👋🏻, I'm Julia.

How To Avoid A Climate Change Disaster book summary

How To Avoid A Climate Change Disaster book cover


  • To avoid a climate disaster, we have to get to zero emissions.
  • We need to deploy existing tools like solar and wind, faster and smarter.
  • Need to create and rollout breakthrough technologies.

Why Zero?

  • Realistically means getting to near net zero.
  • Greenhouse gases - molecules with 2 copies of the same atom e.g. N2 or O2, allows radiation to pass through. Others absorb radiation and heat up (the atmosphere).
  • Remember that mentions of temperature changes are average global temperature changes. It can vary significantly from place to place.
  • 2 things we can do:
    • Adaptation - minimum impact of the changes that are already here and coming.
    • Mitigation - stop adding GHGs (greenhouse gases)
  • It's not enough to reduce GHG emissions. We need to draw down as well.
  • The poor will be more severely impacted than the rich.
  • The effects of climate change could be as deadly as COVID by 2050 and 5x as deadly by 2100.
  • Rich countries have contributed most to this issue and should get to net-zero first. This is also a huge economic opportunity as the innovation that comes will lead the global economy in the future.

This Will Be Hard


  • Fossil fuels are like water. It affects a lot of the products we use every day. Oil at $42/gallon, is cheaper than a soft drink.
  • Throughout the world, people are living longer, requiring more demand for energy and resulting in more greenhouse gases emitted per person. There will also be more people in future.
  • History is not on our side, judging how long previous transitions have taken. We need to force an unnaturally speedy transition.
  • The energy industry does not scale as well as the tech industry. Society also tolerates very little risk in the energy business.
  • Laws and regulations are too outdated. They were not designed with climate change in mind. Approach to climate and energy also changes with each election cycle which means incentives and grant money for researchers keep changing.
  • There isn't much climate consensus at the moment. Global cooperation is also very difficult.

5 Questions to Ask In Every Climate Conversation

  1. How much of the 51 billion tons are we talking about? (This is the amount needed to get to net zero emissions annually.)
  • From here, we can calculate the % of annual global emissions (in CO2e).
  1. What's your plan for cement?
  • A shorthand reminder that if you're trying to come up with a comprehensive plan for climate change, you have to account for more than electricity and cars.
  • Remember that emissions come from 5 different activities and we need solutions in all of them.
  1. How much power are we talking about?
  • A watt is a joule/sec.
    • KWatt = 1000 watts
    • megawatt = 1 x 10^6 watts
    • gigawatt = 1 x 10^9 watts
  • Not all energy sources are the same e.g. wind and solar panels may have an effective capacity of 30%.
  • Tip: whenever you hear kilowatt, think house. Gigawatt, think city. Hundred+ gigawatts, think big country.
  1. How much space do you need?
  • Power density - amount of power you get for given amount of land. Measured in watts / m^2.
  • Tip: if someone says X source can supply all the world's energy needs, find out how much space is required.
  1. How much is this going to cost?
  • Most zero-carbon solutions are relatively more expensive because the price of fossil fuels don't reflect the environmental damage they inflict. [Green premiums]
  • Once we've figured Green Premiums for all big zero-carbon options, we can start figuring out tradeoffs and how much we're willing to pay to go green.
  • Green Premiums help us answer questions like:
    • Which zero-carbon options to deploy now? Answer: the ones with a low or no premium.
    • Where do we need to focus our R&D spend, early investors and best inventors? Answer: wherever we decide green premiums are too high.
  • Tip: keep Green Premiums in mind and ask whether they're low enough for middle-income countries to pay.

