A new report from nonprofit organisation Project Drawdown presents an up-to-date, realistic and comprehensive look at the climate solutions we have in our hands. It asks the question on all our minds: can we avoid widespread climate catastrophe? Short answer: a better path is still possible. But it’s one hell of a ride. Let’s unpack.
Project Drawdown’s work puts the warning from the 2018 UN IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C front and centre. If you didn’t know, the UN IPCC stands for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the 2018 Special Report is the definitive report specifically used to inform global policymakers. The brainchild of 91 highly credentialed volunteer scientists from 40 countries, the Special Report synthesised the latest climate research (we’re talking over 6,000 scientific studies) to confirm one thing.
We need to limit global warming to 1.5°C, not 2°C. Context: for years, we were concerned with keeping it below 2°C. We thought that it would be enough to avoid climate catastrophe. In 2015, the Paris agreement used this as a marker for setting targets. At the time, however, many countries (especially those most vulnerable to rising seas) were concerned that 2°C was too dangerous. So the IPCC was tasked to answer the question: should we be aiming for 1.5°C? The answer, obviously, was yes. As it turned out, “every fraction of a degree of warming has grave consequences.”
SO HOW DO WE GET THERE?
Or rather, not get there? (There, as in a world 1.5°C warmer.)
“Science has made clear the wholesale transformation needed to address the climate crisis”, Project Drawdown’s new report writes in its foreword. The IPCC calls for “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.” We’re looking at unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. Project Drawdown’s research centres around what that would look like. Is it even possible?
The short answer is written in the foreword of its new report. “At present, global efforts come nowhere near the scale, speed, or scope required. Yet many of the means to achieve the necessary transformation already exist. Almost daily, there is promising evolution and acceleration of climate solutions, alongside growing efforts to sunset fossil fuel infrastructure and prevent expansion of these antiquated and dangerous energy sources.”
So there’s your answer. But making the case for these big claims isn’t that simple, so let’s take a look at the report’s key insights.
1. We can get greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to stop climbing and start declining by mid-century if we manage to scale the solutions that we already have.
Apparently, last year, global energy-related carbon emissions flatlined for the first time in ten years. But that means emissions are still growing. And it doesn’t account for other sectors, nor does it account for other greenhouse gases. And just this week, with the launch of the UN’s assessment of the global climate in 2019, the UN secretary-general António Guterres said: “We are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5°C or 2°C targets that the Paris agreement calls for.”
So global emissions are still rising every year. But Project Drawdown’s research concludes that boldly and quickly adopting climate solutions can mean that we reach Drawdown (declining greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) before mid-century (as opposed to after). This would “roughly” align with keeping warming within 1.5°C at the end of the century. Even though it may seem unrealistic, the report highlights that “it’s important to note that what may be politically unrealistic at present is physically and economically realistic, according to our analysis. […] The question is how to bring physical, economic, and political possibility into alignment.”
Which brings us to the next insight…
2. The financial case for climate solutions is clear: savings significantly outweigh costs.
Research published in Nature in February this year confirmed that there are more benefits to keeping to the Paris Agreement (and its 2°C marker) than there are costs. Senior author of that study Anders Levermann said that “business-as-usual is clearly not a viable economic option anymore.” You’d think that this is sufficient proof, but in case you’re still wondering, Project Drawdown also did the math.
It analysed how much money climate solutions would “cost, or save, when compared with the status quo technology or practice it replaces”. It looked at the initial implementation of the solutions and the use or operation of the solutions over time. The conclusion?
“Net operational savings exceed net implementation costs four to five times over: an initial cost of $23.4–26.2 trillion versus $96.4–143.5 trillion saved. If we consider the monetary value of co-benefits (e.g., healthcare savings from reduced air pollution) and avoided climate damages (e.g., agricultural losses), the financial case becomes even stronger. So long as we ensure a just transition for those in sunsetting or transitioning industries, such as coal, it’s clear that there is no economic rationale for stalling on climate solutions—and every reason to forge boldly ahead.”
3. It not only makes economic sense to deal with the climate crisis, but climate solutions also lead us to a better, more equitable world.
The report rightly notes that “climate solutions are rarely just climate solutions”. As we will find out later, adopting climate solutions often bring about other benefits. They can advance social and economic equity. But as the report also notes, “with attention to who decides, who benefits, and how any drawbacks are mitigated. The how really matters, as the same practice or technology can have very different outcomes depending on implementation. It takes intention and care to move solutions forward in ways that heal rather than deepen systemic injustices.”
