Back in 2004, I attended Bill Gates’ opening keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. CES was and is the largest conference I ever covered, and I was certainly captivated by Gates’ 90-minute talk about futuristic connectivity and wireless data transfer. He also discussed what he called a “harbinger of the future” when it came to playing online games and enjoying content with buddies.
That future, of course, is now. If content is king, then connectivity is the biggest knight in shining armor that ever existed and completes millions of quests each and every day.
Of course, Gates is no longer Microsoft’s chairman having stepped down several years ago. Nowadays, he spends his time trying to help solve the world’s problems as the co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. His foundation has been especially active in helping develop a vaccine for COVID-19, which is the biggest global health crisis the world has seen in generations.
So when Gates posted a blog titled, “COVID-19 is awful. Climate change could be worse,” it gives one pause. Big-time pause.
Could Be ‘Worse’
“A global crisis has shocked the world,” Gates wrote. “It is causing a tragic number of deaths, making people afraid to leave home, and leading to economic hardship not seen in many generations. Its effects are rippling across the world. Obviously, I am talking about COVID-19. But in just a few decades, the same description will fit another global crisis: climate change. As awful as this pandemic is, climate change could be worse.”
And that might be optimistic. Dr. Martin Baitz, Sphera’s manager of engineering content, tells me it could be much sooner than that because scientists are unsure of the tipping point, which could occur in a decade or less if we don’t act now.
Gates also explains how difficult it can be for people to ponder other problems when there’s a major problem at hand, namely COVID-19. But, as he explains, the death rate from climate change is projected to far exceed that of COVID-19 if nothing is done to stem the tide. In just four decades, he wrote, climate change could cause 73 extra deaths per 100,000 people. For perspective, COVID-19 has caused 14 deaths per 100,000 people.
Not to sound alarmist, but that’s about as alarming as it gets.
It’s also alarming to read stats that Gates cites from the International Energy Agency about how COVID-19 has affected CO2 emissions. As we’ve seen in China and other areas of the world, shutdowns have led to better air quality and other environmental benefits. Earlier this year, my colleague, Niles Maxwell, wrote in Spark, “Without a doubt, the lingering COVID-19 outbreak has produced a reduction in global emissions as a direct result of our response to it: social distancing, working from home and the sharp reduction in personal travel, tourism, public gatherings and manufacturing.”
Still, the IEA says the drop in emissions will likely be only about 8% this year. Eight percent after six months of changing the way we work, do business, travel and live.
“We are still on track to emit 92 percent as much carbon as we did last year. What’s remarkable is not how much emissions will go down because of the pandemic, but how little.”
“To put it mildly, this is not a situation that anyone would want to continue,” Gates wrote. “And yet we are still on track to emit 92 percent as much carbon as we did last year. What’s remarkable is not how much emissions will go down because of the pandemic, but how little.”
Barely a dent, really.
So what is the lesson here? That’s simple: We need to start tackling climate change now; even though scientists have warned about the dangers of a pandemic for years, we were still caught off-guard with COVID-19. That cannot be the case with global warming.
Sometime next year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will issue its sixth report. When the fifth report came out in 2018, the panel predicted that global warming of 1.5˚C would occur between 2030 and 2052. Even if we look at the most optimistic outcome, that’s still just three decades away.
It will take a behemoth global effort to pull this off, including, as Gates writes, implementing zero-carbon ways to produce electricity, grow food, warm and cool our buildings, and move people around. Yes, there are serious challenges ahead, and there’s a fork in the road the size of North America to decide which path we want to take.
As Matthias Münzing, Sphera’s vice president of corporate sustainability, Digital Solution Group, wrote earlier this year about COVID-19, “Companies that invest now in greater sustainability and digitalization will be better positioned to handle the environmental crisis.” Additionally, Baitz recently offered his thoughts on the steps we can take to secure a sustainable future. Seven steps to be precise.
No Time for Fatigue
Look, we are all fatigued by our COVID-19 lifestyle changes. There’s no doubt about that, but, even as scientists work around the clock to try to create a vaccine, there’s no time for complacency when it comes to climate change. If we do nothing, climate change will come whether we like or not, and the consequences will be unprecedented. Action is definitely needed. As Sphera’s Eleni Polychroniadou recently wrote, “Declaring a climate emergency without implementing any actions is greenwashing.”
We simply can’t have that.
“The world did not do enough to prepare” for a pandemic, Gates wrote, “and now we are trying to make up for lost time. This is a cautionary tale for climate change, and it points us toward a better approach. If we start now, tap into the power of science and innovation, and ensure that solutions work for the poorest, we can avoid making the same mistake with climate change.”
In other words, COVID-19 could be a harbinger for the future, but it’s also one we can avoid if we act now.