Episode 32: Reversing Global Warming with Paul Hawken (Project Drawdown)
The effects of global warming can sound so calamitous that the problem itself seems insurmountable. Well do we have some good news for you! In this episode, we overwhelm you with solutions to global warming and explain how we can actually reverse it. Our latest sustainability celebrity, Paul Hawken, an environmentalist, entrepreneur, activist, and author, joins us to talk about his latest project -- Project Drawdown. Project Drawdown has identified, researched, and modeled the 100 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change. Join us as we break down some of these solutions and explore Project Drawdown with Paul’s unparalleled expertise.
Episode Intro Notes
What We'll Cover:
- The problem of global warming
- What it will take to reverse it
- Different approaches to reversing global warming
- Paul Hawken/Drawdown's approach to reversing global warming
- Examples of what's on Drawdown's Top 80 list and their Coming Attractions
- About Paul Hawken
The pesky little problems (or, as Paul might say, opportunities) associated with global warming
As an overview, US average temperature has increased by 1.3 degrees F to 1.9 degrees F since recordkeeping began in 1895; most of this warming occurred since about 1970. The most recent decade was the nation’s warmest on record (1). So we’ve got warming at an increasing rate.
While surface air temperature is the most widely cited measure of human-induced climate change, it’s really just one metric. The impacts are much more vast and include (1, 3):
- An increase in extreme weather. One example is excessively high temperatures.
- Public health crises. These include an increased risk of respiratory stress from poor air quality.
- Damage to infrastructure. Think sea level rise among other effects.
- Decrease in surface and groundwater supplies from declining groundwater recharge and a variety of other reasons.
What it would take to reverse global warming
When Jay saw our guest Paul Hawken speak in San Francisco (right before he roped him into this upcoming interview), he made a point of beginning his presentation with a jarring graph. It displayed the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (measured in parts per million) over the last 400,000 years. You can probably guess where this is going to go. You see some pretty consistent fluctuations over that timespan, with peaks and troughs that repeat roughly every 100,000 years, ranging from 150 ppm to just under 300ppm. Then, all of a sudden, you see a massive vertical spike at the end of the graph, nearing 400ppm. Off the charts. Paul makes a point of saying that “no human being in any shape or form (even in a primate form) has existed on this earth when the levels of CO2 are over 300ppm. Anyone who says what will happen above that threshold line is totally speculating. We don’t know.” (4).
So, when we talk about reversing global warming, we need to go way beyond mitigation, stabilization, and net zero carbon emissions. As he says, “We are so far beyond what our species has ever encountered or lived with” (4). We need to both directly address carbon emission sources, and we need to expand our efforts to actually draw that carbon out of the atmosphere. So when we say reversing global warming we mean actually reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Of course there are other greenhouse gases that can be considerably more potent than CO2. For example, methane warms the planet 86 times as much as CO2. But for purposes of this episode, we’re going to focus mostly on CO2.
Different approaches to reversing global warming
Naturally, any proactive optimist (which is how we’d like to describe ourselves… that and handsome) is led to ask, “Okay… so how would we actually reverse it?” There are a few approaches to touch on.
- Mitigation, which is what Paul described as simply not enough. Still, it’s an important first step. Specifically, mitigation refers to efforts to reduce or prevent emission of greenhouse gases associated with our current way of life. Mitigation can mean using new technologies and renewable energies, making older equipment more energy efficient, or changing management practices or consumer behavior (6).
- Carbon sequestration. This refers to both natural and deliberate processes by which CO2 is either removed from the atmosphere or diverted from emission sources and stored in the ocean, terrestrial environments, and geologic formations (7). This is the next natural step from mitigation - after you slow down or stop emissions from existing sources, you then turn to ways to draw existing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
- Geo-engineering, arguably the boldest approach to reversing global warming. Geo-engineering refers to the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change (8). Certainly carbon dioxide removal can be considered geo-engineering, but this category also references things like Solar Radiation Management or other large-scale interventions. Solar radiation management involves reflecting a small proportion of the Sun’s energy back into space.
