Ten years ago Sir Richard Branson launched an exciting challenge. He offered $25 million to anyone who could come up with a sustainable, scalable way to remove greenhouse gases from the air, giving us a solution to human-caused global warming. He confesses now that he thought such a disruptive innovation would materialize, and that powerful people like himself would implement a top-down solution in one fell swoop.
No such scenario materialized, not even with the magic wand of the massive reward.
But all is not lost. Branson now believes in a sort of democratization of the problem, and its solutions. Everyone can participate in saving humanity; it won't be a task for just a few superheroes.
That was the same spirit that inspired Paul Hawken and a network of researchers to come up with "Drawdown"?:? a book, a website, and an interactive project without an expiration date.
Drawdown focuses on small, practical steps, not apocalyptic scenarios and impossible solutions. Hawken's researchers collected data, information and practical knowledge, creating what is something of an encyclopedia of solutions for climate change. The book begins with an overview of the renewable energy technologies we have now, and then moves on to discuss food, women and girls, buildings and cities, land use, transport, and materials. The last section of the book "Coming Attractions," looks at solutions that we are close to getting a handle on that are likely to be useful ones for the near future. Not pipe dreams, in other words.
Drawdown makes sure to empower ordinary human beings with actions each of us can contribute, even if we aren't specialized in offshore wind farms or solar storage technology.
Being able to roll up our own sleeves and help out certainly creates a narrative of optimism, where climate change isn't such a big problem that we just want to run and hide from it, burying our heads in the sand (as the sea level rises).
As I meander through the pages of Drawdown - which is nicely illustrated and makes a great coffee table book and conversation piece - I am struck by how interconnected everything is. As Branson discovered, we can't just build a great big contraption (or app) to remove carbon from the atmosphere. We are living in an enormous fabric of life, where anti-poverty measures may create new pressures caused by excess consumption; where methane emissions increase if we eat more beef or throw food waste in a landfill; where drought leads to forest fires and more carbon; where marginalizing women makes communities less resilient.
We need to be smart and think broadly.
Professor Andrew Hoffman of the University of Michigan says we are moving into a "fourth wave" in terms of the evolution of the environmental sustainability movement. The first wave, in the 1970s, began with regulatory compliance, following the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. The second wave happened when companies began seeing business opportunities in being environmentally conscious. The third wave, of structured corporate sustainability, occurred in this century as companies aligned sustainability practices and reporting and introduced sustainability officers. All these have been waves, with some positive uptake and some backlash.
Today we find ourselves in Hoffman's fourth wave, where we have to think in terms of overall systems and find integrated solutions that don't create unwanted repercussions. We have to think globally and innovate. We need to think in new ways, such as bringing in economies that are circular instead of linear. We need to think about community, about the common interests of many individuals cohabiting a single planet.
As usual there is plenty of backlash, with environmental deregulation and attempts to save jobs in energy sectors that may be superseded, to protect old habits and infrastructures from change.
But there is also an increase in awareness and participation. We are all learning about climate change, we are beginning to notice as some connect the dots and begin to explain complicated science in plain language, we know there are problems and solutions.
Drawdown will make a great contribution to this process, hopefully, by making it easier to step up and be part of the solution.
So what can we do, all by ourselves? What can our small contribution be?
Here are 5 actions to get started:
1. Consider installing solar panels. Small-scale solar panels generate electricity more cheaply than buying from the grid in certain parts of the United States. Drawdown estimates that over the next three decades, solar energy could save some $3.4 trillion beyond dramatically reducing GHG emissions.
2. Change your lightbulbs to LED. LEDs use 90% less energy than incandescent bulbs, and half as much as compact fluorescent. Moreover, LEDs can last up to 27 years when used 5 hours a day, which entails savings of 10 to 30%.
3. Reduce food waste. A third of the products grown to feed people is never eaten. That specific amount of wasted food represents 8% of total GHG emissions. Drawdown ranks food waste reduction as the third-most impactful way of reducing GHG emissions.
4. Try to transition to a plant-rich diet. Comprehensive studies that account for both direct and indirect emissions estimate that over 50% of global GHG emissions come from raising livestock. A global shift towards diets that are heavily based on plants is the fourth-most effective manner of reducing GHG emissions, according to Drawdown.
5. Properly dispose of air conditioners and refrigerators. Surprisingly, this is the area in which the greatest impact can be made in reducing GHG emissions. Refrigerants (i.e. the chemicals used in refrigeration) have a capacity to warm the atmosphere that is 1,000 to 9,000 time greater than carbon dioxide. Although the process to remove and store refrigerants can be costly, it is the most critical area of action identified in Drawdown.
Finally, a blueprint for practical steps we can actually take.