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April 21, 2017

“Project Drawdown” and “Climate of Hope”: Moving the GHG Needle?

Mark Trexler

April 18th was a big day for climate change books. Paul Hawken’s long-awaited Project Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming came out, as did Michael Bloomberg’s and Carl Pope’s Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet. Both titles are provocative and optimistic, and both books are written by experienced teams. They are also about as different in approach and content as two books tackling climate change could be!

So what lessons should readers take away regarding a path forward on climate change? Interesting question.

Let’s start with Climate of Hope. It is a broad-ranging book that aims to lay out a game plan on climate change. It’s an engaging story. I’ll summarize the book’s ambitious claims this way:

  1. Almost every sector can make a significant climate change contribution and be better off in the short term for doing so.
  2. The best way to reach skeptics is for more people to tell climate success stories. Stories such as how taking action improves our lives in the here and now. How it makes us healthier. How it saves us money. How it helps connect those in poverty with job opportunities. How it helps us compete in the world. How it helps create jobs. We can win over the skeptics by demonstrating how fighting climate change is good for them, their families, and their communities.
  3. Devolving power to cities is the single best step that national governments can take to improve the world’s ability to fight climate change.

These are three important arguments. The first two points have been made many times, but I’ve never seen more than anecdotal evidence to support them. After reading Climate of Hope, I believe this remains true. The authors’ “city empowerment” argument as the most important solution to climate change is new to me, but it, too, is delivered only by anecdotes. That may be enough to serve as a hopeful message to those already committed to action on climate change, but it’s hard to see how it does more than that in showing a path forward.

What about Project Drawdown? This book has already drawn strong praise from observers, such as Joel Makower of Greenbiz, who states:

“The book, along with an accompanying website, may be the first to provide the insight and inspiration, backed by empirical research and data, that could enable companies, governments and citizens to attack the climate problem in a holistic and aggressive way. Moreover, many, if not most, of the solutions can be undertaken with little or no new laws or policy, and can be financed profitably by companies and capital markets.”

Project Drawdown looks at 100 ways to “draw down” atmospheric GHG levels, whether through emissions reductions or enhanced sequestration. The book specifically quantifies out to 2050 the GHG benefits of 76 of those interventions. The authors suggest that with those interventions we can begin to reverse global warming before 2050, even based on conservative economic and deployment assumptions. Paul Hawken noted in a recent talk that the Project Drawdown team didn’t “pick” these interventions based on their own assumptions and biases, but drew upon an existing “collective human wisdom” about what to do about global warming. He argued in the same talk that this collective wisdom is reflected in the fact that deployment of many of the technologies has already begun to rapidly scale.

Hawken also makes the case that until this book no one he talked to could list the most important options and actions for reversing global warming. Certainly, there’s no doubt that he and his team have put in an enormous amount of work to put together the Project Drawdown list. Much of the supporting documentation is not yet available on the Project Drawdown website, so it’s difficult to know what is yet to come. Yet based on the materials currently available, what have we learned about reversing global warming? That’s a complicated and nuanced question.

Readers might group them in different ways, but I would characterize 19 of Project Drawdown’s interventions as being in the electric sector, ranging from renewable energy technologies to energy storage and energy efficiency. The agriculture sector accounts for 17, another 10 are in the land use and forestry sectors, and 13 are in the transport sector. In most cases, efforts to deploy the listed interventions and technologies have been underway for years. I’m left somewhat perplexed about why we should expect these technologies to scale rapidly now, with few new laws or policies, or why companies and capital markets will suddenly find it profitable to do so (as Joel Makower suggests). It’s particularly notable, for example, that while pricing carbon is commonly characterized in the climate change literature as the single most important “need” when it comes to reversing global warming, Project Drawdown explicitly avoids assuming any global carbon price.

Is Project Drawdown really the first comprehensive plan for reversing global warming? Not really. There have been many studies that have laid out a plan or modeled a reversal of climate change in the 2050 timeframe or thereafter, from Paul Gilding’s “one degree war plan” in 2010, to WRI’s recently published Risky Business Project: From Risk to Return. It’s true that these reports don’t take the same “measure by measure” approach Project Drawdown does; but is Project Drawdown’s approach inherently more robust?

