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Climate Leadership Series: The Ideas Travelling Faster Than Climate Change

Saskia Feast | 12 August 2019 |

It’s one of the best-selling climate books in years and its mission was to change the conversation. Drawdown researched, analyzed and presented the most impactful 80 climate solutions available today. Now, Drawdown 2.0 is going digital, and is working with some of the most ambitious climate-leading organizations to implement its solutions. Natural Capital Partners’ Saskia Feast spoke to Jonathan Foley, Executive Director of Project Drawdown, about the urgent need to make these ideas a reality.

In this Climate Leadership Series, we ask experts and influencers in business climate action to share their insight into best practices, discuss current and future trends, and debate the most impactful solutions. You can read more about Jonathan Foley and Project Drawdown at the bottom of this article.

Saskia Feast (SF): Can you tell us a bit about Drawdown and why you think it’s important?

Jonathan Foley (JF): Drawdown is a time in the future when we stop the rise of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere and they begin to decline. Project Drawdown is dedicated to that mission – to help the world achieve carbon drawdown as quickly, safely and as equitably as possible. It was founded by Paul Hawken who led the work on the Drawdown book that was published in 2017.

SF: And what led you to get involved with Project Drawdown?

JF: I have a twin passion for good, rigorous science that matters, and making sure it is shared with the world, especially about things like climate change. As an advisor to the Drawdown book, I was impressed with the team’s multi-disciplinary research, comparing the full suite of possible climate solutions on a level playing field, which hadn’t been done before. More importantly, Drawdown didn’t bury this research in an academic journal or 5,000-page technical report, they shared it with the world by producing a beautiful and accessible book that you would happily put on your coffee table. It became the best-selling climate book in years and it’s still selling like crazy in multiple languages across the world. The idea was to inspire people and companies to solve the problem: here’s the first 100 climate solutions we can think of, 80 of which are available now, and we can get started today.

The book was the foundation of the Drawdown platform and it’s reaching tens of millions of people, largely thanks to digital assets - for example, Drawdown staff Katherine Wilkinson and Chad Frischmann’s TED talks have had over 3 million views.

After the publicity and book tour, the question was, what’s next? That’s when Paul Hawken recruited me to take it to the next level – even better and deeper research, with a much broader reach. We’re moving from describing Drawdown in a book to helping the world implement it.

SF: What would you like Drawdown to achieve under your watch?

JF: With Drawdown 2.0 we have three big goals. The first is to create an active go-to place for everyone to learn about climate solutions in real time. We’re moving from a book-based format to a digital place that discusses the very latest science, economics, policies and thinking on all the Drawdown solutions. It will be a science-based, non-partisan, non-commercial entity that’s not only trusted but is well-understood. We’d like it to be a valuable resource, so it will include not only the latest research but also a global directory of organizations that are implementing Drawdown solutions. We hope to be a teacher, guide and connector for projects, funding sources and local Drawdown initiatives from Morocco to Marin to Malaysia. As an example, we will deliver tools for them to talk to political and business leaders and build a compelling case for action.

The second goal is to move into implementing climate solutions on a large scale, working with for-profit and non-profit entities around the world. We’re a small NGO and want to stay that way, so we want to work with those who have the power to drastically accelerate the adoption of climate solutions, providing much more tailored on-the-ground technical advice. Initially, we’re working with cities, big companies that want to be leaders in climate solutions, investors, and philanthropic organizations around the world. There will probably be other groups down the road but those are the first four we’re focusing on.

The third goal is to help change the global conversation around climate change from being a problem, to a problem with solutions that we have today. Right now, most of the world believes that climate change is real, even in the U.S., more than 90% of Americans believe it, but 80% think there’s nothing we can do about it, and that’s not true. So, we need to work with thought-leaders, the media, iconic individuals - the people that people listen to - to change that dialogue.

We’re racing exponential changes in nature and the only thing that can beat exponential change is a factorial, which is the math behind social networks. So, in some ways, social change through new ideas can travel faster than climate change. That’s what I’m excited about.

SF: We work with companies to help them address their environmental footprint and contribute to sustainable development. What do you think companies can do today to contribute to the solutions outlined in Drawdown?

JF: I think any responsible company is currently doing one of two things. First, they’re thinking about climate change as a risk to reputation, to future liability and regulation, and they’re preparing for that by reporting their carbon footprint and managing it to slowly shift to a lower carbon footprint. Some companies are getting there faster than others, which is fantastic.

Second, there’s a handful of companies that see climate change as an opportunity and want to go far beyond their own footprint. They realize that their business has the potential to shape the behavior of other organizations and they’re using their power, reach, know-how, products and services to help the world change. This second group is the group we want to work with. I’m talking about companies that invent renewable energy and sustainable agriculture products, but also, we’re currently working with some large technology companies, who are looking at opportunities to use their tools, software and innovations to reduce global emissions. They’re developing new approaches to help companies manage their carbon footprints – approaches which can be multiplied hundreds of thousands of times.

When you start to have these multiplier effects, people learning from and helping each other, we start to move the needle. Imagine if every time someone comes up with a better idea for how to address climate change, they give it away or sell it as fast as possible and get others to do it too. That’s when the atmosphere starts to notice.

SF: We’re going to move into a more technical question now: It would be interesting to hear your reflections on removing carbon from the atmosphere vs. preventing emissions entering the atmosphere in the first place.

