Hello. I’d like to introduce you to a word you may never have heard before, but you ought to know:drawdown. Drawdown is a new way of thinking about and acting on global warming. It’s a goal for a future that we want, a future where reversing global warming is possible. Drawdown is that point in timewhen atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases begin to decline on a year-to-year basis. More simply, it’s that point when we take out more greenhouse gases than we put into Earth’s atmosphere.
Now, I know we’re all concerned about climate change, but climate change is not the problem. Climate change is the expression of the problem. It’s the feedback of the system of the planet telling us what’s going on. The problem is global warming, provoked by the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases caused by human activity.
So how do we solve the problem? How do we begin the process of reversing global warming? The only way we know how is to draw down, to avoid putting greenhouse gases up and to pull down what’s already there. I know. Given the current situation, it sounds impossible, but humanity already knows what to do. We have real, workable technologies and practices that can achieve drawdown. And it’s already happening. What we need is to accelerate implementation and to change the discourse from one of fear and confusion, which only leads to apathy, to one of understanding and possibility, and, therefore, opportunity.
I work for an organization called Project Drawdown. And for the last four years, together with a team of researchers and writers from all over the world, we have mapped, measured and detailed 100 solutions to reversing global warming. Eighty already exist today, and when taken together, those 80 can achieve drawdown. And 20 are coming attractions, solutions on the pipeline, and when they come online, will speed up our progress. These are solutions that are viable, scalable and financially feasible. And they do one or more of three things: replace existing fossil fuel-based energy generation with clean, renewable sources; reduce consumption through technological efficiency and behavior change; and to biosequester carbon in our plants’ biomass and soil through a process we all learn in grade school, the magic of photosynthesis.
It’s through a combination of these three mechanisms that drawdown becomes possible. So how do we get there? Well, here’s the short answer. This is a list of the top 20 solutions to reversing global warming.Now, I’ll go into some detail, but take a few seconds to look over the list. It’s eclectic, I know, from onshore wind turbines to educating girls, from plant-rich diets to rooftop solar technology. So let’s break it down a little bit. To the right of the slide, you’ll see figures in gigatons, or billions of tons. That represents the total equivalent carbon dioxide reduced from the atmosphere when the solution is implemented globally over a 30-year period. Now, when we think about climate solutions, we often think about electricity generation.We think of renewable energy as the most important set of solutions, and they are incredibly important.But the first thing to notice about this list is that only five of the top 20 solutions relate to electricity. What surprised us, honestly, was that eight of the top 20 relate to the food system. The climate impact of food may come as a surprise to many people, but what these results show is that the decisions we make every day about the food we produce, purchase and consume are perhaps the most important contributions every individual can make to reversing global warming. And how we manage land is also very important. Protecting forests and wetlands safeguards, expands and creates new carbon sinks that directly draw down carbon. This is how drawdown can happen. And when we take food and land management together, 12 of the top 20 solutions relate to how and why we use land. This fundamentally shifts traditional thinking on climate solutions. But let’s go to the top of the list, because I think what’s there may also surprise you. The single most impactful solution, according to this analysis, would be refrigeration management, or properly managing and disposing of hydrofluorocarbons, also known as HFCs, which are used by refrigerators and air conditioners to cool the air. We did a great job with the Montreal Protocol to limit the production of chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs, because of their effect on the ozone layer. But they were replaced by HFCs, which are hundreds to thousands of times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And that 90 gigatons reduced is a conservative figure. If we were to account for the impact of the Kigali agreement of 2016, which calls for the phaseout of hydrofluorocarbons and replace them with natural refrigerants, which exist today, this number could increase to 120, to nearly 200 gigatons of avoided greenhouse gases. Maybe you’re surprised, as we were.
Now, before going into some details of specific solutions, you may be wondering how we came to these calculations. Well, first of all, we collected a lot of data, and we used statistical analysis to create rangesthat allow us to choose reasonable choices for every input used throughout the models. And we chose a conservative approach, which underlies the entire project. All that data is entered in the model,ambitiously but plausibly projected into the future, and compared against what we would have to do anyway. The 84 gigatons reduced from onshore wind turbines, for example, results from the electricity generated from wind farms that would otherwise be produced from coal or gas-fired plants. We calculate all the costs to build and to operate the plants and all the emissions generated. The same process is used to compare recycling versus landfilling, regenerative versus industrial agriculture, protecting versus cutting down our forests. The results are then integrated within and across systems to avoid double-counting and add it up to see if we actually get to drawdown.
