【Economist】Tackling climate change: The race to zero

新英文杂志 2021-02-25 22:36

中文导读

宇宙中是不是只有一个地球?马斯克和贝索斯在探索太空寻求其他宜居行星,比尔·盖茨则更在乎如何拯救地球。他在新书《如何防止气候灾难》中指出,应对气候变化需要加速能源转型(尤其是核能的发展),同时提高碳捕捉和封存技术比单纯的减少碳排放更重要。此外,政府干预在解决气候危机中很关键,政府和企业必须携手拯救世界。

Governments and business must work together to save the world, says Bill Gates


How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. By Bill Gates. Knopf; 272 pages; $26.95. Allen Lane; £20


“HOW MANY planets?” That question was posed by Mahatma Gandhi as he contemplated the environmental implications of India’s following the resource-intensive path of development pioneered by Britain. The inquiry still resonates. As the World Economic Forum, a think-tank, has put it, the global “food-energy-water nexus” is in trouble. Global warming is the most alarming crisis of all. How many planets would be needed if everyone in China lived in McMansions and drove gas-guzzlers, as many Americans do?


For some tycoons, the solution is to find more planets. Fifteen years ago Elon Musk was so worried about climate change making Earth uninhabitable, he earnestly told this reviewer, that he intended to turn humanity into a multi-planetary species. He has since been funnelling the fortune he is making at Tesla, his electric-car company, into building ever-better rockets at SpaceX. This month Jeff Bezos stepped back from running Amazon, an e-commerce goliath, to spend more time on Blue Origin, his rocket venture, which he calls his most important work. The coming energy crisis, he has declared, means that “we have to go to space to save Earth.”


By contrast, Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, has his feet firmly planted on the ground. He is just as concerned about global warming as are those thrillionaires, but in his view there is only one planet that matters. His new book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster”, is devoted to reconciling the legitimate aspirations of billions of people for economic advancement with the environmental harm that results. If humanity is to win the great race between development and degradation, he writes, green innovation must accelerate.


Previous energy transitions—for instance, from coal to oil—took many decades. But given the pressing need to decarbonise the global economy, says Mr Gates, “we have to force an unnaturally speedy transition”. He wants governments to increase funding for climate research fivefold in a decade; disclosing his own investments, he urges them to bet on such promising but risky fields as advanced nuclear power. There should be more green procurement (a path China has followed with solar panels and electric cars) and greener regulation. But the linchpin of his argument is the introduction of a meaningful carbon price, to account for the externalities involved in using dirty energy.


Mr Gates is hardly the first to advance these proposals. Besides his status as one of the world’s richest people and most generous philanthropists, two things make his endorsement of them compelling. First, he is not a reflexive environmentalist. His long-standing commitment to public health and the alleviation of poverty led him to oppose flaky green causes like Europe’s unscientific bans on genetically modified organisms. In a moving chapter, he notes that Africa’s poor have yet to enjoy the benefits of the first “green revolution” in agricultural science, which from the 1960s boosted farming yields and saved a billion people in Asia from starvation; they desperately need more such innovations in crop science and fertilisers. He awakened to the climate crisis as it became clear that the world’s indigent, who have contributed least to the problem, are likely to suffer most from famines, droughts, rising seas and other effects of global warming.


Second, Mr Gates has long been allergic to top-down regulation. “It might seem ironic that I’m calling for more government intervention,” he concedes. “When I was building Microsoft, I kept my distance from policymakers in Washington.” Because he instinctively favours markets over mandarins, his policy recommendations carry more weight than the common calls heard today in America and Europe for blank-cheque spending on Green New Deals. A carefully calibrated push from the top, he insists, will set off a tsunami of private-sector investment and invention.


Much of his book is devoted to a delightfully wonkish assessment of contenders in the race to solve the climate problem. In Mr Gates’s view, decarbonising electricity is the “single most important thing we must do to avoid a climate disaster”. This is not only because electricity accounts for over a quarter of the direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by human activity today, but because clean power can enable a shift to zero-carbon transport (think electric cars). Greening industry is harder, he acknowledges, but he points to advances even in such unsexy areas as low-carbon cement and steel.


Mission possible


Mr Gates takes on some green shibboleths, which he clearly considers courageous, though others will detect an outmoded mindset. He is an unabashed defender of carbon-free nuclear power, despite the industry’s failure to solve serious problems surrounding waste and proliferation. He chastises those who make a fetish out of wind and solar technologies, emphasising the constraints of the intermittent generation they involve.


Many environmentalists are clamouring for cuts in emissions of GHGs by 2030. Mr Gates rejects that: what matters most, he counters, is getting to a “net zero” carbon footing by 2050, which means any man-made GHG emissions are offset by absorption and sequestration. Provocatively, he claims that “making reductions by 2030 the wrong way might actually prevent us from ever getting to zero”. For example, a breathless dash from carbon-loaded coal to natural gas sounds climate-friendly, as it would lead to a decline in energy-sector emissions within a decade. However, it would lock gas technology—which is not carbon-free—into the grid for decades, perhaps blocking the adoption of better alternatives. “The things we’d do to get small reductions by 2030 are radically different from the things we’d do to get to zero by 2050,” he insists.


The most refreshing aspect of this book is its bracing mix of cold-eyed realism and number-crunched optimism. Mr Gates reveals that when he attended the UN’s landmark Paris summit on climate change in 2015, he had serious doubts about mankind’s willingness to take on this Herculean task: “Can we really do this?” Even now, after making the case for why the world must do so, and urgently, he wonders if the climate challenge will be harder than putting “a computer on every desk and in every home”.


That is a useful analogy, for the techno-Utopian vision of a global internet seemed as impossible to achieve a few decades ago as solving the climate crisis does now. Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, a pioneering computer firm, once stated flatly: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Yet before long the digital revolution succeeded—because of a happy convergence of top-down forces and disruptions from below.


Mr Gates wants the same combination to take on climate change. He acknowledges the power of the state and a need for intergovernmental co-operation, something not often heard from techno-libertarians; but he also calls for more green ambition and risk-taking by short-termist investors and company bosses. Ultimately his book is a primer on how to reorganise the global economy so that innovation focuses on the world’s gravest problems. It is a powerful reminder that if mankind is to get serious about tackling them, it must do more to harness the one natural resource available in infinite quantity—human ingenuity.  


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Feb 20th 2021 • Books and arts • 1176 words




每日一学

2021/02/26

文章第六段第一句话“Second, Mr Gates has long been allergic to top-down regulation.  " 中的 allergic 如何理解?
注意这里的 allergic 可不是“过敏的”,而是表示“对…十分反感;厌恶”,英文释义为 having a strong dislike of sth/sb,为非正式、幽默用语。看一个例句:You could see he was allergic to housework. 你可以看出他很讨厌做家务。文中这句话就是在说,其次,盖茨先生长期以来对自上而下的监管非常反感。

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本文全文摘选自The Economist/《经济学人》(Feb 20th, 2021),仅供个人学习交流使用。欢迎转发至朋友圈。商业转载请在正文前注明“本文来自新英文杂志公众号”。

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