CARBON-DEPENDENT CIVILIZATION: Examples from Bill Gates (Part IV)
Bill Gates. Author: MARTIAL TREZZINI. Source: KEYSTONE
EXAMPLE 1. CO₂ EMISSION: FROM A TOOTHBRUSH TO AN ELECTRIC CAR
Did you brush your teeth today? The toothbrush probably contains plastic, which is made from petroleum, which is fossil fuel. Did you have breakfast? The grains in your bread or cereal are grown with fertilizers, which emit greenhouse gases.
The crop was harvested with a solar-powered harvester made of steel, which in turn is produced using fossil fuels in a process that emits CO₂.
If you ate a burger for lunch, as I sometimes do, then remember that emissions are associated both with producing beef (cows emit methane when they burp), and growing and harvesting wheat, which is used to make burger buns.
Perhaps you wear cotton, which is also grown with fertilizer and then harvested, or polyester, which is made from ethylene, which in turn is made from petroleum. Toilet paper is cut down trees, which means additional carbon dioxide emissions.
Have you traveled to work or to school or college in an electric vehicle? This is wonderful – although the electricity is certainly derived from fossil fuels. If you take the train, pay attention: the tracks are made of steel, and the tunnels are made of concrete, both of these materials are produced from fossil fuels with the emission of CO₂ as a by-product.
The car and bus you use are made of steel and plastic. The same goes for the bike you rode last weekend. The roads you drive on contain concrete, as well as asphalt, which requires petroleum products to produce.
If you live in an apartment building, you are probably surrounded by concrete. If in wood, then the logs for its construction were cut down and hewn using steel and plastic machinery that runs on gasoline or other fuels.
The heating or air conditioning in your home or office consumes a lot of energy, but that’s not all: the refrigerant in an air conditioner can be a pretty strong greenhouse gas. Are you sitting on a chair made of metal or plastic? Their production is again associated with emissions.
Virtually every item, from a toothbrush to building materials, was transported from the place of production by trucks, planes, trains and ships. All of these modes of transport run on fossil fuels and are made with it.
EXAMPLE 2. THIS CONCRETE, CONCRETE, CONCRETE WORLD…
The way from Medina, where Melinda and I live, to our foundation headquarters in Seattle is thirteen kilometers. To get to the office, I cross Lake Washington on the Evergreen Point floating bridge, although none of the locals call it that – they call it the “520 bridge” after the highway that passes through the state. The bridge is about 2.3 kilometers long and is the longest floating bridge in the world.
It is magnificent, and every time I cross it, I admire – no, not its length, but the fact that it is floating. How does this massive construction of asphalt, concrete and steel, with hundreds of cars, stay on the surface of the lake? Why doesn’t it drown?
This is a real miracle of engineering, which we owe to the amazing material – concrete. Strange, right? After all, we present concrete in the form of heavy blocks that cannot float on water.
Although it is really possible to make massive and dense structures out of it, and then it will be able, for example, to absorb radioactive radiation in a hospital, but at the same time it is suitable for the construction of such hollow structures as 77 air-filled waterproof pontoons on which the “bridge 520” rests.
Each pontoon, weighing a thousand tons, is able to sit on the surface of the lake and is strong enough to support the bridge and all the cars that drive over it. Or rather, they crawl if a traffic jam has formed. You don’t have to look far for examples of other wonderful properties of concrete.
Concrete does not rust, rot or ignite, which is why it is used in almost all modern buildings. If you are interested in hydropower, then you probably know that dams are made of concrete. The next time you see the Statue of Liberty, take a look at its plinth. It is made of 27 thousand tons of concrete.
The attractiveness of this building material was also noticed by the greatest inventor of America – Thomas Edison. He wanted to build the entire interior of his house out of concrete. In particular, he dreamed of creating concrete furniture, such as bedroom sets, and even planned to design a concrete player.
Edison’s vision never came to fruition, but we already use a lot of concrete. Every year, more than 96 million tons of cement, one of the main components of concrete, are produced in the United States to replace, repair, and build roads, bridges, and buildings.
This is almost 272 kilograms per inhabitant of the country. At the same time, America is not the largest consumer of concrete: the leader is China, which in the first 16 years of the 21st century used more of this building material than the United States in the entire 20th century!
EXAMPLE 3. BAD POLYMERS
Americans consume the same amount of steel as cement – that is, another 272 kilograms per person each year, not counting the steel that is recycled for reuse.
Another amazing group of materials is polymers. They make up a huge number of products, from clothes and toys to furniture, cars and mobile phones – you can’t list everything … Although polymers – or, simply put, plastic – have a bad reputation, their benefits are undeniable.
As I write this chapter, I am sitting at my desk surrounded by various types of plastic: my computer, keyboard, monitor, mouse, stapler, telephone, and so on are made of plastic. It is plastic that makes fuel-efficient cars so light: polymer materials account for half the area of a car and only 10% of its weight.
There is also glass in windows, jars and bottles, thermal insulation packages, cars and fiber optic cables that provide high-speed Internet. Aluminum, which is used to make beverage cans, foil, power lines, doorknobs, trains, airplanes, and beer kegs (metal barrels).
Fertilizers that “feed” the whole world. Many years ago, I predicted a decline in paper production due to the rapid development of electronic communications and the ubiquity of screens, but paper is not losing ground.