OK, let’s go into some specific solutions. Rooftop solar comes in ranked number 10. When we picture rooftop solar in our minds we often envision a warehouse in Miami covered in solar panels. But these are solutions that are relevant in urban and rural settings, high and low-income countries, and they have cascading benefits. This is a family on a straw island in Lake Titicaca receiving their first solar panel.Before, kerosene was used for cooking and lighting, kerosene on a straw island. So by installing solar, this family is not only helping to reduce emissions, but providing safety and security for their household.
And tropical forests tell their own story. Protecting currently degraded land in the tropics and allowing natural regeneration to occur is the number five solution to reversing global warming. We can think of trees as giant sticks of carbon. This is drawdown in action every year, as carbon is removed from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, which converts carbon dioxide to plants’ biomass and soil organic carbon.
And we need to rethink how we produce our food to make it more regenerative. There are many ways to do this, and we researched over 13 of them, but these aren’t new ways of producing food. They have been practiced for centuries, for generations. But they are increasingly displaced by modern agriculture,which promotes tillage, monocropping and the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides which degrade the land and turn it into a net emitter of greenhouse gases. Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand,restores soil health and productivity, increases yield, improves water retention, benefits smallholder farmers and large farming operations alike and brings carbon back to the land. It’s a win-win-win-win-win.
A plant-rich diet is not a vegan or a vegetarian diet, though I applaud any who make those choices. It’s a healthy diet in terms of how much we consume, and particularly how much meat is consumed. In the richer parts of the world, we overconsume. However, low-income countries show an insufficient caloric and protein intake. That needs rebalancing, and it’s in the rebalancing that a plant-rich diet becomes the number four solution to reversing global warming.
Moreover, approximately a third of all food produced is not eaten, and wasted food emits an astounding eight percent of global greenhouse gases. We need to look where across the supply chain these losses and wastage occurs. In low-income countries, after food leaves the farm, most food is wasted early in the supply chain due to infrastructure and storage challenges. Food is not wasted by consumers in low-income countries which struggle to feed their population. In the developed world, instead, after food leaves the farm, most food is wasted at the end of the supply chain by markets and consumers, and wasted food ends up in the landfill where it emits methane as it decomposes. This is a consumer choice problem. It’s not a technology issue. Preventing food waste from the beginning is the number three solution. But here’s the interesting thing. When we look at the food system as a whole and we implement all the production solutions like regenerative agriculture, and we adopt a plant-rich diet, and we reduce food waste, our research shows that we would produce enough food on current farmland to feed the world’s growing population a healthy, nutrient-rich diet now until 2050 and beyond. That means we don’t need to cut down forests for food production. The solutions to reversing global warming are the same solutions to food insecurity.
Now, a solution that often does not get talked enough about, family planning. By providing men and women the right to choose when, how and if to raise a family through reproductive health clinics and education, access to contraception and freedom devoid of persecution can reduce the estimated global population by 2050. That reduced population means reduced demand for electricity, food, travel, buildings and all other resources. All the energy and emissions that are used to produce that higher demand is reduced by providing the basic human right to choose when, how and if to raise a family. But family planning cannot happen without equal quality of education to girls currently being denied access.Now, we’ve taken a small liberty here, because the impact of universal education and family planning resources are so inextricably intertwined that we chose to cut it right down the middle. But taken together, educating girls and family planning is the number one solution to reversing global warming, reducing approximately 120 billion tons of greenhouse gases.
So is drawdown possible? The answer is yes, it is possible, but we need all 80 solutions. There are no silver bullets or a subset of solutions that are going to get us there. The top solutions would take us far along the pathway, but there’s no such thing as a small solution. We need all 80. But here’s the great thing. We would want to implement these solutions whether or not global warming was even a problem,because they have cascading benefits to human and planetary well-being. Renewable electricity results in clean, abundant access to energy for all. A plant-rich diet, reduced food waste results in a healthy global population with enough food and sustenance. Family planning and educating girls? This is about human rights, about gender equality. This is about economic improvement and the freedom of choice. It’s about justice. Regenerative agriculture, managed grazing, agroforestry, silvopasture restores soil health, benefits farmers and brings carbon back to the land. Protecting our ecosystems also protects biodiversityand safeguards planetary health and the oxygen that we breathe. Its tangible benefits to all species are incalculable.
But one last point, because I know it’s probably on everybody’s mind; how much is this going to cost?Well, we estimate that to implement all 80 solutions would cost about 29 trillion dollars over 30 years.That’s just about a trillion a year. Now, I know that sounds like a lot, but we have to remember that global GDP is over 80 trillion every year, and the estimated savings from implementing these solutions is 74 trillion dollars, over double the costs. That’s a net savings of 44 trillion dollars.
Here’s the welcome surprise. When we implement these solutions, we shift the way we do business from a system that is inherently exploitative and extractive to a new normal that is by nature restorative and regenerative. We need to rethink our global goals, to move beyond sustainability towards regeneration,and along the way reverse global warming.