Contextualizing Bill Gates: Addressing the Global Climate Disaster

Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is wide-ranging, fairly inclusive, and certainly accessible. It does not necessarily lay blame for climate change at the feet of any one country but puts pressure on corporations, their methods, and their strategic cultures. It has something of a plan of action and admits quite freely the need for government intervention to address climate change.

But it takes some trouble over-identifying China as the culprit, the one whose fast and unrestrained growth is threatening the rest of us. Gates’ implication is that growth there must be curbed or thoroughly overhauled. Thus, for Gates, the story of coal is dominated by the growth of Chinese consumption since 2000.

There is, of course, a relevant historical story to be told. Coal has been with us for centuries, but its usage became pronounced in Europe and the United States around the 1760s. Industrial revolutions in Europe and the United States were centred on the absorption of coal, iron, select chemicals and minerals, water resources, and natural growths such as cotton or wool.

Slightly before the 1890s, the economies of North America and Europe were joined by the military-centred heavy industrial economies of Russia and Japan that centred on steel usage, railways, shipping, and preparations for expansive warfare. Perhaps a dozen or so industrialised nations were dependent on expansive exploitation of raw material, energy, and working skills that led the way into the enormous global depression of the 1930s. From that time this phalanx of industrial warriors has been joined by smaller East Asian economies, again adopting basic industrial models but following emerging technologies. South Korea with shipbuilding, Taiwan with microelectronics, then China and now India and perhaps even Brazil.

But the massive achievements of the Chinese system have been almost smuggled into the story – far less expansionism in reality, almost no military conflict with other major powers, no formal imperialism, and leeway at its frontiers. Chinese military expenditure remains around one-quarter of that of the United States and is spent on equipment that is not as effective as that of the U.S. Yet the GDP of China, depending on the precise form of estimation, is now quite close to that of the United States. By some estimates, within the next decade, China will overtake the U.S. economy.

The central point is that, invariably, classic industrialisation has intrinsically involved the use of coal, iron, and select chemicals that has forged the modern world of high environmental exploitation. The capitalist and technological underpinnings are undeniable and fundamental to any sensible visions of who we are, where we are, and where we are going.

High income per capita growth means two inescapable things. First, developed economies have long ago passed the stage where manufacturing was an essential base of growth. Second, they have slower rates of GDP growth but fast rates of civil society growth, strong rhetoric of identity, and free-choice consumption by large wealthy populations increasingly dominated my middle-class lifestyles. These inescapable historical trends cannot be talked away in Paris, they cannot be fought into the ground by Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, or by Extinction Rebellion. But it is possible to distract from them, and this appears to be the role of Gates’ book.

We may look at the broad environmental meaning of this history by considering the ten largest economies at present. The richest of these have long shed their dependency on industrialisation – manufacturing sector output as a proportion of their GDP is 12% or less in the U.S., UK, France, Canada, and Brazil; 16-20% in Japan, Italy, Germany, and India, but possibly 30% in China.

Of these, the two highest growth economies have been China and India with annual coal consumption per cubic feet per capita of 3,055 and 729 respectively; this compares with a coal consumption of Germany at 3,132, the U.S. at 2,263, Japan at 1,648, and the UK at 625. China here looks high if not beyond the pale. But when we switch to kilograms of oil per capita, the United States stands at 6,804, the UK at 2,764, Germany at 3,818, and Japan at 3,429 – with China at 2,237 and India at 637. The newer, brasher supposedly altogether cruder economies of both China and India are doing very well, despite operating as they are at the lower or heavier end of the global manufacturing regime, using older technologies and producing massive producer goods. Indeed, one reason for high coal consumption in China is that a portion of its fast-growing, earlier manufacturing and mining enterprises absorbed coal more readily than oil, and this is now inherited as a coal-based energy infrastructure of the Belt and Road economy.

Even more telling is the comparative figure which captures the major impact of all energy sources, per capita annual CO₂ emissions. The European Commission Joint Research Centre emissions database for 2019 estimates figures are as follows: 15.5 for the U.S., 9.1 for Japan, 8.5 for Germany, 5.5 for the UK, 4.8 for France, 15.7 for Canada, and 8.1 for China. This is not a result we might expect from the global rhetoric or from the Gates approach. Although the underlying data can be fleshed out in his book, Gates prefers the allusion to China, thus his “China is the best example – its transportation emissions have doubled over the past decade and gone up a factor of 10 since 1990.” You must strain to find that Chinese transport emissions actually remain well below those of the U.S., the EU, and most low and middle-income nations, and these figures are not in per capita terms.

When the historical dynamics are considered there is every reason to conclude that China is an exemplar of industrial development at its earlier phases. Yet in contrast to the Western and Japanese models, its energy usage is generally low in comparison to far more mature industrialised systems, and it is likely that the economy will reduce energy usage as a proportion of its GDP as it becomes more mature. China will move further towards services at a faster pace, and as a supplier of products, it will be replaced by industrial newcomers.

Very clearly, the great wealth gainers in our world are wedded to the existing global pattern of energy and raw material usage by structural factors that cannot be shifted by rhetoric, regulation, or by governance. But they can be and are continually abstracted from in the service of a global distraction. Ironically, further falls in growth in older manufacturing systems clustered around the Atlantic and higher growth in the Pacific economies would for a transitional period almost certainly dampen the environmental crisis.