Sorry, Bill Gates—billionaires' quick fixes won't solve climate change

The super-rich want to fund quick fixes because the real solutions could cost them. But their schemes stand to do real harm

February 07, 2018
Bill Gates with Former New York mayor and United Nations special envoy for cities and climate change, Michael Bloomberg. Photo: PA
Bill Gates with Former New York mayor and United Nations special envoy for cities and climate change, Michael Bloomberg. Photo: PA

Everyone calm down—Bill Gates is here to save us from climate change, apparently—as reported this week in the Guardian.

The Microsoft billionaire is bankrolling a plan to suck the greenhouse gas CO2 out of the atmosphere. Giant fans will extract the gas and use it to make “clean fuel.” Outside a small town in western Canada, a Gates-funded prototype sits, extracting a tonne of C02 a day from the atmosphere, and, er, releasing it back into the air. We are promised that “potentially game-changing technologies” are on the verge of development to turn this into a viable, scalable system.

But we’ve heard this before. Bill Gates is only the latest super-rich man to appear as the quick-fix, snake-oil climate solutions salesman. A number of climate quick-fixes come under the umbrella of ‘geoengineering’—and sucking carbon from the atmosphere is one of the least audacious.

Richard Branson, the Virgin Airline-owning ‘environmentalist’ is another high-profile backer. Branson supports a range of harmful climate quick-fixes, including miracle ‘green’ fuels for airlines, ethanol for cars from crops. Like Gates, he also supports the idea of removing carbon from the atmosphere in some as-yet-unspecified way.

These techno-fixes are very attractive to the rich and powerful for several reasons. They appear to demonstrate a simple, quick-fix to an immensely complicated problem. They present the spectre that we can continue on with our current economic system without fixing the problems that got us into this mess. And, perhaps most importantly, they are an opportunity for the super-rich to make even more money while presenting themselves as our saviours, rather than as part of the problem.

Geoengineering sits far apart from the obvious technological benefits of increasingly cheap clean energy. Geoengineering takes away the urgency to solve the climate crisis and removes resources, attention and money from real solutions. It fools us that we can still continue on with our fossil-fuelled economy. It says to the huge polluting companies responsible for two-thirds of all manmade emissions that they can keep on polluting.

The idea that we can sit back and wait for technology to save us is a pipe dream. These schemes—from deploying space-based solar shades, to dumping iron filings in the ocean to stimulate algae, to removing C02 from the atmosphere and many more—are only the very latest in the myriad of distractions. For years, governments and politicians have tried to convince us that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)—the process of capturing pollution from power plants and factories and storing it underground—was the magic solution.

Despite billions spent on it, it is a phantom. In 2007, the European Commission planned for 12 CCS demonstration plants to be built by 2015. Today there are none. The Kemper CCS-fitted coal plant in Mississippi cost $7.5 billion, never worked and was eventually abandoned. Geoengineering will end up the same as this—a colossal waste of money and, more importantly, a waste of the limited time we have left to solve climate change.

Worse still, techno-fixes aren't even a proper solution. If we could flick a switch to start removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere today, the reckless destruction of animal life, the ransacking of our oceans, forests, endless plastic pollution and the mass die-off of insects and wildlife due to killer pesticides would continue.

All these problems can only be solved with a fundamental shift in our economic and political system. You can't turn a lever and turn off environmental damage. You need to address the root cause.

Geoengineering is a distraction from what needs to be done: aggressively cut carbon emissions while ensuring justice by transitioning affected workers to green jobs, phase out all fossil fuel subsidies, decarbonise every aspect of our lives, and pursue aggressive reforestation (trees are nature’s geoengineering and remove carbon from the atmosphere).

More worryingly, meddling with climatic systems we don't understand could be just as catastrophic as creating the climate crisis in the first place. As climate scientist Michael Mann has said, “The fundamental problem of geoengineering solutions is the monumental danger of tinkering with a complex system that we don’t fully understand—Earth’s climate system and the delicate, complex web of ecosystems that it supports.”

“A crudely applied speculative mechanical fix might make things worse, not better. You may be treating the malady with aspirin, or you may be treating it with thalidomide. The proposed cure could well be worse than the disease. Indeed, it could prove fatal.”

We should be terrified by this. While the super-rich shy away from common-sense solutions because they may ask them to contribute more in taxation, involve governments intervening more in the economy or altering an economic system which, while it has trashed the planet, has made them stupendously rich and powerful, their actions could actively do more harm.

We need to completely remake our world to solve this problem. And if we succeed, it will be a world that’s better for everyone. Bill Gates can’t save us. There’s no rich man’s quick fix.