Response to Bill Gates' Blog on Climate Change Being Worse than Covid-19

Date Published

27th Aug 2020

Don McLean
Founder and Managing Director (CEO), IES

Bill Gates recently published an interesting blog on the lessons we can learn from the impact of the coronavirus compared with the probable impact of climate change.  

In comparing these two global crises - despite recognising the absolute devastation caused by COVID-19 - he sees Climate Change as an even bigger problem to humanity.  As you may know, I fully agree with his observation.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog describing what we can learn from our global response to COVID-19 such that we could improve our response to climate change.  The principal points I discussed were:

  • Both the coronavirus and Climate Change are global problems that need a global solution but both have been poorly handled by governments applying ‘national’ solutions.
  • Many countries were too slow in enforcing self-isolation and social distancing and this led to the wider spread of the virus. If governments had implemented stricter measures earlier, hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved.  After 25 years of attempting to get some collaborative global response to Climate Change, we are witnessing a similar lack of action, with many countries not fully participating in reducing their carbon emissions.
  • Governments do not see Climate Change as an immediate threat because it is happening hundreds of times slower than the coronavirus pandemic and it will not happen before their next election. However, the longer they wait, climate related deaths will increase year on year and species and biodiversity will be lost at an increasingly disturbing rate year on year. 
  • The WHO said governments should ‘Test, Test, Test’ for COVID-19. Countries did not and people have died unnecessarily.  In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) formed to collate and assess evidence on climate change and each year they reinforce their recommendation that we need to act urgently to mitigate it.  Governments have not acted and people are, and will continue to die because of climate change.
  • The PPE issue is analogous to the use of spreadsheets and simplistic software tools being used in the decarbonisation of the built environment (which is my area of expertise) to solve sophisticated physics based problems. This is why the vast majority of our built environment is energy inefficient and hence performs badly in terms of carbon emissions.
  • The built environment – which is one of the greatest contributors to climate change - will only be decarbonised if there is an accurate physics based Digital Twin technology to help deliver the decarbonisation process.

Based upon these observations what are the chances of our governments collectively stopping climate change?  If the chances are low then what is the point of a country pushing to meet its decarbonisation targets?  

Mr Gates highlighted the pandemic has caused an estimated 8% drop in global carbon emissions. While this may seem impressive under normal circumstances, he states: “What’s remarkable is not how much emissions will go down because of the pandemic, but how little” given the massive economic cost and societal sacrifice, which has been required to avert these carbon emissions in terms of global lockdowns and loss of life.   

In addressing the number of deaths associated with both these global emergencies, Mr Gates calculates the current COVID-19 global death rate at 14/100,000 people. However, he estimates that by the end of the century, due to climate change, the death rate could be as high as 73/100,000 people.  I believe this death rate will prove to be conservative.

The problem now lies in preventing these horrifying predictions from becoming reality. Mr Gates points out that you, "cannot get to zero emissions by flying and driving less" and also highlights:

“Climate science tells us why we need to deal with this problem, but not how to deal with it. For that, we’ll need biology, chemistry, physics, political science, economics, engineering, and other sciences.”

The question of “How” which Mr Gates references here is an absolutely key question and has been a major focus of mine, particularly in the context of the built environment.

In one of my recent blogs I described the Three Levels of How to Decarbonise.  I believe what Mr Gates mentions above is an example of what I define as the first of the three “How’s”.  Let’s consider - what are the three How’s? 

First ‘How’
The First ‘How’ is where a questioner will ask the general question “How do I decarbonise?” 

  • Mr Gates is perfectly correct when he states that to decarbonise we need to draw from subjects such as chemistry, physics and engineering.  However,  this does not present a solution in terms of how exactly you include these complex subjects in the decarbonisation process. 
  • Most government statements/reports suggesting how to decarbonise provide these types of general response.

This does not help the questioner.  Most questioners will give up at this point because they do not know what to do.  However, some will persevere and they will redefine their question.  

Second ‘How’
Those who do pursue their quest will then realise they need to ask the second ‘How’. From my perspective, this would be “How do I decarbonise the Built Environment?”

  • This is a more specific question to which you would expect a more specific answer.  Often, you will get a better answer compared to the first ‘How’ e.g. use renewables; put building regulations in place; use heat pumps; use passive design; use district heating or district cooling; etc. but it still leaves the questioner without a solution. These answers do not address the potential adverse effects and barriers to making the proposed concepts work, or how they will work holistically over time and in different locations/contexts. 
  • Many questions are still unanswered. For example, how are you going to compare the different equipment options – using spreadsheets?  If you decide to put building regulations in place, how will you avoid the past failings of such schemes that have so far embedded problems in our buildings, such as the performance gap? How will you know what size of district heating system is needed?  
  • These questions require the correct physics based technology to be able to provide the correct answers. Using simpler tools traditionally results in more investment due to equipment oversizing which results in higher capital and operating costs due to inaccuracies in the calculations meaning the building(s) are not as decarbonised as well as initially thought. This results in further investment being required in the future to attempt to complete the decarbonisation. 

