What about the other 75% of emissions? – with Erik Kobayashi-Solomon
In the first of our new miniseries of podcasts with experts who approach ESG from a different angle, Erik Kobayashi-Solomon highlights a deeper issue underpinning Bill Gates’s insights into the ‘75% problem’
If all the cattle in the world today united as one country, the amount of methane they produce would make them the third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses – their 5.0 gigatons of CO2 emissions ranking them between the US (5.3) and India (2.5), albeit some way off the 10.2 of first-placed China, according to figures from the United Nations and the European Commission.
This arresting factoid is highlighted in Climate change and the 75% problem, the 2018 blog by Bill Gates that is referenced in the first of our short spin-off series from The Value Perspective podcast. Running to coincide with the United Nations ‘COP26’ climate change conference, this will feature conversations with experts who approach ESG issues from a different angle or challenge conventions within the field.
Forbes contributor Erik Kobayashi-Solomon first appeared as our guest back in May, talking about a value approach to options investing. He returns this time to discuss climate change – a subject close to his heart as he is on the board of Tel Aviv-based start-up Albo Climate, which leverages AI and satellite technology to greatly speed up carbon-credit development projects and make these projects more transparent to buyers.
“Bill Gates’s ‘75% problem’ observation is really brilliant,” says Kobayashi-Solomon. “People have the idea that, if they just throw up some solar panels and wind farms, we will be A-OK. The problem is, though, power generation only accounts for about 25% of greenhouse gas emissions each year, which leaves us with 75% of greenhouse gas emissions unaccounted for – even if we covered the entire globe with solar panels.”
Five ‘grand challenges’
In his blog, Gates breaks down greenhouse gas emitters into five “grand challenges in stopping climate change”. In addition to electricity, which accounts for that 25%, there is agriculture (24%), manufacturing (21%), transportation (14%) and buildings (6%). The final 10%, he adds, is a sixth ‘miscellaneous’ category that includes things such as the energy it takes to extract oil and gas.
For Kobayashi-Solomon, those bare numbers point to a second, deeper problem. “If I am sitting at a desk all day, say, I might think to myself – well, I am not a farmer so I am not responsible for that 24% and I do not work in a factory so I do not care about that 21%,” he explains. “In fact, though, the manufactured products all of us are using and the food all of us are eating is what is causing these greenhouse gas emissions.
“The process of building a civilisation is essentially the process of storing and distributing energy. That is true from the birth of civilisation 10,000 years ago, when we first started storing grains and then distributing those grains. And it means we have become used to a certain standard of living that is based upon greenhouse gas emissions – these almost magical substances, these hydrocarbons – we are spewing out into the atmosphere.
How many planets?
“There is a website – footprintcalculator.org – where you put in some details about your life and see what share of the planet’s resources you are using. Now, I live a pretty simple, modest life – I don’t take private jets, I don’t even drive a car very much – and yet, if everyone on this planet lived the same ‘simple modest life’ I do, we would need 4.1 planets to supply everyone with my standard of living. That is just untenable.”
To underline the change of mindset he argues is required of us all, Kobayashi-Solomon highlights the ecological impact of a single mobile phone. “Whenever a company describes one of its phones, it talks about how many grammes or ounces it weighs,” he continues. “The fact is, though, the mass of carbon waste emitted through the production of one of these phones is about 56 kilogrammes – about 121 pounds.
“Then, every time I access an internet server, that mass increases because those servers are using energy to download information onto my phone. So, if we were thinking about our impact on the earth in terms of, not the actual physical weight of our own phone, but the weight of everything that goes to produce it, I think we would have a very different perspective.
“As I say, the way we are currently living is just untenable – and the really untenable part is, these wonderful substances we are using and which are making our lives so great are also the same substances that are destroying the Earth’s capacity to support the lives we know.”