As we already know, the climate crisis currently already worsens inequalities of all kinds. Climate change disproportionately affects women, because it deepens existing inequalities—they’re more likely to live in poverty, have less access to basic human rights and face systematic violence that escalates during periods of instability. Climate change also has the biggest impact on the world’s poorest—in fact, last year, a study found that it’s already been happening. Warmer temperatures have even benefited wealthier nations in some cases. And we don’t talk about all inequalities equally. Last year, a letter published in Science magazine raised concerns about climate change and the disabled community. “There’s very little research on the topic,” said Aleksandra Kosanic, a geography researcher at the University of Konstanz who has cerebral palsy, and lead author of the letter.
In a world where the climate crisis is already exacerbating inherent inequalities, we can’t afford to have climate solutions that aren’t inclusive either. And on that note…
4. There’s no “silver bullet”. Climate solutions are interconnected as a system. We need all of them, and we need all of you.
This may sound like bad news to some who are looking for that one magical solution to fix everything. But there is hope in not having a “silver bullet”. The hope lies in the fact that everyone can do something, in whatever they’re good at. The key is to collaborate. “Many climate solutions combine and cooperate, leveraging or enabling others for the greatest impact. For example, efficient buildings make distributed, renewable electricity generation more viable. The food system requires interventions on both supply and demand sides—e.g., better farming practices and reduced meat consumption. For greatest benefit, electric vehicles need 100% clean power on which to run. We need many, interconnected solutions for a multi-faceted, systemic challenge.”
What this also means (and what the report highlights) is that “[f]ootholds of agency exist at every level, for all individuals and institutions to participate in advancing climate solutions.” Certainly, there are more powerful players than others. You, and I, for example, probably don’t count as much as corporations or governments. But if we play our cards right, and engage the right strategies, we can begin to create the “whole ecosystem of activities and actors to create the transformation that’s required.”
And what does that transformation look like? First…
5. No fossil fuels.
The journey to a better world doesn’t include fossil fuels. And that’s a fact. According to Project Drawdown, the use of fossil fuels for electricity, transport, and heat currently drives roughly two-thirds of heat-trapping emissions worldwide. (In fact, a Nature study published in February this year found that the oil and gas industry has had a far worse impact on the climate than we previously believed.)
That’s why of the 76 solutions included, around 30% of them reduce the use of fossil fuels by enhancing efficiency, and almost 30% replace them entirely. Aside from these solutions (including renewable energy, retrofitting buildings and public transport, etc.), it demands that we stop fossil fuel production, expansion and subsidies. By the way, data analysed in 2019 found that in 2018, there was actually an increase in fossil fuel subsidies… to over $400 billion.
But there’s also evidence of the world is turning against fossil fuels, with lawsuits from Honolulu to New York. Divestment campaigns are winning too. Goldman Sachs said that the movement “has been a key driver of the coal sector’s 60% de-rating over the past five years”, and in 2018, Shell said that divestment is a “material risk” to its business. All of this is because of campaign work by activists and journalists, who have propelled the #ExxonKnew movement. (Exxon knew about climate change almost 40 years ago—and coal knew too.) Things are changing, but of course, it isn’t just about fossil fuels.
6. If the bathtub is overflowing, you turn off the tap and open the drain. Which means we need to reduce emissions to zero and support nature’s carbon sinks.
Project Drawdown argues that we need to stem all sources and support all sinks. You probably know about reducing emissions, but what are sinks? Carbon sinks absorb and store carbon through biological and chemical processes, draining some of the excess carbon out of the atmosphere. Oceans and forests are examples of carbon sinks.
Recent research has shown that some forests are rapidly losing their ability to store carbon, and may eventually even become carbon sources. This highlights the importance of the need for both types of climate solutions—we need to nurture our carbon sinks and reduce emissions. Many corporations are using tree-planting (a form of carbon offsetting) as an excuse to continue business as usual, but clearly that’s not enough anymore. We also need to rapidly reduce emissions.
7. Some of the most powerful climate solutions receive comparably little attention.
To rapidly reduce emissions, we can’t just focus on reducing fossil fuel emissions. As we’ve already covered, fossil fuel emissions make up a huge slice of the pie, but not the whole pie. Among the top solutions assessed, they found that there are some solutions that can be effective but don’t get the spotlight. Among them: food waste reduction, plant-rich diets, preventing leaks and improving disposal of chemical refrigerants, restoration of temperate and tropical forests, access to high-quality, voluntary reproductive healthcare and high-quality, inclusive education.
“These results,” it writes, “are a reminder to look beyond the obvious, to a broader suite of solutions, and beyond technology, to natural and social systems.” And on that note, perhaps it’s useful to remind ourselves that too much of techno-optimism isn’t great. Especially when that means we’re picking technology as the easy-way-out-solution. Without doing much else. The report notes that solutions in the engineered sinks sector (think power plants or industrial processes to remove carbon from the atmosphere) are “coming attractions”. “[A]nd issues of cost, scale and the energy required all remain in the balance.” It’s true that with the rate at which we’re emitting greenhouse gases today, natural sinks can’t do it all, but as the saying goes—”all things in moderation”. Technology is no different.
