Drawdown – a textbook for our movement

In an extraordinarily happy coincidence, just as the first signatures were gathering on our Declaration and as we were planning our launch, the ultimate textbook for our movement was published – and became a NY Times best seller in its first week. The second printing has now apparently sold out.

Some 200 scientists, researchers and advisory board members set out to find the 100 most effective solutions capable of arresting then reversing the build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere within 30 years. The result is Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken. Despite every one of the 100 solutions being backed by rigorous analysis and numbers to give its total reduction in gigatons of carbon dioxide along with its costs and financial savings, it is very readable, beautifully illustrated, and the 5,000 references are tucked away online.


A couple of quotes will show why it is the ultimate textbook for our movement:

“...we begin to live in a different world. We take 100% responsibility and stop blaming others. We see global warming not as an inevitability but as an invitation to build, innovate and effect change, a pathway that awakes creativity, compassion and genius.”

“However placing too high an emphasis on the individual can lead to people feeling so personally responsible that they become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand.” 

When individuals are “besieged with science that describes climate change in the language of threat and doom, fear arises and becomes intertwined with guilt, resulting in passivity, apathy, denial. ...What individuals can do is become a movement....a movement that is unstoppable and fearless. Movements are dreams with feet and hands, hearts and voices”. 

That is the movement we and others are trying to build with the Declaration and with your climate action plans.

While we still need to work to “stop the bad stuff”, this book focusses on building the good stuff together, and for each potential action gives us the global picture into which our local actions fit. While the tone is relentlessly positive, it is realistic in discussing the downside of a few of the solutions.

It points out that society has choices to make about nuclear power,  the 20th most powerful driver  of reduced emissions but expensive, slow to consent and build, centralised and potentially dangerous. 

Most of the 100 initiatives are “no regrets” policies – society would benefit even if climate change were not an issue – but nuclear, biofuels and waste incineration are potentially “regrets” policies. The authors do not tell us what to do, but are transparent about the choices.  Transparency is further enhanced by a list of assumptions at the  end.

Not all the obstacles to implementation are identified. Wind turbines, both onshore and offshore are by far the most powerful energy technology but difficulties in siting without community resistance will be considerable at this scale.


There are surprises, even for those who have been working in the field for some time. Contrary to what most would assume, the largest contribution to carbon dioxide drawdown over the next 30 years is not energy (246.14 Gt)  but food (321.93 Gt). And the biggest surprise for me was that if you combine education for girls with access to family planning services for those who want them, the resulting reduction in the birthrate becomes the highest ranking single initiative of the whole 100 (120 Gt).


(As a guide to scale, we need to reduce global emissions by many hundreds or a few thousands of Gt to stay within a moderately safe climate.) 

This is also the message from a Swedish comparison of 148 actions individuals can take to reduce their personal emissions (http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541/meta) Far outpacing all the others was for people in rich countries to have one fewer child. The next three, though some way behind, was living without a car; taking one fewer air trip per year; and a plant-rich diet. But collective actions are even more powerful.

Most of the solutions are technological rather than lifestyle changes. Mandating changes in technology gives greater certainty  of outcome than persuading people to change their way of life, yet we can hardly do without both. Cars, for example, come in at no 49 and the chapter mainly considers hybrid and electric technology rather than driving less. The assumption is that the current over 1 billion cars will become more than 2 billion by 2035 and while car pooling, public transport and bikes are considered, living car-free is not.

Air transport also makes a relatively modest contribution, at no 43, because only design changes and fuel substitution are considered and reducing discretionary flights is not.

On the other hand, the “Plant Rich diet” comes in at no 4, based on 50% of the world’s population eating less overall and reducing their meat consumption. This requires a much greater shift in lifestyle than a technological change in motorcars with no reduction in mobility.

Reducing food waste is even higher, at no 3 and most people will be horrified that in high income countries 35% of food is thrown out by households, in addition to that wasted by spoilage between harvesting and sale. This is an area that could be very productively targeted by community action plans – more on that later. Food and associated land use is sufficiently complex it deserves a blog to itself, which it will get, eventually. food-waste.png

What I particularly liked about the section on landuse, over and above the issues of food, is the integrated ecological perspective. Interconnections are featured at all levels, hugely increasing the benefits that can be obtained from each individual initiative. For example no reduction in gigatons of carbon are attributed to energy microgrids, energy storage and flexible grids; but they earn a place in the top 100 by enabling much greater use of the top ranking technologies wind and solar energy.

Absent from the book is war and militarisation – a huge consumer of oil. Hawken does mention it in the video (see below) but it is not clear why it is omitted. Possibly just too hard to calculate.

Not all of the 100 initiatives are applicable to New Zealand, or to local action plans. Teasing out those differences will be the subject of a future blog. There are so many riches in this book.

To hear it all presented in a lively way by Paul Hawken, listen to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zaTGMl11hs