he’s reprised over the years. It gained a lot of notice in 2016 when a few sticklers noticed that his claim to have “discovered” the equation was false. The equation is:
CO2 = P x S x E x C,
where P = People, S = Services per person, E = Energy per service, and C = CO2 per energy unit.
This equation first appeared as the so-called Kaya Identity in a scientific review in 2002. Such an equation can be helpful in organizing one’s thoughts, but it has no operational implications in and of itself. At one level it is superficial: we could write a similar identity for almost anything, like the quantity of alcohol consumed in a year, which must equal the population times the ounces of alcohol per drink times the number of drinks per person. At a deeper level, it can be tempting to build theories around such equations, and there is no question that any theory about CO2 must at least preserve the identity.
There’s an obvious temptation to treat an equation like this as something that can be manipulated by policy, despite the possibility of behavioral links across components that might lead to unintended consequences. This is where Gates gets into trouble.
As David Solway writes, Gates’ jumped to the conclusion that population drives carbon emissions, reinforcing a likely perspective that the human population is unsustainable. His benevolent solution? A healthier population won’t breed as fast, so he prescribes more vaccinations (voluntary?) and improved health care. For good measure, he added a third prong: better “reproductive health services”. Let’s see… what share of the 0.9 -1.4 billion reduction in world population Gates prescribed in 2016 would have come from terminated pregnancies?
In fact, healthier people might or might not want more children, but lower child mortality in the developing world would reduce certain economic incentives for high fertility. Another reliable association is between income and child bearing: an increase in “services per person” is likely to lead to smaller families, but that wasn’t given any emphasis by Gates. Income growth is simply not part of the narrative! Yet income growth does something else: it allows us to more easily afford the research and investments required for advanced technologies, including cleaner energy. These things take time, however.
Solway points to other weaknesses in Gates’ interpretation of the Kaya Identity. For example, efforts to slow population growth are not reliably associated with “services per person”, fuel efficiency, or carbon efficiency. In other words, carbon emissions may be powerfully influenced by factors other than population. China is a case in point.
Centralized industrial and social planning is generally ill-suited to advancing human well being. It’s especially suspect if the sole objective is to reduce carbon emissions. But Gates knows that lowering emissions without a corresponding drop in real income requires continuing technological advances and/or more efficient decisions about which technologies to deploy. He is a big advocate of developing cheap hydrogen power, which is far from a reality. He is also excited about carbon capture technologies, which are still in their infancy.
Renewables like wind and solar power play a large part in Gates’ vision. Those technologies cannot deliver a reliable flow of power, however, without either adequate backup capacity or a dramatic advance in battery technology. Gates over-promotes wind and solar, but I give him credit for acknowledging their intermittency. He attempts to come to grips with it by advocating nuclear backup, but it’s just not clear that he has integrated the incremental cost of the necessary backup capacity with other direct costs of these renewables… not to mention the considerable environmental costs imposed by wind and solar (see the “back-to-nature” photo at the top for a cogent illustration). Power storage at scale is still a long way off, and its cost will be significant as well.
We could deploy existing energy technologies to greater advantage with respect to carbon efficiency. We’ve already reduced CO2 emissions in the U.S. by substituting natural gas for less carbon-efficient fuels, but the Biden Administration would rather discourage its use. Gates deserves credit for recognizing the huge role that nuclear energy can play in providing zero-carbon power. Despite that, he still can’t quite bring himself to admit the boneheadedness of heavy reliance on intermittent renewables.
Bill’s “Green Premium”
Gates seems to have deemphasized the Kaya Identity more recently. Instead, his focus has shifted to the so-called “green premium”, or the incremental cost of using zero-carbon technology relative to a traditional source. Needless to say, the premium is large for truly zero-carbon sources, but Gates emphasizes the importance of using the green premium to guide development even in the here and now.
That’s fine, but it’s not clear that he gives adequate consideration to cases in which emissions, while not eliminated, can be reduced at a negative incremental cost via appropriate substitution. That describes the transition to natural gas from other fuels. This is something that markets can do without the assistance of ham-handed interventionists. Gates prefers nuclear power and says natural gas is “not a real bridge technology” to a zero carbon future. That’s short-sighted and reflects an absolutist mindset that ignores both the economic and political environment. The thinking is that if it’s not zero emissions, it’s not worth doing.
Gates emphasizes the need to sharply reduce the range of green premia on various technologies to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But the goal of net-zero emissions 2050 is based on the highly unlikely proposition that global catastrophe awaits failing net-zero. In fact, the predicted consequences of doing nothing are based on drastic and outdated carbon growth scenarios and rudimentary carbon-forcing models that have proven to be severely biased to the upside in terms of predicting global temperature trends.
The idea that 2050 is some kind of “deadline” is a wholly arbitrary determination. Furthermore, the absolutism with which such goals are stated belies a failure to properly assess the true costs and benefits of carbon-based energy. If we so much as accept the notion that fossil fuels have external costs, we are then expected to accept that zero carbon emissions is optimal. This is not “science”; it is doctrine propped-up by bizarre and false scare stories. It involves massive efforts to manipulate opinion and coerce behavior based upon shoddy forecasts produced by committee. Even carbon capture technology is considered “problematic” because it implies that someone, somewhere, will use a process that emits CO2. That’s a ridiculous bogeyman, of course, and even Gates supports development of carbon capture.
I’ve never felt any real antipathy for Bill Gates as a person. He built a fortune, and I used his company’s software for most of my career. In some ways I still prefer it to macOS. I believe Gates is sincere in his efforts to help humanity even if his efforts are misdirected. He seems to reside on the less crazy end of the spectrum of climate alarmists. He’s putting a great deal of his private resources toward development of technologies that, if successful, might actually lead to less coercion by those attempting to transform private energy decisions. Nevertheless, there is menace in some of the solutions to which Gates clings. They require concerted action on the part of central authorities that would commandeer private resources and abrogate liberty. His assertion that the world is over-populated is both dubious and dangerous. You can offer free health care, but a conviction that the population must be thinned can lead to far more radical and monstrous initiatives.
The “green premium” promoted by Gates is an indirect measure of how far we must go to achieve parity in the pricing of carbon and non-carbon energy sources, as if parity should be an objective of public policy. That proposition is based on bad economics, fraudulent analyses of trends in carbon concentrations and climate trends, and a purposely incomplete menu of technological alternatives. Yes, the green premium highlights various technological challenges, but it is also a direct measure of how much intervention via taxes or subsidies are necessary to achieve parity. Is that a temptation to policymakers? Or does it represent a daunting political barrier? It’s pretty clear that the “median voter” does not view climate change as the only priority.