How We Plug In

  • Why is there a green premium if renewables are "free".
    • Fossil fuels are very cheap because their prices don't factor the true cost of climate change. They've spent many years building up their infrastructure.
    • Some regions don't have decent renewable sources. Transmission and distribution may thus be expensive. And countries don't want to rely on other countries for electricity.
    • We want electricity to be reliable and consistent. Solar and wind are intermittent. Batteries are prohibitively expensive, especially if it needs to provide backup energy as well.
  • The most efficient way would be developing wind and solar farms in the best suited regions, then distributing it through a connected grid. This requires new innovations in underground cables to prevent overheating and over-coming political hurdles for cooperation.
  • Other innovations: Making carbon free electricity
    • Nuclear fission
      • Proven to work at large scale.
      • Very efficient in how much material it takes to run a power plant.
      • Next generation reactors currently in design.
    • Nuclear fusion
      • Runs on commonly available elements like hydrogen.
      • Lower levels of radioactive waste vs. nuclear fission.
      • But very hard to do due to high temps. required.
    • Offshore wind
      • More consistent.
      • But lots of regulation.
    • Geothermal
      • Not available everywhere.
      • Low energy density.
  • Other innovations: Storing electricity
    • Batteries
      • Hard to massively improve on current lithium-ion batteries! Would need a whole new technology.
      • Maybe liquid metals or flow batteries will give us the scale we need.
    • Pumped hydro
      • Instead of pumping water up a hill, maybe pressuring water under­ground or pumping pebbles uphill?
    • Thermal storage
      • Heating materials like thermal salt which stores heat well.
    • Cheap hydrogen
      • Fuel cells are powered by hydrogen + oxygen to produce water.
      • We could use renewables to store hydrogen, then use it as fuel cells when needed.
      • At the moment, it's expensive to produce hydrogen without emitting carbon. Hydrogen is also very lightweight and difficult to store (very small molecules - leaks through metals).
  • Other innovations
    • Capturing carbon - exists but expensive at the moment.
    • Use less energy and load shifting (i.e. using power when it's cheapest to generate).

How We Make Things

  • Making all the materials that have allowed humankind to progress, e.g. steel, concrete and plastic, are responsible for c.1/3 of global emissions.
  • Steel ⇒ iron + carbon. Energy intensive + produces 1.8 tons of CO2 / ton of steel.
  • Concrete is made from cement. Cement is made from calcium, which is obtained from limestone. One byproduct is CO2 in a 1:1 relationship.
  • Plastics contain carbon, which comes from processing hydrocarbon fuels. The difference with plastics is that c.50% of carbon stays in plastic. It can take 100s of years to degrade.
  • To create materials , emissions come from:
    • Using fossil fuels to generate electricity for factories.
    • Using fossil fuels to generate heat for manufacturing processes.
    • Actually making the materials that result in carbon as a side product.
  • The path to zero emissions in manufacturing:
    • Electrify every process possible.
    • Get electricity from a power grid that's been decarbonised.
    • Use carbon capture to absorb remaining emissions.
    • Use materials more efficiently - reuse & recycle.

How We Grow Things

  • Main culprit in raising animals for food is methane (28x more warming than CO2 over 100 years) and nitrous oxide (265x more warming).
  • Animal poop emissions are the 2nd biggest cause of agriculture emissions behind enteric fermentation.
  • Production of synthetic fertilizer is through the Haber-Bosch process which creates ammonia from N2 & H2. The production of ammonia requires heat, which we get from burning natural gas.
  • Plants also don't absorb much of the nitrogen applied. The excess ends up as run-off or escapes as nitrous oxide which is extremely warming.
  • Problem of deforestation for growing crops and grazing land. Political issue and economic problem.
  • Tree planting as a strategy is more nuanced. Calculations are difficult to verify and standardise. At the moment, the best strategy is to stop cutting them down.

How We Move Things

4 ways to cut emissions:

  • Do less driving, flying and shipping.
  • Use less carbon-intensive materials to make cars, i.e. less steel and plastics.
  • Use fuels more efficiently.
  • Switch to electric vehicles and alternative fuels.

