Drawdown Book Review: An Unabashedly Biased Review
If we want to mitigate the worst effects of climate change we can’t rely on reductions to current emissions alone. Legacy emissions or greenhouse gases (GHGs) already in the atmosphere are leading to current warming effects and the increasing number of extreme weather events. There’s a delay of about 10-15 years between when GHGs are first emitted and when they lead to warming effects. So, even if we stopped all emissions today, we would still see the worsening effects on our climate due to these emissions. Of course, you can’t really reduce existing emissions if you keep pumping them out faster; as David Keith has said “[t]he first rule of holes, is you stop digging the hole before you try and fill it.” And therein lies the importance of drawing down existing emissions in addition to reducing current emissions patterns.
Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, is my favourite book in the environmental category. The full name, subtitle and all is Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed To Reverse Global Warming. It is not shy in its enormous ambition and scope, nor should it be. Drawdown is the fruit of the collaboration of nearly 200 people across the globe. It was initially borne of the realization, by Hawken, that there existed a wealth of research supporting anthropogenic climate change and predictions of its future impacts, but the same research didn’t exist about how to “arrest and reverse” climate change.
Starting in the early, 2000s, Hawken, primarily an author and activist, started asking around about what it would take. As he writes, the “genesis of Project Drawdown was curiousity, not fear.” In 2013, he formally sought to fill the gap that existed in both academia and popular culture, writ large. Thus, Project Drawdown was born. The Project has a research team of 70 diverse people from 22 countries, from scientists to public policy experts and an advisory board of 120 people spanning all sectors. Drawdown is the result of thousands of hours of research, review, and debate. The team created a list of the top 80 solutions for reducing and ultimately, drawing down greenhouse gas emissions.
I came across the book shortly after it was published in April 2017 and was instantly enamoured. It is the most technical book I have ever loved, but make no mistake, for all of its rich technicality, it is still highly accessible. Drawdown manages to do what so many before it have tried and failed at. It is a scientifically robust yet simple (not simplistic) volume that both inspires hope and a sense of gravity at the scope of our environmental problems. The book is replete with technical information, to be certain, but it is also filled with moving poetry and prose. With letters from Pope Francis, Peter Wohlleben, and many more brilliant contributors.
How We Win
Solutions are ranked by the gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent each would reduce in the middle range scenario (i.e. not the best or worst case) between 2020-2050. The solutions also include the net cost in billions of USD and the net savings in USD between 2020-2050. The costs and savings are estimated conservatively, with Drawdown estimating costs on the high side and projecting them consistently over 2020-2050. It could well be that a breakthrough could suddenly plummet the price of many of the solutions outlined, but given the unpredictability, Drawdown errs on the side of caution. Seeing the accompanying net costs and net savings, the reader gets a sense of how we should start, or prioritize these solutions in a world that is ever-focused on the bottom line.
To convince certain governments or companies to buy in, this matters. Some governments lack the resources to make big investments that won’t provide an adequate return on investment, at least not right now. Investments like this can be better handled by richer governments or through private sector investment and/or regulation. What’s staggering when reading this book is just how many net savings, these solutions would provide. Some don’t, but on the whole, the solution in Drawdown would provide massive savings for the world and seismic beneficial economic ripples. That gives me hope. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book that filled me with as much hope as Drawdown. The book is based on cutting edge research, extensive collaboration, and the lofty, but ultimately achievable goal of undoing the damage we humans have imposed.
For brevity, I will only profile the top solution Drawdown identifies, refrigerant management. If you would like to read about the rest, and you really should, I encourage you to check out https://www.drawdown.org/, or better yet, to read the book itself. It’s important to note that the reduction is measured in carbon dioxide equivalent to encompass all greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, not solely the biggest player, carbon dioxide
Interestingly, for numbers 3 through 7 on the list of the top solutions, both the costs and the savings are considered too variable to calculate. I think we can gain a profound insight from this; that many of the top solutions to the climate crisis also carry the profound potential for many other global issues. The costs and benefits are so variable for these items because their scope is so far-reaching. None of this is to discount the more focused solutions, such as #21, clean cookstoves. Instead, with this insight, I want to illustrate how interconnected the biggest global problems are and by extension, how interconnected the solutions to these problems are as well. This fact inspires me so very much. Instead of looking at our problems and corresponding solutions as myriad little silos, we can view them in a more honest, holistic manner, realizing that when we work to solve one problem, say gender inequality, we’re actually working on many problems.
Our Best Solution: Refrigerant Management
Yes, as promised, here is the single best way to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere according to Project Drawdown. Drawdown calculates that changing our refrigerant management would reduce 89.74 gigatonnes of COE, with the net cost considered too variable to be determined and net savings of -$903 billion. This solution is lonely among the 80 in that it doesn’t result in net positive savings. The cost notwithstanding, the merits of changing our refrigerant management are blindingly clear.
Many of you will be familiar with the ozone-layer crisis of the 1980s which led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol banning all ozone-depleting substances. The primary culprits in the depletion of the ozone? Two refrigerants, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). These were phased out but the refrigerants that took their place, mainly hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) have a capacity to warm the atmosphere that is 1,000 to 9,000 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. In recognition of this, another global pact was signed in Rwanda in 2016 to phase out HFCs starting with rich countries in 2019 and poor countries between 2024 and 2028. The Kigali agreement is mandatory, not voluntarily like the Paris Agreement, highly specific, and has punishments built-in for inaction. It is estimated that the Kigali Accord will reduce global warming by approximately 0.5 degrees celsius.
This is a soaring victory for the climate struggle, made all the more enjoyable because you probably didn’t know about it. Yet the phase-out of HFCs will take time. Meanwhile, air-conditing and refrigeration use are rising rapidly, primarily in developing countries, which is a good thing with bad consequences. This demands action. Refrigerants cause emissions throughout their lifecycles, but the intensity is the worst at the disposal stage. When disposed of improperly, refrigerants leak into the atmosphere fulfilling the massive warming potential described earlier. When disposal is handled properly, however, through careful removal, storage, and then purification for reuse or transformation into other chemicals, this warming potential can be sidestepped. Turning refrigerants into chemicals that don’t cause warming can “reduce emissions definitively”. It is expensive and technically difficult but if it can be made into a standard practice, we will all win. Simply avoiding refrigerant leakage and changing how we dispose of refrigerants at the end of their lives has the potential to reduce more gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent than any other solution found in Drawdown. It is that simple and that hard.
If your curiousity has barely been satiated, good. That’s exactly how I felt when reading through this book. Learning more about how to solve the climate crisis instead of just how bad it is should excite you. Hope is the antidote to apathy.
In the introduction of the book, Paul Hawken writes about changing our approach to climate change. He calls for a shift from a victim mindset toward one of ownership: “[i]f we change the preposition, and consider that global warming is happening for us- an atmospheric transformation that inspires us to change and reimagine everything we make and do- we begin to live in a different world. We take 100 per cent responsibility and stop blaming others. We see global warming not as an inevitability but as an invitation to build, innovate, and effect change, a pathway that awakens creativity, compassion, and genius. This is not a liberal agenda, nor is it a conservative one. This is the human agenda.”