Paul Hawken: Drawdown and Reversing Climate Change

August 11, 2017

On my reading list.

Top surprise. Solution is not a solar panel. It’s a woman.

Project Drawdown is the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. Our organization did not make or devise the plan—we found the plan because it already exists. We gathered a qualified and diverse group of researchers from around the world to identify, research, and model the 100 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change. What was uncovered is a path forward that can roll back global warming within thirty years. It shows that humanity has the means at hand. Nothing new needs to be invented. The solutions are in place and in action. Our work is to accelerate the knowledge and growth of what is possible. We chose the name Drawdown because if we do not name the goal, we are unlikely to achieve it.


10 Responses to “Paul Hawken: Drawdown and Reversing Climate Change”

  1. OK. It’s great that someone has set down to do a comprehensive analysis of potential actions and mitigations for preventing catastrophic climate change. However, unfortunately, this group does not appear to be making an accurate account of the potential strength of various solutions. This failure is, at this time, generating serious and harmful misconceptions.

    In short, I see a lot of double counting for land management, aforestation, and food based solutions. A lot undercounting and discounting renewable energy potentials.

    The project appears to both have outdated information and rather unambitious goals for solar energy:

    “Our analysis assumes rooftop solar PV can grow from .4 percent of electricity generation globally to 7 percent by 2050. That growth can avoid 24.6 gigatons of emissions. We assume an implementation cost of $1,883 per kilowatt, dropping to $627 per kilowatt by 2050. Over three decades, the technology could save $3.4 trillion in home energy costs.”

    The present electricity generation for solar is 1.5 percent globally at end 2016 and will probably hit close to 2 percent in 2017-2018. So from jump, the project’s data is misrepresentative. Solar is one of the fastest growing energy sources. Add wind and solar together and the two outpace all other sources for new additions.

    The project page breaks out rooftop solar and utility solar. Combined, the project estimates that 17 percent of global energy supply will come from solar. Their solution ranks for what should arguably be a unified count are #8 and #10. But the conservative tally and means of measurement make the statement ‘and it’s not a solar panel’ seem more than a little bit contrived.

    With solar projects now going for as little as 3.4 cents per kilowatt hour and compound growth averaging 10-15 percent per year, the notion that solar would only account for 17 percent of electricity generation by 2050 is more than a little conservative. Even with moderate policy support, and moderate accounting for the severe externalities produced by fossil fuel industries, solar should hit around 30 percent. More ambitious growth paths for solar could easily put it above 50 percent given the continued path of price reduction and carbon emission prevention potential.

    In addition, the project similarly contrives to break out wind turbine generation — stating that off-shore generation will total 4 percent electricity generation capacity and that onshore will generate nearly 22 percent of the world’s electricity. The total 26 percent global generation by 2050 for wind is more reasonable, but still conservative. The break-out tally for wind is the #2 solution (on-shore) and #18 (off-shore).

    Drawdown similarly breaks out car electrical vehicle transport and trucks — which should arguably be unified. The project notes a very unambitious goal of 16 percent EV penetration by 2050 which is in line with oil company wish-lists for this clean tech. This solution is listed as an unimpressive and similarly undercounted #26. Mid-range projections for EV penetration exceed 16 percent by the early 2030s and 60 percent by 2050. Is there a reason why draw-down does not account for more ambitious trends for EVs or even the potential CO2 reductions from an achievable 100 percent EV penetration by 2050?

    But if the EV numbers are bad, the energy storage numbers are even worse. Draw-down’s one very low EV penetration estimates of 16 percent imply 90 gigawatts of after market EV energy storage produced every year in the form of car batteries. If these batteries were simply repurposed as grid based storage after EVs have exceeded their lifetimes and were then mated to wind and solar, the need for idled coal and gas plants goes away. The carbon emission potential reduction from these mated technologies is more than enough to make wind+solar+EVs #1 in the drawdown list. Yet the assessment fails to recognize this essential synergy and instead drives the reader toward less effective options for preventing initial carbon emission in the first place. At this point the study leaps from undercounting into vastly irresponsible.

    On the flip side, the project appears to considerably over-count the ability of land management to draw down atmospheric carbon. The project assumes that adding tropical forest by itself would draw down nearly 2 billion tons of carbon per year. This is the most optimistic estimate I’ve seen for tropical forests. Rational estimates for total global aforestation (not just tropical) are in the range of 500 million to 1.5 billion tons of carbon per year once total carbon cycling is taken into account.

    From the drawdown page:

    “Sequestration rates are set at 4.1 tons of carbon per hectare per year, [5] based on meta-analysis of 7 data points from 6 sources. Note that data on soil carbon sequestration was unavailable.”

    We should be clear here that meta-analysis is not science. It’s equivalent to a back of the napkin projection based on past research. And this research appears to have been cherry-picked. Further, the drawdown secnario includes what appear to be an assumption of the most aggressive land management policies and an assumption of very optimistic carbon sequestration by forests. Counter-positing this with unoptimal and conservative assumptions of renewable energy adoption rates results in a false frame of reference.

    From silvopasture, to adding trees to farmland, to adding other forms of aforestation, the carbon sequestration overcounting and double counting appears to go on and on and on. For example, three forms of regenerative agriculture are listed — all with their own carbon drawndown estimates. But many of these forms of agriculture are similar and counting them 3 to 4 separate times greatly overstates their carbon sequestration potential. There’s a similar problem with tropical aforestation in that multiple forms are referenced which also appears to be double counting. For similar reasons, reduced food waste ranked at #3 and plant rich diets at #4 appears to be similarly greatly overstated.