How We Keep Cool and Stay Warm

  • Air conditioners require electricity to run. Additionally contain refrigerants (F-gases) which contribute massively to global warming.
    • The hotter the world becomes, the more the demand for air conditioners.
  • Furnaces and water heaters account for 1/3 of all global emissions from buildings.
  • Decarbonising our heating systems:
    • Electrify as much as we can.
    • Decarbonise the power grid.
    • Use energy more efficiently.
  • Possible to build green buildings now - it's just expensive.

Adapting to a Warmer World

  • It will be the poorer countries that suffer the effects of climate change. These economies tend to be very dependent on agriculture. One of the things we can do to help smallholder farmers is to increase their crop yields even as weather conditions makes it harder to grow crops.
  • Other recommendations related to agriculture:
    • Help farmers manage risks from more chaotic weather.
    • Focus on the most vulnerable people.
      • Mostly female farmers
    • Factor climate change into policy decisions
  • Think of adaptation in 3 stages:
    • Reduce risks through for e.g. protecting wetlands and encouraging people to relocate.
    • Preparing for and responding to emergencies.
    • Recovery period after a disaster - health care, education, insurance.
  • The problem to overcome is that people pay the costs of adaptation upfront but economic benefits may not come for years.
    • Need to take the risks of climate change into account and price these risks.
    • Also need to measure benefits in terms of the bad things that won't happen if we act now e.g.
      • Civil wars over water rights.
      • Cities destroyed by hurricanes.
  • We also need to prepare for the worst case scenario:
    • e.g. looking into geoengineering - amending the planet's temp. We don't know if it's the right thing to do but perhaps still worth looking into as it will take years to come to fruition.

Why Government Policies Matter

  • 7 high level goals governments should be aiming for:
    • Invest into the research for low carbon energy. When it becomes clear how money can be made, hand it to the private sector.
    • Level the playing field. Today's carbon cost is borne by society rather than the business/individual responsible for it. We need to increase the price of carbon.
    • Overcome non-market barriers e.g. educating consumers on alternative options that they may not be aware of.
    • Stay up to date. Standards should reflect the latest advances in technology and the urgency of getting to zero.
    • Plan for a just transition. Provide funding and technical advice to those having to transition. Give them a forum to air their worries.
    • Do the hard stuff e.g. R&D into electricity storage, cement etc.
    • Work on technology, policy and markets at the same time. These 3 levels need to work in complementary ways.

A Plan For Getting To Zero

  • 2 categories:
    • Expand supply of innovations.
    • Accelerate demand for innovations. Create a viable market.
  • Expanding the supply of innovation - need governments to:
    • Quintuple clean energy and climate related R&D over the next decade. Current spending is $22bn/yr (c. 0.02% of global economy).
    • Make bigger bets on high-risk, high reward R&D projects. Need to commit to funding for the long haul for researchers to have a steady flow of support.
    • Match R&D with our greatest needs. Some of the best inventions have come when scientists start research with an end use in mind.
    • Work with industry from the beginning.
  • Accelerating the demand for innovation - involves 2 steps: (i) Proof phase; (ii) Scale-up phase.
    • After the approach has been tested in the lab, it needs to be proven in the market.
    • Governments should use procurement power.
    • Governments should create incentives that lower cost and reduce risk.
    • Build the infrastructure that will get new technologies to market.
    • Change the rules so new tech can compete.
    • Put a price on carbon.
    • Implement clean electricity standards, clean fuel standards and clean product standards.
    • Retire old, inefficient equipment that run on fossil fuels.

What Each of Us Can Do

  • As a citizen - use your voice and vote.
    • Make calls, write letters, attend town halls.
    • Run for office.
    • Look for opportunities to effect big system changes.
  • As a consumer:
    • Sign up for green electricity.
    • Reduce your home's emissions.
    • Use electric vehicles.
    • Go plant based.
  • As an employee /employer:
    • Try to reduce Green Premiums.
    • Advocate to make the hard choices.

© 2016-2023 Julia Tan · Powered by Next JS.