Interview: A Groundbreaking Plan to “Drawdown” Greenhouse Gas

What will it take to get to a point where the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere starts getting smaller? That’s the question behind a new book from Paul Hawken and Project Drawdown.

The answers it provides may be surprising. Beyond renewable energy and green transportation, top climate solutions included expanding both sustainable agriculture and food choices, and the rights of women and girls.

The book includes beautifully photographed magazine-style features on each solution, making it stand out invitingly from the crowd of technical climate change literature.

Drawdown has a Southeastern connection: it was substantially funded by the Georgia-based Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Anderson was an industrial CEO who became a champion of corporate sustainability and win-win solutions that benefit business, ecological systems, and people.

I spoke with the Foundation’s Executive Director, John Lanier, who is Anderson’s grandson and also on the board of Project Drawdown, to learn more about what Drawdown tells us about how to take on climate change.

John A. Lanier, Executive Director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation and Project Drawdown board member

Thank you, John, for taking the time to speak with SACE. Can you tell us briefly what Drawdown is about and your role in it?

Drawdown is a book written by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Project Drawdown, which was formed with the goal of researching and writing a profile of the best currently existing technologies (broadly defined) that, if we scaled them, would do the most to reverse global warming. We realized that until somebody models these technologies, we won’t have an understanding of which ones will have the greatest impact. Drawdown illustrates which solutions can do the most to reduce global warming.

What are Drawdown‘s most important messages for the U.S. Southeast?

What the book shows, and the Southeast can take away from it, is how wide of a spectrum of solutions we have. Our approach is global, so not everything in this book is going to be something that can be adopted everywhere. For instance, the Southeast U.S. doesn’t have a lot of tropical forests, so the #5 technology is off the table. But that’s just one thing.

There are so many things we can do. Solution #1 in terms of potential carbon emissions avoided is refrigerant management, and with our climate we naturally have a reliance on air conditioning so this is a huge opportunity. The Southeast could do more with #2, onshore wind development. Solution #3 is food waste. Can we do more with that? Heck yeah! Solution #4 is shifting to a plant-rich diet. We have so much agriculture here… the question is could we shift culturally? Solar farms and rooftop solar are both top 10 solutions – and we know the sun shines here in the South!

Going down the list, it’s easy to tick off so many solutions to global warming that would work really well in the Southeast. As a region, there’s an immense amount we can do that spans different sectors. For the most part, we just have to scale them.

Here at SACE, we’ve been working to better reflect equity, diversity, and inclusion in our approach to clean energy advocacy. How are these values reflected in Drawdown’s approach? How do you see this as different from past environmental or climate efforts?

Drawdown doesn’t have an equity/inclusion lens that could “sneak” a technology onto the list – researchers just ran the numbers. It intentionally stays as objective as possible. That’s why nuclear power is in the book; if the researchers were to have put their own subjective judgments of what makes the most sense for us to prioritize, they would not have included nuclear power because it’s a regretful solution with many negative impacts.

Rooftop solar is Drawdown's #10 solution. Photo: Amelia Shenstone for SACE

But what does stand out is that what solutions rise to the top. If we were to scale every technology in the book, it would not only solve climate change, it would be a more equitable, inclusive, diverse world.

We would have low-cost, renewable energy that could be made available to more people than our current high-cost, centralized system. On the food piece, we’d see a shift away from industrial agriculture to small-holder farmers who use soft-touch practices that are gentler on the land, because they are closer to it. When you consider family planning, you’re talking about reducing birth rates, enriching women, giving them better standing in the family. They can devote these resources to their children and hopefully lift families out of a poverty cycle.

So we’re talking about solutions that have cascading benefits, that we should do regardless of whether we have a global warming problem. Their benefits are social as well as environmental. That’s one of the remarkable messages. Just by doing these things we’ll create more diversity, equity, and inclusion, and oh by the way, we’ll solve global warming.

The message of Drawdown is let’s create the best version of humanity we’ve ever had, then look back and say, “Thank you global warming for giving us the impetus to make these changes.”

How can Drawdown help climate change efforts in the current political climate?

Drawdown is part of a trend in 2017 where localized organizations are saying, “we have to take responsibility.” We can’t look for leadership at a different level. Drawdown is empowering organizations, businesses, and municipalities with the knowledge of what they can do. It’s a playbook: here are the things we can do; choose the ones that work for you.

Drawdown is helping the climate movement transcend politics, which is where the conversation should have been all along. We’re getting past climate change being a political issue by just ignoring that aspect of the debate and saying, “here are all these mostly no-regrets solutions, let’s go ahead and do them and not let these roadblocks get in our way.”

Anything else you want our readers to know?

I encourage anyone who does get a copy to keep two thoughts in mind while reading: 1. That this book can lift their spirits, change their views on climate change from fear to opportunity and optimism; and 2. Be empowered to do more, because individuals have a part to play.

Far too often, people look at climate change and think, “What can I do? I’m just one person.” Many of these solutions offer individuals an opportunity to take action.

Visit www.drawdown.org for more information or to order a copy of the book.

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