JF: We need both. Most of the Drawdown solutions are about reducing emissions. Of course, we should stop emissions at their source as much as we can and things like enhancing renewable energy and reducing food waste do that. But we can also enhance the way nature removes GHGs from the atmosphere.

More than 55% of the CO2 we emit each year is immediately absorbed into forests, soils and oceans. Without this, climate change would be twice as bad as it already is. That’s why most of the Drawdown solutions that remove carbon from the atmosphere are nature-based, because we know they work - nature’s a hell of a better engineer than we are.

We don’t have a position for or against engineered carbon-removal techniques, although I worry about geoengineering ideas like fertilizing the oceans with iron, because we don’t know what the consequences would be if we manipulate an ecosystem on that scale. For now, we should focus on dramatically reducing emissions across all sectors and removing emissions by conserving and restoring natural ecosystems like forests, mangroves, oyster beds - ecosystems that were there in the first place. We need to invest in these “no regrets” natural climate solutions.

SF: How should we prioritize Drawdown's solutions?

JF: There’s a logic to which solutions have priority, and at this point it’s about timescale and volume; i.e. which solutions can reduce emissions the most and the quickest. There are some solutions that are already well on their way, like electricity; others that require simple incentives to get going, like reducing deforestation and food waste; and others that will take much longer to reduce emissions because of legacy infrastructure, like steel, buildings and transport. It’s these last ones that keep me up at night.

Even if we green all electricity on the planet, it’s only 25% of our current emissions. If we had the will and capital, many emissions from agriculture and land use could be stopped immediately. I’m also excited about methane, because even though it doesn’t live in the atmosphere very long, it’s an extremely powerful GHG. If we can drastically cut methane now, that buys us a bit of time to deal with the inertia in the system.

When somebody buys a car today, that car will be on the road for 20 years. Even though we’re selling a lot of electric cars in the U.S., we’re selling even more SUVs. Same with buildings – we can build all the green buildings we want – LEED Platinum, LEED Gold or whatever, but for every one of those there are thousands of energy-inefficient buildings already standing. It usually takes about 20 years for large buildings to have a deep energy retrofit or remodeling, and these are timelines we can’t afford.

So, we need to implement all these solutions, but prioritize those that are most viable now, while we work on the more stubborn emissions.

SF: How do you see carbon finance fitting into this?

JF: I think offsetting is necessary, especially for the difficult-to-decarbonize sectors, but it’s important to reduce primary emissions everywhere we can. The atmosphere doesn’t care if we finance emission reductions somewhere else because we couldn’t do it in our own company, it just cares that the reduction happened. It’s important the offsets are audited, verified, transparent, ethical and without double counting. With that, anything that accelerates the net reduction of GHGs in the world, is good to me - we need all these solutions.

Markets – including carbon markets – can deliver change. Solar isn’t doing well because of a global climate conference, it’s doing well because market forces made it cheaper, by creating commercial opportunities in the U.S., China, Germany and around the world.

I like the fact that once companies start offsetting, they’ve put a price on carbon, which forces them to think more clearly about their primary emissions. Once you start measuring something, you start caring about it, especially if there’s a line in your budget for it.

The rigor companies use in managing money needs to be used in managing carbon. Most of the people I know who do footprinting work for companies have to invent their own software in Excel to deal with the data. Where’s the Chief Carbon Officer? Where are the Chartered Carbon Accountancy qualifications?

SF: Do you have a personal favorite Drawdown solution?

JF: I like the ones that surprise people and make them say “what? I didn’t know that was related to climate change”. Like, for example, refrigerants which Natural Capital Partners is working on, which became the number one Drawdown solution in the book. But I think my absolute favorites are the ones related to women and girls – education and family planning. That’s usually a big eye opener, because who would’ve thought that helping half the world live better, more empowered lives would help reduce emissions?

Imagine a green, gender-equal economy that produces renewable energy, produces less waste, with better agriculture that improves the landscape, increases forest cover and biodiversity around the world, and enables healthy oceans – sign me up! We’re excited about being an honest broker of climate solutions and ideas to make this world a reality.

Definition of “Drawdown”

Drawdown is the point in the future when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and then start to steadily decline. Drawdown is the critical turning point we must reach in our efforts to stop the climate crisis.

About Project Drawdown

Project Drawdown is a research organization that reviews, analyses, and identifies the most viable global climate solutions, and shares these findings with the world. It also partners with communities, policy-makers, non-profits, businesses, investors, and philanthropists to identify and deploy science-based, effective climate solutions - as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible.

And as a thought leader and communicator, Project Drawdown makes sense of where we are and what is possible for climate action. It is shifting the global conversation beyond fear and defeatism to possibility, opportunity, action, and empowerment.

About Dr. Jonathan Foley

Dr. Jonathan Foley is a world-renowned environmental scientist, sustainability expert, writer, and public speaker. He has published over 130 peer-reviewed scientific articles, including often-cited works in Science and Nature. A noted science communicator, his presentations have been featured at the World Bank, the National Geographic Society,, and more, while he has written popular pieces in National Geographic, the New York Times, the Guardian, Scientific American, and elsewhere. He has appeared on the BBC, CNN, and in the New York Times, and multiple documentary series. Foley has won numerous awards, including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, awarded by President Clinton.

In 2018, Foley became the Executive Director of Project Drawdown, the world leading non-profit dedicated to discovering and sharing science-based climate solutions. Before joining Project Drawdown, Foley led several environmental science and sustainability organizations, including the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) at the University of Wisconsin, the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota, and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

You can follow Foley as @GlobalEcoGuy on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

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