Project drawdown's approach
Our conversation today revolves around Project Drawdown, spearheaded by Paul Hawken. Project Drawdown maps, measures, models, and describes the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming. For each solution, Drawdown describes its history, the carbon impact it provides, the relative cost and savings, the path to adoption, and how it works. The goal of the research that informs Drawdown is to determine if we can reverse the buildup of atmospheric carbon within thirty years (9).
What’s important to emphasize here is that all solutions modeled are already in place, well understood, analyzed based on peer-reviewed science, and are expanding around the world (9). We’re not placing our bets on some currently uninvented technology to save the day, or hoping that superman shows up to use his ice-breath power -- which is arguably his weirdest (but in this case useful) ability.
Examples of Drawdown's Most Impactful solutions
Let’s quickly run down their top 10 solutions before examining a few in more detail (10). Going down the list, we have, in David Letterman fashion:
10 - Rooftop solar
9 - Silvopasture (integration of trees and pasture into a single system for raising livestock)
8 - Solar farms
7 - Family planning
6 - Educating girls
5 - Tropical forest restoration
4 - Eating plant-rich diets
3 - Reducing food waste
2 - Onshore wind turbines
1 - Refrigerant management
Let’s dive a little deeper into their top 3 solutions (10):
- Refrigerant Management. This touches on managing things like CFCs and HFCs, which have huge global warming potentials and can leak from things like faulty air conditioners. Over thirty years, containing 87 percent of refrigerants likely to be released could avoid emissions equivalent to 89.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Check out Episode 2 for more on HFCs. By the way, we are talking gigatons of CO2 because that is how Project Drawdown quantifies it. We want to give you a sense of how much this means. One way to think of it is that a reduction of one gigaton of emissions is equivalent to taking 211 million cars off the roads for one year (12).
- Onshore Wind Turbines. An increase in onshore wind from about 4 percent of world electricity use today to 21.6 percent by 2050 could reduce emissions by 84.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide. At a cost of $1.23 trillion, wind turbines can deliver net savings of $7.4 trillion over three decades of operation.
- Reduced Food Waste. A third of the food raised or prepared does not make it to our forks. Producing uneaten food squanders a whole host of resources—seeds, water, energy, land, fertilizer, hours of labor, financial capital—and generates greenhouse gases at every stage—including methane when organic matter lands in our landfills . After taking into account the adoption of plant-rich diets, which is Drawdown’s #4 solution, if 50 percent of food waste is reduced by 2050, avoided emissions could be equal to 26.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide. For more on food waste, check out Episode 6.
In addition to these 10 (and the 70 others on their current list), Project Drawdown includes an additional 20 “Coming Attractions,” which are solutions that are forthcoming and close at hand. Some of our favorites - on top of well-known inclusions like the Smart Grid - include:
- Artificial Leaf: Daniel Nocera, a Harvard professor of energy science, successfully created energy-dense fuel by combining solar energy, water, and carbon dioxide. There’s no actual leaf here. Rather, an engineered bacteria is used to consume hydrogen and carbon dioxide to synthesize fuel. When fed pure carbon dioxide, the process is ten times more efficient at energy production than photosynthesis. *Leaf* it so a Harvard professor to come up with a solution so advanced…
- Feeding Cows with Kelp: Yes, you heard that correctly. Building on anecdotal evidence from dairy farmers, a team of scientists in North Queensland, Australia, have tested a wide range of seaweeds mixed with feed in artificial cow stomachs. One species of red algae actually reduced methane production by 99 percent. As a lovely reminder, livestock (and cows especially) produce quite a bit of methane via belches and farts. Holy cow!
About Paul Hawken
Paul is an author and activist. He has founded successful, ecologically-conscious businesses. He’s also consulted with heads of state and CEOs on economic development, industrial ecology, and environmental policy. He has written seven books, including four national bestsellers: The Next Economy, Growing a Business, The Ecology of Commerce, and Blessed Unrest.
Paul has served on the board of many environmental organizations, including Center for Plant Conservation, Shelburne Farms, Trust for Public Land, Conservation International, and National Audubon Society.