Not all of the “drawdown” estimates in Project Drawdown are new. As one example, in 1994 I estimated the drawdown potential to 2050 of several of the interventions in WRI’s Keeping It Green: Tropical Forestry Opportunities to Mitigate Climate Change. Estimates of the global mitigation potential of many of Project Drawdown’s other interventions have appeared in dozens of studies over the last 20 years. Project Drawdown may have significantly reworked the numbers, but we won’t know how or with what effect until the technical documentation becomes available.

Should the conclusions of Project Drawdown be treated as “the” truth when it comes to mapping out strategies to reverse climate change? What issues would be raised if we make that assumption? For example:

  • Can the energy sector justifiably now point to “reducing food waste” and “shifting to a plant-rich diet” as bigger global warming priorities than a low-carbon energy transition?
  • Is empowering women really the single biggest priority for reversing global warming? How would advocates of reversing global warming advance that empowerment?
  • The interventions listed in Project Drawdown reflect a huge range in terms of “drawdown potentials.” Intervention #1 (refrigerants) comes in at 90 billion tons (GTs) of drawdown potential by 2050, while the “smallest” intervention (micro wind) comes in at 0.2 GTs (1/450th of the potential of refrigerants). That suggests that Project Drawdown is putting forward a pretty complete list. But Project Drawdown doesn’t even mention several commonly discussed interventions with arguably large drawdown potentials, e.g., carbon capture and storage, space-based power, and ocean biomass restoration. Does that mean we should abandon these options in our efforts to reverse global warming?
  • What about the relative barriers that specific interventions face, the drivers that could move them forward, and the role and interests of key constituencies? By the way, you can see a first cut at organizing Project Drawdown’s interventions by likely barriers and drivers here in the Climate Web.
  • If many of these technologies are already scaling rapidly — as Project Drawdown suggests — what is the “business as usual case” against which Project Drawdown is being compared? Do the outcomes described in Project Drawdown depend on all kinds of unspecified policy and other interventions (even if we exclude a global price on carbon)? Presumably we’ll find out when the technical documentation becomes available.

Project Drawdown is an important contribution to our understanding of many of the “chess pieces” that populate the “let’s reverse global warming” planetary chessboard. I would suggest, however, that it’s a mistake to assume that Project Drawdown has divined all of the important pieces on the chessboard, or that the Project Drawdown authors have unique insight into the millions of chess moves that are yet to come.

Project Drawdown does present a “comprehensive plan for reversing global warming.” Let’s applaud Hawken and his team for that, but let’s not assume it is “the” comprehensive plan. If the climate change community starts arguing about the accuracy and robustness of Project Drawdown’s conclusions, including via the on-line model that will be available at the website by the end of this year, it could be a huge distraction from the real priority: figuring out how to move chess pieces forward on the “let’s reverse global warming chessboard.”

The fact is that we can’t know what will happen between now and 2050 across the hundreds of variables relevant to reversing global warming. The more options we pursue, the better our chances of achieving the goal. Yes, we should always prioritize different chess pieces on the board as individual circumstances and opportunities for movement warrant. But that’s a far cry from “picking the winning pieces” today and focusing only on them. Project Drawdown has created a good list of ways to reverse global warming; let’s not get sucked into a debate about whether it’s the “right” list, or details such as whether the assumed share of urban bike trips will be 7.5% or 9% in 2050.

Let’s focus instead on using the great work that has gone into Project Drawdown to accelerate the scaling of interventions with drawdown potential across the board. The goal of reversing global warming may look simple enough in Project Drawdown, but let’s remember that it’s a daunting challenge.


NOTE: The topics covered in Project Drawdown and its relationship to the larger low-carbon transition literature are very important. As soon as the rest of Project Drawdown’s technical documentation becomes available, we’ll finalize our “Climate Solutions 301 – Will Project Drawdown Move the Needle?” course to help you put all of the relevant information into context. You can sign up for it and our other courses at the Climate Web’s Courses Portal page.

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Mark Trexler

Mark has more than 30 years of regulatory and energy policy experience. He has advised clients around the world on climate change risk and risk management. He is widely published on business risk management topics surrounding climate change, including in the design and deployment of carbon markets. Mark has served as a lead author for the IPCC and holds advanced degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.

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