Drawdown: Exploring Solutions to Climate Change
In a month that began with the president’s misguided decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, I was heartened to discover an inspiring new project and book, “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.” Drawdown reframes the challenge of climate change, transforming it from a frightening threat we can only mitigate to a menu of practical, life-enhancing innovations that could lower atmospheric CO2 levels by simultaneously cutting emissions and sequestering carbon.
The book’s editor and project leader Paul Hawken defines drawdown as “that point in time at which greenhouse gases peak and begin to decline on a year-to-year basis.” With atmospheric CO2 currently over 400 parts per million, a level the Earth has not experienced in millions of years, efforts to stabilize the growth of emissions will not suffice. “If you are approaching a cliff and slow down,” Hawken likes to quip, “you’re going to go over the cliff more slowly.” The goal must be to reverse direction – and “Drawdown” outlines 100 ways to do that.
Countless models track the problematic rise in greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate disruptions, but “Drawdown” represents the first attempt to systematically analyze potential solutions. Hawken, an entrepreneur and environmentalist who previously wrote “Natural Capitalism” and “The Ecology of Commerce,” repeatedly asked experts to list the most viable solutions to global warming. The reply was always some version of “that would be useful to know but it’s beyond my expertise.”
It was beyond Hawken’s expertise, too, and no foundation funded his project proposal. So he dipped into savings and launched the Drawdown Project anyway, inviting scholars and experts around the globe to lend time helping calculate and review the needed metrics. The Drawdown team was deliberately conservative in estimating the potential cost of each strategy, yet they still found “the solutions tend to offer an overwhelming net savings.”
That encouraging discovery directly contradicts the dystopian message emanating from the Rose Garden on June 1, when the president alleged the Paris climate accord would “(take) away the great wealth of our nation.”
After careful financial analysis (something foreign to the current White House, judging from its $2 trillion federal budget “accounting error”), Drawdown’s research team concluded that the costs of reversing global warming could quickly become negligible, given the short payback period for most strategies. Their solutions represent a bargain-priced blueprint for survival when weighed against the exorbitant financial, ecological and human cost of continuing on a “business as usual” trajectory.
From several hundred preliminary options, Drawdown researchers selected the 100 most promising solutions. Twenty of these they characterize as “Coming Attractions” – concepts still in development like marine permaculture (floating kelp forests that provide food, fertilizer, fiber and biofuels), living buildings and pasture cropping (planting annual crops in a living perennial pasture). The remaining 80 options, already demonstrably successful, they rank according to “the total amount of greenhouse gases they can potentially avoid or remove from the atmosphere.” For each solution, they estimate the total net cost and operational savings.
Most approaches outlined in the Drawdown Project are “no regrets” solutions – options that humanity would want to pursue even if they didn’t cut emissions and sequester atmospheric carbon. Alongside their climate benefits, these choices “create security, produce jobs, improve health, save money… eliminate hunger, prevent pollution, restore soil (and) clean (up) rivers.”
The “Drawdown” book devotes several content-dense pages to each solution, and I found it a helpful primer on technologies I had heard referenced, but didn’t yet fully understand.
Interestingly, some of my favorite practices fell relatively far down the list: insulation (No. 31), LED household lighting (No. 33), composting (No. 60), ridesharing (No. 75) and net zero buildings (No. 79). The solutions are ranked globally, though, so even some lower-ranked ones may be high priorities in particular settings.
Which solutions made the top 10 may surprise many people (as it did the researchers themselves): reduced food waste (No. 3), a plant-rich diet (No. 4), educating girls (No. 6) and family planning (No. 7). Cultural fixes like these are slowly gaining recognition as integrally linked to the health of our planet and atmosphere, but “Drawdown” may help highlight their critical role.
Both the Drawdown website and the book offer valuable practical guidance that citizens around the globe – in home, business, community and governmental settings – can put to good use. The project’s greatest contribution, though, may lie in its essential optimism. By focusing on solutions, it affirms – in Tennyson’s words – ” ’tis not too late to seek a newer world.”
© Marina Schauffler, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.
To Learn More
Find the ranked list of 100 solutions at www.drawdown.org. Beyond the “Drawdown” book, there are many related lectures by Paul Hawken online and a recent interview with Charlie Rose.