In other words, we produce materials that have become as integral to our lives as electricity. And we do not plan to abandon them. On the contrary, we will use them in large quantities as the inhabitants of the Earth grow and improve their well-being.
EXAMPLE 4. SYNTHETIC FERTILIZERS CHANGED OUR WORLD
A few years ago I visited a fertilizer warehouse in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. What I saw impressed me to the core: thousands of tons of synthetic fertilizer as high as snowdrifts. The warehouse was part of Yara’s new fertilizer distribution center, the largest in East Africa.
As I toured the warehouse, I spoke to workers filling bags with tiny white balloons. These balls contain nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that will feed crops in one of the world’s poorest regions. I love these trips. I know it sounds strange, but for me, fertilizers are real magic, and not only because they make our gardens and lawns prettier.
Along with Norman Borlaug’s dwarf wheat and new varieties of corn and rice, synthetic fertilizers were a key factor in the agricultural revolution that changed the world in the 1960s and 1970s. It is believed that if we did not come up with synthetic fertilizers, the world’s population would be 40-50% less than it is now.
EXAMPLE 5. GASOLINE IS CHEAPER THAN WATER, WINE AND JUICE
In the US, gasoline is, among other things, a surprisingly cheap product, although it’s hard to believe when you pull into a gas station. In addition to milk and orange juice, there are a few other products that cost more than gasoline (when comparing the equivalent volume): Dasani bottled water, yogurt, honey, washing powder, maple syrup, hand sanitizer, Starbucks latte, Red Bull energy drink, olive butter and cheap Charles Shaw wine, available at Trader Joe’s grocery stores.
So it is: if you take it in liters, then gasoline is cheaper than a two-dollar bottle of wine. As you read this chapter, keep in mind two facts about gasoline: it’s unbeatable and it’s cheap. Let them remind you that when it comes to how much energy we get for every dollar we spend, gasoline is the gold standard. Apart from similar products such as diesel and jet fuel, no other commodity in our daily life provides so much energy per liter at such a low price.
EXAMPLE 6. KENYAN MILK: MINIMUM GREENHOUSE GASES
Laban and Miriam Talam met me at the farm gate and told their story. Two years ago they were not only farmers but also subsistence farmers. Like most neighbours, they lived in poverty. The Talamas grew corn (in Kenya, as in many parts of the world, it is called maize) and other vegetables.
Some of the harvest was eaten by themselves, and the rest was sold in the market. To make ends meet, Laban was hired as a laborer. In order to earn more, he bought a cow, which they milked twice a day: morning milk was sold to a local shop, and evening milk was left for the couple and the children. In total, the cow gave three liters of milk a day – this is both for sale and for a family of five.
By the time we met, the life of the Talams had improved significantly. Now they have four cows that give twenty-six liters of milk a day. They sell twenty liters and keep six for themselves. The cows bring them almost $4 a day – enough money in this part of Kenya to renovate a house, grow pineapples for export and send children to school.
The turning point for them was the opening of a milk cooling plant next door. The Talamas and other farmers in the district take the milk to the factory where it is cooled and then transported throughout the country and sold at a higher price than in the local store.
The plant also plays the role of a training center. Dairy owners can learn how to care for their cattle so that they stay healthy and produce plenty of milk, get vaccines for cows, and even test the milk for contamination (then it will be sold at a bargain price). If the milk does not meet the criteria, farmers receive advice on how to improve its quality.
In Kenya, about a third of the population is employed in agriculture. However, despite the large number of small farmers, they account for surprisingly little greenhouse gases because they cannot afford goods and services that require fossil fuels. The average Kenyan produces 55 times less carbon dioxide than the average American, and rural farmers like the Talamas produce even less.
EXAMPLE 7. SMOG AS A STATE PROBLEM
In 1943, at the height of World War II, a thick cloud of smoke descended on Los Angeles. It turned out to be so poisonous that it caused lacrimation and a runny nose among the inhabitants of the city. Drivers could not see more than 100 meters. Some of the locals were afraid that it was the Japanese who attacked the city and used chemical weapons.
In fact, no one attacked the city. The cause of the confusion was smog, created by an unfortunate combination of air pollution and weather conditions. Almost 10 years have passed. In December 1952, the smog paralyzed London for five days.
Buses and ambulances stopped. The cinemas had to be closed because even inside the buildings nothing could be seen. Marauders rampaged under the noses of the police. (If you’re also a fan of Netflix’s The Crown, you’ll probably remember the thrilling episode in the first season, which takes place right around the time of this disaster.)
The climate anomaly, which later became known as the Great London Smog, killed at least four thousand people. Due to such incidents in the 1950s and 1960s, air pollution became a major topic of discussion for all segments of society in the US and Europe.
The legislature reacted immediately. In 1955, Congress began to allocate money to study this problem and find solutions. The following year, British authorities passed the Clean Air Act, which created smoke-free zones in the country where only cleaner fuels could be burned.
Seven years later, the U.S. Clean Air Act became the foundation of the modern air pollution control regulatory framework in the U.S.—it remains the most detailed and one of the most influential laws to regulate air pollution, which can harm public health, to this day. In 1970, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency to help implement this law.