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Jen Boynton headshot

Paul Hawken's Big Plans to Draw Down Atmospheric Carbon

By Jen Boynton


"Drawdown," edited by Paul Hawken, is a collection of the most effective actions to remove global warming pollutants from the atmosphere.

Hawken and his team of advisors tapped research fellows from around the world. The book describes the top 80 solutions and 20 near-term options, as well as the environmental impacts of their adoption.

According to the book's description: "The list is comprised primarily of 'no regrets' solutions — actions that make sense to take regardless of their climate impact since they have intrinsic benefits to communities and economies. These initiatives improve lives, create jobs, restore the environment, enhance security, generate resilience, and advance human health."

These solutions are presented with the number of gigatons of carbon-equivalent they can "draw down" and the cost and prospective savings of implementation.

Since global warming suffers from a measurement communication problem, I found the use of this simple metric refreshing. It harkens to the concept of a "carbon budget," the amount of carbon that can safely be emitted without triggering the worst impacts of climate change. Experts estimate that the carbon equivalent we can safely emit is somewhere around 1,000 gigatons, and we've already burned through at least 515. That leaves at most 485 gigatons before the great unknown hits, and we're rapidly and quite literally burning through them.

According to the World Resources Institute, we'll exceed our 1,000-gigaton budget by 2045 if we continue with business as usual. That's the year my infant daughter will turn 28. We could just divide up the remaining budget, but that's a political non-starter because it quickly becomes apparent that there isn't nearly enough carbon pie to go around. In 2015, for example, worldwide CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, cement production and land use change totaled nearly 40 gigatons. And of course we need global actions to limit these numbers -- policy and business commitments take time (we don't have) to implement.

By organizing his book into solutions by gigaton, Hawken captured the most important projects we need to capitalize on in order to avoid those great unknowns. While the list is demonstrably actionable, it also shows in stark black and white the challenge we are up against. If every initiative is implemented fully as planned, Hawken's group estimates we can remove 1,051 gigatons of carbon equivalent from the atmosphere. They call that the "plausible scenario."

Hawken's solutions provide a fresh take for those who feel helpless in the face of all this bad news.

"We wanted to write something that was inclusive, that had narratives, that was engaging," Hawken told 3p. "The imagery [of climate change] also has become very, very stereotyped. Everything on climate is a hurricane, melting glacier or, you know, a skinny polar bear on an ice flow looking very frightened. I mean, that polar bear should get royalties."

The solutions highlighted in the book run the gamut from the familiar like electric vehicle adoption and solar panels to those that might be totally new like "silvopasture," the integration of trees and pasture or forage into livestock grazing territory. Foodies will recognize this technique for producing the famed Spanish ham, jamon iberico; and environmentalists will soon spout the carbon sequestration potential of the soil-tree hybrid approach to animal husbandry.

Despite the stark budget numbers, Hawken's team didn't start with a gigaton goal to "draw down" and work backward. Instead, they considered all possible carbon reduction strategies and analyzed them one-by-one, calculating adoption rates and potential savings.

"And then we hit the total button. We were just as surprised as anybody can be" by the solutions that rose to the top, Hawken told us. The top 10 solutions, in order of impact, are: refrigerant management, wind turbines (onshore), reduced food waste, plant-rich diets, tropical forest protection, educating girls, family planning, solar farms, silvopasture, and rooftop solar. You can see them all here.

"I mean, really the conventional wisdom is 'solar wind, solar, solar wind' and 'stop eating so much meat' and 'stop cutting the rain forests,' and we're good to go and we have a hall pass to the 22nd century. That's just not scientifically true. It's absolutely not true."

We need all these solutions, everything that's happening already and everything far-fetched, too. Here's the rest of our conversation, edited for clarity.
TriplePundit: One of these cases that has really surprised and excited people is the power of investing in women and girls as a means to draw down carbon. You found that when women are educated, they have fewer children on a very large scale. 

Paul Hawken: The impact of education between a girl who's taken out of the educational system (if she ever got in) at puberty and a girl who is supported to study beyond that is remarkable. And the rate of reproduction is different too, because the girl who goes to school longer becomes a woman more on her terms -- and not on the terms of religion or culture or father or family or societal pressures and mores or whatever.

She makes very different choices, and she has an average of two children. Since she's more educated, she can earn more money and put more resources into those children, and those children imitate their mom and dad. That is to say, they have smaller families and et cetera.

It's a compounding benefit. And the interesting thing about that is then we also looked at family planning, which is different than educating girls. But actually they both end up as family planning. It's just different pathways. There is no bright line between the two in terms of measuring the impact. But there is a measurement of the impact and that's the U.N. high-to-medium population numbers for 2050. A difference between 10.8 billion and 9.7 billion [people]. And that's what the carbon impact numbers are based on.

3p: Were there any solutions that you expected to make the cut that didn't or that you expected to have a much bigger impact than they did?

PH: There were a lot of things! Water conservation: In California, water is energy. I think that the number is 25 percent of all electrical energy is used to move water. You can just look at a quart of water and do the calculation, you know? So then it stands to reason that if you significantly reduce water consumption, you're reducing energy consumption. It just isn't true in most of the rest of the world, and so we were projecting out from our experience and assuming that those things would make the cut. They're so important. I'm not saying they're not. I'm just saying they didn't make the top list.

So, that was definitely one of them. I think biofuel was another one. The numbers don't report that one iota. And we were surprised. We thought, well ... We didn't think it would be high, but we think it would be a contribution. Zero. Neutral. Zero at best, by the way.

3p: Most of the businesses we work with, when they think about their own climate impact, they'll do some energy efficiency or water conservation, but at the end of the day they're probably going to buy carbon offsets to even things out.  After doing all of this work, where would you recommend companies spend their impact budgets?  Is the direct approach of offsets still the best, or do you think it's better spent on investing on some of these technologies and supporting the larger drawdown efforts in a more indirect way?

PH: Offsets are a result of the simplification of the problem. That's the idea of if we get the energy thing right, we get a hall pass to the 22nd century. Also, it's centralizable, measurable, and therefore it's more doable than other solutions, you know. Like packaging and how the employees get their work in the first place.

So, I just think it's everything, you know, corporate literacy comes in waves, then there's a change. Then also costs go down, which makes a big difference, you know, for procurement.

The advantage of the solutions we cover in Drawdown is that, economically, they are just accelerating. The cost of the problem used to be cheaper than the cost of the solution. Very much so.

I think we've crossed a watershed where that is no longer true in many cases and the "business case" for basically stealing the future and selling it in the present with GDP is evaporating. The business case, it's not even triple bottom line. It's bottom line case. For businesses, it's going to be to heal the future, not to steal it, and to restore, not to deteriorate, to generate, not to degenerate.


While the book is already published, the work is just beginning. The "Drawdown" team has plans to make all their data available to the public for further research and analysis. You can find out more here.

Image credits: Drawdown, TriplePundit

Jen Boynton headshot

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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