It probably won't bother him all that much, after all you don't get to be one of the world's richest men without ruffling a few feathers, but Bill Gates critique of climate change policy for the Huffington Post looks set to stir up a whole hornets' nest of criticism.
In case you haven't seen it, Gates' central argument is that climate change policy tends to focus too much on short term targets for 2025 rather than the long term goal of cutting emissions 80 per cent by 2050, and as a result is wrongly tilted in favour of incremental improvements in energy efficiency rather than genuine game-changing low carbon innovation.
It is hardly a surprising line of argument from a man who styles himself as an innovative entrepreneur (whatever his many critics say to the contrary) and there are a few valid and interesting points hidden away in the article. But if you are going to find them you have to wade through so many glaring factual errors and irrational conclusions that it makes you wonder if his grasp on climate change policy is as weak as Microsoft's grasp of the search engine market.
Let's start at the beginning with Gates' opening assertion that "people often present two timeframes that we should have as goals for CO2 reduction - 30 per cent (off of some baseline) by 2025 and 80 per cent by 2050". Well, that sentence is wrong, wrong, and wrong.
If Gates is referring to the scientific consensus (as set out by the most recent UN-backed report from the IPCC) the recommended target for industrialised nations is for them to reduce carbon emissions by 25 to 40 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 per cent or above by 2050. Almost all scientists are agreed that we should be aiming for the upper end of those ranges. If he is referring to the US policy debate, President Obama wants legislation passed that would cut carbon emissions 17 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050 against a 2005 baseline.
So Gates' numbers for 2025 are just plain wrong on both counts and the parenthetical dismissal "off of some baseline" is crass in the extreme - the 14 year difference between the proposed US baseline and the 1990 baseline adopted by most other countries is central to why the international climate change negotiations have stalled. The US commitment actually equates to a cut in carbon emissions of around four per cent on 1990 levels, or a tenth of what scientists think we need.
Gates second glaring error is in his argument that we focus too much on the short term target and ignore the "key" goal of cutting emissions 80 per cent by 2050.
This is just plain daft, the real "key" target is to stop concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from reaching a level - somewhere between 350 and 450 parts per million, depending on how much risk you want to take on - where climate change become irreversible and catastrophic.
Surely an analytical brain as sharp as Gates should realise that the total amount of carbon you pump into the atmosphere over the next 40 years is dependent not just on the scale of the cuts in emissions you deliver, but the rate at which you deliver them.
For example, a steady reduction curve will result in a much smaller amount of carbon being emitted overall than if you emit at current levels for the next 35 years and then in 2045 quickly roll out all the wonderful zero carbon technologies that will allow you to decarbonise the economy and meet the 2050 target of an 80 per cent cut in emission levels. That is why we have interim emission targets for 2020 and why they were such a critical and contentious issue at the Copenhagen Summit.
Gates flawed analysis of the 2025 and 2050 targets is then used to downplay the significance of the "modest" emission reductions that can be achieved in the short term through efficiency gains, and argue that we should instead focus on the long term innovation in power generation and transport that can deliver deep cuts in emissions by 2050.
The problem is that these "modest" emission reductions that can be achieved through energy efficiency actually equate to around a third of all emissions in most economies - and they can be delivered at low cost and at net benefit to the economy.
Moreover, reducing energy use through efficiency improvements makes the innovation of which Gates talks far easier to achieve. It stands to reason that if you want to build a decarbonised energy supply, be it through wind turbines, solar panels, fuel cells or nuclear power, it is far easier to build the necessary infrastructure if the amount of energy you need to supply is as low as possible.
"Should society spend a lot of time trying to insulate houses and telling people to turn off lights or should it spend time on accelerating innovation?" Gates asks.
The answer is both.
The tragedy of Gates flawed critique is there are some valid arguments trying to get out. There is too little focus on the huge task of genuinely decarbonising our economies and there is definitely a case for avoiding some of the technologies that promise marginal reductions in carbon emissions, but which could lock us into a path that does not curb carbon emissions far enough and fast enough. Biofuels are a prime example, as is the flirtation in some countries with natural gas as a long term alternative to coal.
Gates is also accurate in his assessment that "all the talk about renewable portfolios, efficiency, and cap-and-trade tends to obscure the specific things that need to be done". These measures are necessary to drive investment in clean technologies, but Gates is correct to imply that policy makers often get obsessed with the policy and lose sight of the actual work that needs to be done on the ground.
However, Gates suggestion that the need to increase our focus on long-term innovation means we should ridicule those advocating action to tackle the "low-hanging fruit" represented by energy efficiency is both irrational and more than a little insulting.
A cynic might suggest that Microsoft's eternal embrace with the computer hardware manufacturers who continuously upgrade their products to cope with the next version of Windows has something to do with Gates' criticism of energy efficiency measures. But whatever his motivation, the only thing worse than Gates analysis of climate change policy is the sight of a retired 55-year-old signing up to Twitter.
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