There are many good, informative documents that provide this type of guidance.  I have referenced two examples: one is by the UNEP; and the other is by the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland.  If the questioner gets to this point they realise there is a Third ‘How’ that needs to be asked.

Third ‘How’
“How can I ensure that I implement the right combination of solutions to decarbonise buildings, campuses, communities cost effectively and ensure they stay decarbonised?”   

  • At this point, you really need a physics based Digital Twin technology to help you implement a decarbonisation strategy – weighing up all the potential solutions and helping you eliminate the risks - for a single building to a campus or community.  
  • Any number of groups of buildings in a similar location can be federated together to create a Digital Twin for any size of community, campus, city, county, country or continent.

Last year IES launched a new physics based Digital Twin technology to address the Third How.  This technology is called the Intelligent Communities Lifecycle or ICL and is a prime example of a solution which draws on the strengths of physics and engineering, as Mr Gates suggests, to provide a real tangible answer to the question of ‘how’ to decarbonise.

The ICL helps a user look at any number of buildings and the energy systems required to support them.  What makes our technology special is that we have Digitised Physics® and can apply this to a Digital Twin of any building. This means that our Digital Twin has Physics Intelligence™, which is much more powerful than any form of AI when addressing the decarbonisation of the built environment.  This technology can be applied to a greenfield or brownfield site, from early design/master planning stages, or to an existing group of buildings to: 

  • Help minimise or eliminate carbon emissions;
  • Lower capital and operating costs; whilst maintaining occupant comfort and wellbeing; 
  • Ensure the building(s) are operating as efficiently as possible, via Physics Intelligence™ operational management; 
  • Investigate and optimise the design and management of community/district level network solutions.

With the ICL, we turn data into information of the quality and accuracy required to de-risk the decision making process and allow you to decarbonise more effectively. This is achieved by producing a Digital Twin that works across the complete time-line of any community; learning from/logging the past, managing the present, and road-mapping the future.

The ICL technology is essential if we are going to plan, design, control and manage a decarbonised built environment for every country in the world.

It helps the user to not only manage the day-to-day performance of their project/portfolio, but also answer a massive range of questions at any stage of the project lifecycle.

The ICL eliminates the need for spreadsheets and simple mathematical approaches that will otherwise continue to be used to design decarbonisation solutions. These are time-consuming, inefficient and inaccurate tools in today’s digital world and in particular with respect to the digitalisation of the built environment. 

To use a COVID-19 analogy: Without providing the appropriate digital tools, we are asking stakeholders within the built environment to decarbonise without giving them PPE or the vaccine they need to do their job properly.  We must ensure that we do not commit similar mistakes when decarbonising our built environment. Doing so would equate to the following:

  • Having No PPE: 
    The construction industry will predominantly use the least expensive solution to a problem.  This is not an option if we want a zero carbon society.  As mentioned above, spreadsheets and simple mathematical solutions will be used to solve complex, integrated decarbonisation strategies.  Without the right tools, wrong decisions will be made and most buildings will fail to be decarbonised.  We will not solve climate change in sufficient time and it will require substantially more investment due to ‘cheapness’ errors.  Consequently, buildings will be much more expensive to become low carbon and more expensive to operate.  Only using the proper ICL Digital Twins with embedded building Physics Intelligence™ can we make the best decarbonisation decisions so we can meet our decarbonisation targets.

    Over time, not using the correct technology will result in many more deaths from climate change than have been experienced with the COVID-19.
     
  • Having no vaccine:
    One of the major problems with fighting COVID-19 is that we have no vaccine to reduce both infections and deaths.  More importantly without a vaccine, the global economy will suffer much longer than necessary. 

    Consider the ICL as the equivalent of a vaccine that can help solve all the current and future climate change ‘pandemics’, such as loss of biodiversity, impact of floods, sea level rising, human deaths, etc.’ that might arise due to climate change as a result of an inefficient, carbon intensive built environment.  Our ICL technology can help plan, design, commission and continually monitor the performance of a building or group of buildings whilst maximising the performance of the building(s) from an energy, carbon, occupant wellbeing, capital cost and operation cost basis.   

    Without this technological ‘vaccine’, that is currently available and tested, then it is unlikely that any country will achieve their national decarbonisation targets.  If they do it will be at considerably more expense.  This will most likely delay the implementation for many sites, allowing atmospheric CO2 levels to continue to rise.

IES’ world leading digital twin technology helps the user identify and weigh up the risks and potential savings to select the best options - prior to implementation - and monitor progress towards net-zero targets over time, with proven results. 

It is exactly this technology that the world desperately needs to de-risk the decarbonisation of the built environment process.  

In conclusion, with respect to Mr Gates call to consider how to solve climate change I would reply as follows:

"The IES ICL system addresses a major cause of climate change, the ‘Built Environment.’ It embodies the chemistry, physics, and engineering to consider all design and operational options as accurately as possible to help make the financial and technology decisions necessary to decarbonise the built environment and mitigate climate change."

The ICL can be a significant part of Mr. Gates’ how.

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