    So these estimates appear to be more than a little off — overestimating the potential impact of aforestation, land management, and diet, and downplaying the potential impact of renewables. This is not to say that aforestation, land management, and diet are not important. That all these various notions promoted by drawdown should not be pursued. They should absolutely be pursed. But we should be clear that the carbon sequestration potential identified is highly likely to be seriously overstated and in error. That the project itself appears to implicitly defend fossil fuel burning and to falsely state that continued burning can simply be off-set by changes in the way we eat, plant and grow. And this is a dangerous fallacy. Halting fossil fuel burning in the first place is the crux of the matter. And if we do all these things without halting that rate of old carbon addition to the atmosphere, then we will be on a path toward a much, much more dangerous future. One where the forests planted will burn and release their carbon back to the air. One where all the plant eating in the world won’t stop the rising heat.

  2. In any case, I don’t see anyone out there demonizing carbon… It’s more that there is an entirely rational concern about what happens to the Earth System when you burn it.

    It’s more an issue that high levels of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere are toxic to life on Earth. This is something worth being worried about. Fearlessness, in this case, at the very least rises to the level of imprudence. Is Hawkins saying that we shouldn’t be worried about carbon in the atmosphere? If so, then that’s pretty far off the mark.

  3. Last critige and I’m done…

    And finally, ranking refrigerant management as #1 also appears to be using some very fuzzy accounting.

    IPCC notes that HFCs account for about 0.1 watt per meter squared of radiative forcing at the top of the atmosphere.

    CO2 accounts for x170 more radiative forcing.

    The treaty goal set to contain HFCs are certainly helpful. And Drawdown is right in that it accounts for maybe about 80 GT of CO2e to prevent additional HFCs from entering the Earth’s atmosphere. However, the rate of CO2e hitting the atmosphere every year, primarily from fossil fuel burning, is more than 40 gigatons of CO2e. In other words, it takes just two years to account for the total HFC drawdown.

    To move the ball considerably on global warming, you’ve got to halt that fossil fuel burning. And to do that, you’re looking at a swift transition to renewables.

    I’d rank this refrigerant switch rather lower in the overall scheme of things. It’s an important policy measure, but the net prevented carbon emission from a proper renewable energy build out is much, much greater.

    So the question I ask is why are we ignoring the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions here?

    • Typo corrections:

      Hawkins = Hawken
      CO2 RF = x17 not x170

    • So the question I ask is why are we ignoring the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions here?

      Good question. Except for certain energetic factors (see Solomon, et al ), the Game is ZEROING CO2 emissions. The focus upon short-lived or exotic GHGs is in the forlorn hope that there might be some magic mix which will get us a chunk of the way to our goal without doing the hard and expensive work of getting off CO2 sources. I consider biosequesteation plans motivated by the same kind of hope, but note these are speculative technologies which have but circumstantial evidence supporting their effectiveness. Again, the attraction is that if there IS a way of drawing down CO2 using Savory-like means, we don’t collectively need to sweat it that much.

      This is all broken, starry-eyed self-delusion. It is a byproduct of not wanting to be dislodged from a very comfortable, economically secure position. Recall, many passengers on TITANIC did not want to leave their rooms, believing matters were not as serious as neighbors said, because they felt secure there.

  4. I’m deep in the middle of reading and reviewing this text. Up front, a couple of troubling aspects: The subtitle speaks of ‘reversing global warming’. This is frankly not possible without deploying a means of reducing CO2 concentrations back to the 300-350 ppm level from wherever they are when “Drawdown” is completed? (600 ppm? 700 ppm? Higher?) Also there is no known means of extracting heat from oceans already committed to them which will, in centuries’ time, resultvin loss of significant pieces of the WAIS and of Greenland resulting in 10+ meter SLR. That’s “global warming”, too.

  5. indy222 Says:

    Excellent review. I too find the estimates for soil sequestration too optimistic. Given the projection of needing ~2 x India in area to plant enough trees to suck up carbon comparable to what we’ve put in. Asking all soils worldwide to reverse their climate-crippled trend and go opposite, sounds like a Herculean task. Not that we shouldn’t do it, but it looks far harder to convince all 3rd world farmers, let along 1st world farmers, to change their habits. For one thing, the very reason we have current Big Ag practices is to lower the cost of production as much as possible. Yes, it’s short-sighted and cripples soils and climate etc etc, but the point is, there’s going to be a big cost in food production for 8 billion people to go organic and no-till to save our soils and reduce NOx and help carbon uptake.

  6. Albert Bates Says:

    Paul Hawken has done a great service in getting this conversation started but it really is just a start. Unlike some of the other commenters I believe the potential for forest and soil sequestration is much greater than Drawdown gives. Agreed, vast land areas are required to be revegetated — by my estimate 3 Spains per year for at least the next quarter century — but the good news is that far more than that is available and will become available as ecosystems are regenerated, and the hundreds of millions, especially the despairing youth, that would need to plant and tend would be assured food and water security, gainful woodland enterprises, and many other benefits. It is net profitable, not dependent on grants or carbon taxes. Just by way of comparison, the bamboo industry presently employs 1.2 billion people.

    Where Drawdown strays is in conflating those things that get us to zero and those that take us beyond; emission reducing technologies vs. those that actually remove legacy emissions. The actual drawdown techs are a distinct minority in the book, poorly described and misunderstood. When one sees a high rank assigned to nuclear energy while biochar is stuck back at #72, one has to wonder if there is a thumb on the scale somewhere.

    All of which criticism could be negated if the project were to make its data open and allow outside reviewers to begin a virtuous cycle of improvement. Free Drawdown Data!

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