Project Drawdown: What can individuals and small groups do?

Being a Green Sanctuary is an ongoing activity. UUNB continues to host groups that examine and reflect upon our impact on the Earth and take action in response to environmental challenges both large and small. Dr. Dianne Rahm recently led a 6-session discussion group featuring Project Drawdown. You can read her summary below.


Project Drawdown was organized by Paul Hawken in 2013 to “identify, measure, and model one hundred substantive solutions to determine how much we could accomplish within three decades” to peak and then begin to drawdown greenhouse gases (GHGs). A coalition of researchers, students, and scientists were invited to become research fellows for the project. At the time of the book’s publication in 2017, the fellows numbered 70 and they came from 22 countries. Half had Ph.D.’s and all had at least one advanced degree.  All have extensive academic and professional experience and come from many of the world’s most respected institutions. The team put together a list of climate solutions that had the greatest potential to reduce emissions or sequester carbon. They compiled literature reviews and detailed climate and financial models for each solution. The findings were then reviewed by outside experts (Drawdown, x). Solutions were ranked by the total impact they would have for carbon dioxide (CO2) gigaton reduction if implemented over a 30-year period using a reasonable forecast for their global adoption. The top 15 are:  refrigeration, onshore wind turbines, reducing food waste, plant-rich diet, tropical forests, educating girls, family planning, solar farms, silvopasture, rooftop solar, regenerative agriculture, temperate forests, peatlands, tropical stable trees, and afforestation (Drawdown, 220-221).

Many of the solutions presented in the book require implementation by governments or large organizations, but some of the solutions presented can be assisted or fully implemented by individuals and small groups.  Those, and some discussion of the top 15, are highlighted below. 

Energy

The world’s reliance on fossil fuels is a major contributor to GHG emissions.  Technologies that can shift that reliance to clean renewables are now on the rise, especially since solar and wind energy are now competitive with coal, gas, and petroleum (Drawdown, 1).  Wind turbines, when located onshore are ranked as the #2 solution by Drawdown. Utility-scale solar farms rank #8 and rooftop solar ranks #10 (Drawdown, 221).

Individuals and small groups can have an impact first and foremost by saving energy.  The less we use, fewer GHG emissions are produced. Where individuals have a choice as to the source of their energy, individuals can opt to select wind or solar production, or other sources of renewable energy.  If income allows, individuals and small organizations can put rooftop solar on their buildings.  

Food

What we eat has a major impact on climate change.  Our system of food production is complex and multifaceted.  Fossil fuels powers farm equipment, fishing vessels, transportation, refrigeration, and supermarkets.  We use petroleum-based synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals on crops that make their way into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide – a powerful GHG. Livestock emissions include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane which account for almost 20% of GHGs annually – a source second only to fossil fuels. If you add livestock to all other food related emissions (like farming, deforestation, and food waste), what we consume becomes the most important cause of global warming (Drawdown, 37). Reducing food waste and eating a plant-rich diet rank #3 and #4 respectively as solutions to reducing emissions.

Individuals and small groups can have a major impact by eating a plant-rich diet. The University of Oxford modeled the climate, health, and economic benefit of a worldwide transition to a plant-based diet between 2016 and 2050 and found that emissions could be reduced by as much as 70% for a vegan diet and 63% for a vegetarian diet (that included dairy and eggs). And there would be health benefits as well.   For those that feel they cannot eliminate meat, consider using meat as a delicacy rather than a staple, or try Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods (Drawdown, 39). 

Individuals and small groups can also have a major impact on food waste.  A full 1/3 of food raised does not make it to the fork! This is a very alarming number in a world where hunger still plagues 800 million people. That wasted food contributes 8% to our GHG emissions each year (Drawdown, 42).

Silvopasture, or the integration of trees and pasture or forage into a single system for raising livestock, could help as could regenerative agriculture, which seeks to preserve the soil through multiple crop rotations, no tillage, the planting of diverse cover crops, and organic farming.  These practices rank #9 and #11. While many of us cannot have much impact on implementing these, unless we are farmers, we can still do as Michael Pollan advises and plant a garden and compost (Drawdown, 50-55). When affordable, we can buy organic produce. We can encourage the preservation of tropical staple trees, solution #14, like bananas, avocados, breadfruit, and coconuts (Drawdown, 66).

Women and Girls

Fifty-one percent of the population is female and global warming is not gender neutral. Because of existing inequalities, women and girls are more vulnerable to its impacts. That said, addressing the inequalities that women and girls face could go a long way toward providing a solution (Drawdown, 77). Educating girls and family planning rank #6 and #7 in the list of solutions.  Educating girls is very important because women with more education have fewer and healthier children (Drawdown, 81) which tightly links with the goal of reducing population, or at least population growth rates. If family planning efforts are not successful, UN projections of world population of 9.7 billion by 2050 might be a low estimate and the reality might turn out to be closer to a world with over 10.7 billion people (Drawdown, 79).

Individuals and small groups may not be able to do much to affect these phenomena directly, however, we can financially support programs that focus on family planning and educating girls.  

Buildings and Cities

Worldwide, buildings account for 32% of energy use and 19% of energy related GHG emissions (Drawdown, 103).  Many approaches are being pursued to make buildings and cities part of the solution to global warming including erecting buildings that produce as much energy as they consume (net zero buildings), making cities walkable or bikeable, installing green or living roofs, replacing outdated light fixtures with LED lights, using energy efficient heat pumps, building with smart glass and smart thermostats, using district heating, improving buildings’ insulation, and retrofitting older structures to be more energy efficient.

