How the Climate Can Still Be Saved

Project Drawdown has the answers
6 Min.

Text: Markus Koch, 25.02.2021

Climate researchers worldwide are not only warning of the imminent climate disaster but also almost universally agree that it is still possible to avert it and to hit the vaunted target of keeping the average temperature increase below a figure of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. But how?

It is too late for any debate over whether the end of coal-fired power plants, upgraded energy supply infrastructure or organic farming will save us. Minor tweaks here and there are no longer enough to change course.

Yet if we all do everything we can, all over the world and acting in unison, we have a chance to reach a state of carbon neutrality; in other words, to ensure that in the future, all emissions either cease or are offset. There is even a possibility of achieving “drawdown.”

This is the name given to a point in the future at which greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere stop increasing and instead gradually begin to decline, resulting in constant negative emissions. Project Drawdown shows that and how we can reach this positive turning point by the middle of this century.

Initiated by environmentalist Paul Hawken, the non-profit organization began in 2014 with the aim of researching, evaluating and ultimately publishing all effective solutions for reversing global warming. Project Drawdown gained widespread attention three years later with the release of New York Times bestseller Drawdown – The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.

Reducing sources of emissions, supporting carbon sinks, improving society

The organization’s team of scientists has accumulated an impressive collection of what is now well over a hundred solutions implemented in practice somewhere in the world, each of them evaluated in painstaking detail and arranged in a ranking according to its potential contribution to climate goals. To achieve drawdown, we merely need to expand significantly on what is already in place, according to the organization’s findings.

Despite enormous initial costs of $22.5–28.4 billion, this approach is expected to pay off even in financial terms, according to Project Drawdown’s calculations. It forecasts savings of $95.1–145.5 billion over the period covered, along with further economies in the healthcare system due to lower air pollution and averted damage to the climate.

Adapting production processes, cutting consumption, improving systems

Solutions in three areas of action and nine sectors demonstrate just how many options are available for effecting change. First, with by far the most potential to reduce emissions, comes electricity.

Global demand for electricity is undoubtedly going to increase, partly because the move away from fossil fuels means much more electrification and partly because there are 840 million people who have so far been without access to electricity. The forecast outcome of this is up to 119 metric gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions that can be avoided with large-scale PV power plants, for example, which can generate 25 percent of the electricity that the world needs, or around 17,000 terawatts.

Other significant alternatives for energy generation in the drawdown scenario include wind turbine systems and local photovoltaics, with the latter offering the potential to prevent as many as 69 metric gigatons of CO2 emissions. Biogas, biomass, solar thermal energy, wave and tidal current turbines – there is a wide range of well-developed technologies available.

In second place on the list of solutions for reducing CO2 emissions is making more efficient use of electricity, particularly in construction and industry, which are the main consumers of electrical energy. The list of actions includes LEDs and smart building management, as well as established technologies with a wealth of potential to be taken further, such as green roofs, dynamic glass and the marvel of multiple achievements at once that is the passive house.

Finally, general system improvements, such as flexible supply networks and storage systems for balancing supply and demand are of fundamental importance for the switch to renewable energies.

Momentum driving start-ups and investors

Energy, industry, buildings, agriculture and food, natural and artificial carbon sinks – lurking in every sector are principles that, when implemented on a large scale, offer a wealth of economic potential.

These include traditional practices such as biomass carbonization and composting, emulating natural structures in various types of agroforestry, cultivating and using bamboo, and planting trees in exploited areas such as quarries and coal mines.

The cement industry is responsible for 5–6 percent of CO2 emissions. The standardized production of an equivalent construction material without the need for enormous amounts of energy is likely to be a goldmine. There is already research and experimentation taking place in a number of locations on raw materials that can burn at lower temperatures, additives from industrial waste such as slag and fly ash as well as “bacterial concrete.”

Enormous positive effects on climate change can be achieved with climate-neutral agriculture such as bamboo cultivation, as well as access to education for girls and women worldwide.

As quickly, safely and equitably as possible

Stopping climate change as quickly, safely and equitably as possible is the mission of Project Drawdown. Achieving this will require action not only from business but also from government, the public sector and each individual.

No matter what the intended climate target – 1.5 or 2 degrees – it is inevitable that health and education will always feature among the top five sectors in the Drawdown ranking. The Project therefore regards access to education as one of the five most significant elements of climate protection. That is all the more so given that the global carbon footprint of each country is inextricably linked to its population growth.

Project Drawdown believes that all countries have an obligation in terms of better education for women and girls, not just the less developed nations. If women worldwide – including in predominantly Catholic countries in Europe and the U.S.– were to gain better access to knowledge and contraception, this would do a great deal to safeguard fundamental rights and human dignity. However, according to the Project, cutting the overall birth rate would have some extremely positive secondary effects for the planet.

Another fascinating aspect is just what immense savings in CO2 emissions could be achieved as a sum of small-scale, local solutions. That includes forest tenure for indigenous peoples, more smallholder or ecological agriculture, creating wetlands, targeted pasture farming and astonishingly effective technology for sustainable rice cultivation.

In terms of reducing carbon footprints, local authorities are often already miles ahead of their national governments. Once they really get going – cycling infrastructure, pedestrian-friendly city centers, attractive public transit options, reasonable subsidy programs – the knock-on effects are tremendous.

Last but not least, and with apologies to barbecue aficionados, a largely plant-based diet comes very close to large-scale PV power plants in terms of its potential for effectiveness in a 1.5-degree scenario – specifically, it occupies fourth place in the rankings. The only other thing ahead of it is the 94 metric gigatons of energy wasted by discarded and thus unnecessarily produced food. Tackling both of these together has the added bonus of less belching cattle.

Partners for a rapid reversal

“These solutions are tools of possibility in the face of a seemingly impossible challenge. They must not remain the domain of specialists or select groups.” This assertion is made in the Drawdown Review, a recent publication on drawdown research and analysis.

While Project Drawdown as a source of information has very probably influenced a number of school curricula, climate strategies, corporate commitments, foundation objectives and local activities so far, Drawdown Labs, established in October 2020, is intended to play an active role in carrying these tools of possibility out into the world.

The founding members of the strategic network, including companies such as Google, IDEO, Lime and Trane, have undertaken to help reduce global CO2 emissions beyond merely concentrating on their own operational processes. The objective is to develop in-house solutions and tools for fighting climate change.

Copy, imitate, scale – preferably right now.

“Immense commitment, collaboration and ingenuity will be necessary to depart the perilous path we are on and realize the path that’s possible. But the mission is clear: Make possibility reality.”

Everyone who signs up to this mission is expecting Project Drawdown to provide a promising template for saving the climate.