Changing the model for climate action
Some time ago I took to heart some words of Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Last week, as cities around the world recorded their hottest temperatures ever, those words took on renewed significance as I revisited Project Drawdown (www.drawdown.org), a website and book that document 100 optimally effective ”no regrets” actions we can take to roll back GHG emissions and reduce the impacts of climate change.
Drawdown pushes beyond energy issues, reminding us that the solutions to climate change touch every aspect of life, from agriculture to transportation, product design, manufacturing processes, education, family planning and economic opportunity. Some are global and some are unique to regional cultures and economies. Drawdown’s international roster of scientists analyzed strategies that are already underway around the world, collected exhaustive data on the effects of each and used that data to predict the benefits “at scale,” with real-world calculations of the costs and benefits. The result is a prioritized list of actions, a prescription for beneficial change, assembled as a practical, comprehensive approach.
There are many lessons and some surprises along the way. For example, the top ranked action is “refrigerant management,” critically important because of the global use of refrigeration and air conditioning. While ozone-layer killing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) were phased out in the 1990s following an agreement reached in Montreal, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are still in use and have 1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than CO2. In 2016, 170 countries signed the Kigali Accord, an addendum to the Montreal Protocol, agreeing to a plan to replace HFCs with natural refrigerants such as ammonia and propane by 2028, and to handle “end of life” recycling of HFCs to minimize leakage. Drawdown’s researchers estimate that simply containing 87% of refrigerants likely to be released could avoid the equivalent of 89.7 gigatons of CO2. By phasing out HFCs as outlined in the Kigali Accord, emissions equivalent to an additional 25 to 78 gigatons of CO2 could be avoided. This is rated as a high cost, high return investment, but it could result in significant global warming reduction—nearly 1° Fahrenheit by 2050.
Other top-10 actions include wind and solar power, reducing food waste, switching to a plant-rich diet, preserving tropical forests, and silvopasturing—combining livestock pasture with trees instead of grasslands to sequester carbon and produce additional farm products).
I was moved to discover that educating girls earned the number 6 spot for global climate benefit. Education leads to later marriages, smaller families and greater economic opportunities for women, including more productive farm plots that in turn empower women and their communities to be better stewards of land and water, more resilient to the effects of climate change. A $39 billion investment in universal education in low- and lower-income countries would yield extraordinary benefits, including as much as a 59.6 gigaton reduction in GHG by 2050.