While many of these approaches might be beyond the grasp of individuals or small groups, some are reasonably easy to undertake.  Homeowners can be sure to check their insulation to assure that it has adequate R values. Homeowners can check that the fans on their AC units are correctly adjusted as fan speeds are often incorrectly set (Drawdown, 95). Many local utilities offer free home energy audits to assist homeowners with these tasks. Homeowners, and to a certain extent, renters can swap out their old incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs and replace them with LEDs. LEDs use 90% less energy than an incandescent bulb and 50% less than a compact fluorescent bulb (Drawdown, 92-93). 

Land Use

While many land use issues are associated with food production, several other important land use concerns are independent of the food system.  Forest protection is one. Deforestation reduces the number of trees and there is loss of carbon from the soil as well. This is especially the case when fire is used to clear the land for planting and when the land is peatland.  Stopping deforestation and restoring forests could offset one-third of carbon emissions worldwide (Drawdown, 110-111). Tropical forests are particularly important. These forests used to be 12% of the Earth’s land mass but now account for just 5%. Restoration of tropical forests ranks #5 as a solution to global warming (Drawdown, 114-115). About 25% of all forests are the temperate forests of the Northern Hemisphere.  Protecting and restoring these forests ranks as global warming solution #12 (Drawdown, 128-129). 

Protecting peatlands is critical and ranks as global warming solution #13. Peatlands, or bogs or mires, are comprised of thick, mucky, waterlogged ground made up of dead and decomposing plants.  Under pressure and heat over time peatlands become coal. They cover only 3% of the Earth’s land area but are second only to the oceans in the amount of carbon they hold – twice that of forests. Because they hold so much carbon, they can become powerful GHG emitters if they degrade.  This can happen with fire, especially when lands are cleared for the planting of palm oil plantations, or when drained for timber production (Drawdown, 122-123).

Afforestation, or creating new forests, is yet another land use change to fight global warming.  Afforestation ranks #15 in the list of solutions. New forests can emerge by planting native trees, as recommended by Japanese botanist, Akira Miyawaki. He calls for dozens of native species to be planted close together often on degraded land.  As they grow, natural selection occurs, resulting in a resilient forest (Drawdown, 132-133). Afforestation can also occur through tree farms or simply by local efforts to plant trees. 

Individuals can be part of this effort in two simple ways.  Plant trees. Don’t buy products with palm oil.

Transport

Improving the efficiency of planes, trains, ships, trucks, and cars that rely on fuels distilled from crude oil is key to drawing down carbon. The transport sector also must innovate by finding new and better modes of mass transit for our increasingly crowded cities (Drawdown, 136-137) but also by inventing and scaling the use of electric vehicles (EVs). EVs are four times more efficient than gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles (Drawdown, 135). Bikes allow transport with no emissions.

Individuals, if they can afford to, can invest in transport technologies that are more efficient.  If EVs are out of the reach, perhaps hybrids or plug-in-hybrids are a viable solution. Groups can also arrange carpools where appropriate. Easy to use apps like https://www.groupcarpool.com can help.

Materials

The way we manage materials holds a particularly important place in reversing global warming.  We are a long way from a circular economy, in which products are designed to be fully recyclable at the end of their useful life, but producers are paying more attention to reducing material use, removing some undesirable materials from production and use, and recycling materials that can be returned to fruitful use (Drawdown, 157).  Households and industry have, since the 1970s, been aware that recycling saves energy and minimizes pollution. The recycling of paper, for example, has many benefits: forests are not cut down, water use is reduced by one-fourth, bleach and other chemical use is minimized, and fewer GHGs are emitted as less energy is used to make the paper than would be the case with virgin materials. Recycled paper generates 1% of the climate impacts of virgin paper (Drawdown, 167). 

One material stands out as critical for successful drawdown of GHG emissions:  refrigerants. Modern refrigerants were developed in the 1920s. The first of these were chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).  CFCs were later discovered to be the cause of the destruction of the protective ozone layer and so international talks, that culminated in the Montreal Protocol, began to phase out the production and use of CFCs. Alternative refrigerants were developed in the 1980s, including hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HCFCs were later determined to be bad for the ozone layer and were scheduled for phaseout under the Montreal Protocol.  HFCs, while better for the ozone layer, were later determined to be extremely potent GHGs. For instance, HFCs can be 1,000 to 9,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide depending on what chemical formulation is used (Drawdown, 164). HFCs were added to the Montreal Protocol’s list of chemicals to the phased out in 2016, however, that phaseout will take many years. While these refrigerants pose some risk at all stages of their life cycles, the greatest risk of leakage is after the end of their useful lives.  Nearly 90% of leakage of refrigerants happens after disposal because they are not properly disposed. They corrode and leak their harmful chemicals into the atmosphere causing significant global warming (Drawdown, 165). 

Individuals and small groups can fight global warming in several important ways.  First and foremost, they should ensure that they dispose of products containing refrigerants conscientiously.  Responsible disposal means using a service provider who complies with legal provisions that dictate handling practices so that hazardous materials do not negatively impact the environment. Individuals and small groups can also be on the alert for incidents of incorrect disposal and should contact the appropriate environmental authorities. 

Individuals and small groups can also recycle.  Most communities have recycling facilities available.  If income allows, we can try to buy products that contain recycled materials. Individuals and small groups can buy in bulk and manually refill existing containers rather than sending them to a landfill or to recycling.

Individuals and small groups can also reduce their water use by better replacing old toilets and washing machines with newer low-flow plumbing appliances (toilets, shower heads, and faucets) and purchasing water-efficient washing machines.  

I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything, 
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

Edward Everett Hale

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