8. To move solutions forward at the scale, speed, and scope required, we’re going to need accelerators.
So we have the climate solutions we need to solve the climate crisis. But how are we going to scale? This is where Project Drawdown has limited insights to offer for now, but here’s where they’re saying we could start.
- Shape culture: tell stories, support the arts, engage in community dialogue and visioning. This will help reshape culture and collective beliefs about how the world works or could work.
- Build power: build community, movements and diverse leadership to grow people power. This is a corrective to concentrated power and entrenched interests of industry or government that work against transformation.
- Set goals: demand that those in power set goals that govern direction towards the future we want. These can be specific and numeric, or systemic ambitions (e.g. “a climate-just future”). (And why not both?)
- Alter rules and policy: remember that policies like laws, regulations, taxes, tax breaks, subsidies and incentives can change the game, but these “hinge on who writes the rules”. We need to address both rules and policies to effectively advance solutions.
- Shift capital: public and private investment, philanthropic giving, and divestment are powerful ways of enhancing climate solutions. Money makes the world go round, in this system at least. (Nobody says we can’t challenge that system though.)
- Change behaviour: change norms, standards, and motivations that are the unwritten rules of behaviour in our societies. “Where changes in behavio[u]r aggregate, outcomes can shift significantly.”
- Improve technology: support innovation, research, and development, which “is especially critical for the most intractable sectors, such as heavy industry and aviation.” Education and knowledge-building are important, but “technology” and “knowledge” as we know it isn’t enough. We need to broaden our definition of what those terms mean, all while centring “the experiences, wisdom, and solutions of impacted communities.”
9. Here are the top ten solutions based on Project Drawdown’s ranking (if we want to keep warming below 1.5°C).
In order, from the most projected emissions impact to the least: Onshore Wind Turbines, Utility-Scale Solar Photovoltaics, Reduced Food Waste, Plant-Rich Diets, Health & Education, Tropical Forest Restoration, Improved Clean Cookstoves, Distributed Solar Photovoltaics, Refrigerant Management, and Alternative Refrigerants. Whether or not you agree with Project Drawdown’s ranking isn’t really the point. The point is that these climate solutions are financially viable. And they are already, scaling, in some places. There is hope. And this brings us to the final insight from the Project Drawdown report…
10. This is “an emotional paradox in some ways, perhaps prompting a simultaneous sense of hope for what’s possible and overwhelm about just how much needs to be done.”
“We are living,” it concludes, “in a time of dramatic transformation.”
“A transformation that moves us toward Drawdown is possible, as demonstrated here, but it will require much more than the right technologies and practices being available. Genuine evolution is in order—evolution in what we value, how we treat one another, who holds the reins of power, the ways institutions operate, and the very contours of our economies. This time of transformation also asks that we learn from cultures and communities that have sustained human-nature symbiosis for centuries, even millennia.
At times, this can all feel like a draconian assignment. But it’s also an invitation into deeply meaningful work. Our purpose as human beings in this moment is to create a livable future, together—to build a bridge from where we are today to the world we want for ourselves, for all of life, and for generations yet to come. With commitment, collaboration, and ingenuity, we can depart the perilous path we are on and come back into balance with the planet’s living systems. A better path is still possible. May we turn that possibility into reality.”
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
These are big questions. Big tasks. But there is comfort, I think, in knowing that there is so much we can do. And, lest we forget, so many opportunities to do over. We can construct a future that is more sustainable, collaborative, and inclusive than what we’ve had before. And yes, it sucks that we’ve inherited a world that’s been completely and utterly fucked over by corporations and governments and people who didn’t do better. But we have a chance now to change everything.
“We inherit history,” Alex Shotwell, author of “Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times” says. “[W]e’re historical beings and the world is a product of history, so everything that’s happened in the world has this material manifestation now—in the distribution of who owns houses, in the distribution of which places are sickening for beings to live in. We receive all of that. And yes, one impulse to say, “I am not responsible for that. I didn’t do that.” [But] taking responsibility for history doesn’t mean going back to change what happened, it means acknowledging this history, how do we move forward?”
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Shotwell suggests that the ethical obligation is not for us to solve the climate crisis all by ourselves. We need to think about what we can work on, what’s within our reach, and what we’re connected to.
This is an invitation to think radically about individual action in these trying times. It’s not just about what we can do by ourselves, it’s what we can do within these networks of humans that each of us is embedded in. And, as Project Drawdown repeats again and again: a better world is possible. It’s not too late. And so we need to have hope while doing all of that while embarking on this journey towards a complete overhaul of the system we’re in. As Mariame Kaba, an American activist and organiser once said: hope is a discipline; it must be practised. We need to keep reminding ourselves that we can change the world, and we must.
Read the full Project Drawdown report and about the project on its website.