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What If We Told You To Be Optimistic About Solving Climate Change?

Project Drawdown is mapping a path to limiting our carbon with just the technologies we have available today.

What If We Told You To Be Optimistic About Solving Climate Change?
[Top Illustration: agsandrew via Shutterstock]

What does a solution to climate change look like?

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It’s not going to come solely from the climate talks happening in Paris now. If you add up all the pledges that countries brought to the negotiations (and if every country keeps those promises) the world is still likely to warm up between three and four degrees, a number that science says will be catastrophic.

Even if the negotiators manage to agree on a treaty with a more aggressive target, that doesn’t explain how it can happen, or whether it’s possible for it to happen before we pass a tipping point to disaster.

So a coalition of environmentalists is mapping out exactly how it could work. The good news: Though the research is still ongoing, they believe that it’s possible not only to limit warming but start to bring down carbon levels in the atmosphere, using nothing but technologies and strategies that are available now.

“It’s not a plan, and not a proposal,” says environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken, who co-founded Project Drawdown with entrepreneur Amanda Ravenhill. “It’s a reflection back to the world of what it knows to do and what it’s doing right now. Everything is already scaling. And the question is, if it scales in a rigorous way over 30 years, what would it be?”

Along with hundreds of scientists, technical and financial analysts, and other experts, Hawken and Ravenhill are painstakingly combing through 100 different approaches to climate change and calculating how they could impact the world by 2045.

The list includes living buildings, clean cookstoves, bike infrastructure, and airline fuel efficiency. Along with the obvious, like solar and wind power, it includes things like carbon grazing (managing cattle pastures to sequester carbon), and educating girls (which lowers emissions by reducing birth rates). All of the solutions are cheap enough to implement now, and technically ready.

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“I’m not so interested in nonexistent hydrogen infrastructure for fuel cells that haven’t been made,” says Hawken. “It’s so far in the future. This is pragmatic, feet on the ground, what can we do.”

In the end, the project will publish a book and website with detailed data on costs and impacts that readers can tweak if they don’t agree with the assumptions. And it will show a full picture of how all the solutions, taken together, could not just “stabilize” the climate but begin to pull CO2 levels down, what Hawken calls a “drawdown.”

Hawken had been thinking about the idea for years, but dug in after Bill McKibben wrote about the terrifying math of climate change in Rolling Stone. “After that came out, a lot of people that I knew also said, ‘it’s game over,'” Hawken says. “These are activists. I said well, I’m not sure that’s true at all.”

Though there are thousands of studies detailing the disastrous effects of climate change if it continues unchecked, there’s much less data about the cumulative effects of solutions.

“The pedagogy about climate change is pretty much about the science–which is impeccable, by the way, extraordinary science–but it’s really not about solutions,” Hawken says. “When it is, it’s really about solar, wind, don’t eat so much meat, and drive an electric car. And as important as those are, they’re just a part of the picture as to what we have to do.”

A study for the UN, the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, also tried to map out the effects of an ambitious transition to alternative technology, but had some differences. It argued, for example, that nuclear power would be necessary, along with some fossil fuels like natural gas. The Project Drawdown team believes–at least at this stage in their analysis–that nuclear power doesn’t make sense.

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“We don’t even include it because the cost is so expensive it’s not affordable,” Hawken says.”

The most effective solutions, he says, will be a surprise when the report comes out. “If you took the delegates and scientists and activists in Paris and said ‘Go make a list of the top 10 solutions, don’t worry about the others, just the top 10,’ I don’t think one single person would get it right,” he says. “I wouldn’t have either. We’re looking at the data and going who knew. We didn’t know. We’re just doing the math, and the math is agnostic.”

As they looked at various solutions–doing an incredibly detailed, country-by-country analysis of their effects–they’re taking a conservative approach. “If we get criticism, the one we want is it’s better than that, not worse. There’s no pie in the sky in our models whatsoever,” he says.

The website will launch in 2016 or early 2017. And Hawken believes that it will be good news. “Yes, we can do a drawdown in 30 years, realistically,” he says. “That’s what we believe now. It’s a belief, but we’re looking at the tentative data and it’s stunning.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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