Review Essay: Drawdown

By Derek Paul | 2018-10-01 12:00:00

The important and remarkable project, Drawdown, has published a book by the same name, giving the world a first look at its findings.

The Drawdown project is devoted to finding solutions to the human dilemma of climate change, which poses a huge threat to life on earth. The principal threat is the death of the ocean, since excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere diffuses into the ocean, making it less alkaline, a process that has been taking place significantly these last decades, given that the atmosphere’s CO~2~ content is nearly fifty percent higher than it was at the start of the industrial revolution. At some point in this acidification process the ocean will die, and mammalian life as well as much other life on land will follow suit.

Drawdown: the book

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming ranks 80 projects or processes which can reduce emissions or sequester CO~2~, according to how much can be kept in soil or in the earth’s crust, rather than being released into or left in the atmosphere.

A table at the back of the book lists Drawdown’s 15 most favoured projects, which can account for nearly two-thirds of their projected CO~2~ reductions; and it also states the total for all 80 assessed reductions. The first column of their table gives Draw-down’s most conservative projections, their “Plausible Scenario”, while the second column, “Drawdown Scenario”, tables their estimates of what might more realistically be achieved. The total reductions in the Drawdown Scenario amount to 1440 gigatonnes of CO~2~ between 2017 and 2050. When compared to total global emissions of CO~2~ in 2016, which were about 39 gigatonnes, the 1440 gigatonne reduction over 33 years would appear as a huge success, and indeed Drawdown should be congratulated on proposing a solution without taking draconian measures.

Drawdown’s text includes seven sections containing sequestration data (or reductions of greenhouse gas emissions). Some of the project’s best material is in the section on food, together with parts of the land use section. Here the reader learns the scientific basis of the forward-looking schemes proposed.

Moreover, the authors show the way to the new frame of mind which is essential to address climate change (and is equally essential to setting up an ecological economy). For example, Gabe Brown, a rancher, is quoted as saying, “When I was farming conventionally, I’d wake up and decide what I was going to kill today. Now I wake up and decide what I am going to help live.”

Another good section in Drawdown is its first, Energy. Its main weaknesses are the failure to mention the large land areas required for solar farms, and its low emphasis on solar concentration. Solar farms in temperate climates often take up large areas of land that could be used for agriculture, and might well be needed for agriculture at a future date. Drawdown would do well to make some assessment of the loss where large photovoltaic projects have been constructed.

Such criticisms are presented here with the intent of being helpful, as a second edition of Drawdown is surely to be welcomed. With photovoltaics there is enormous potential for additional solar electricity in northern latitudes, using south-facing walls of buildings. By contrast, solar concentration is best suited to warm climates and can be set up in deserts, avoiding the reduction of farmland.

The problem with solar concentration has long been the technical choice of the tower method, which requires many adjustable mirrors to focus the sun’s energy onto a fixed, above-ground target. Not long ago, solar concentration was four times as costly as photovoltaic conversion per kilowatt-hour generated, and this is largely because of the choice of the tower method. J M J Varga, former president of Crosrol Ltd, has costed a solar concentration method based upon rotated Fresnel lenses, and finds the cost can be brought down to that of photovoltaics. The importance of solar concentration is its applicability to very populous parts of the world within about 30 degrees of the equator. This is something that Drawdown should investigate very thoroughly.

Drawdown’s section on transport fails to recognize that the replacement of fossil-fuel energy for ground transport is in part a political question. The huge necessity of eliminating CO~2~ emissions from ground transport could be achieved in 22 years because the technology exists, so the question is one of policy making. If anything at all close to a laissez-faire path is followed, the climate-change tipping point will be passed and it will be too late to “save the world.” Some additional comments on the transport section are provided at the end of this review.

There is another aspect of burning fossil fuels that is rarely mentioned. These fossil ores are most important raw materials for the human race in the long term. Consider clothing. About the time the human population approached two billion, synthetic fibres made from oil began to be manufactured and today are the mainstay of clothes manufacture. It makes no sense to burn such important resources as oil and coal, since we may need them for our clothing instead.

In Drawdown’s section on Materials, the important chapter on refrigeration management needs teeth, again something that will be most welcome in a next edition.

There are inevfitably some omissions from Drawdown’s nice presentation, though my overall impression is very positive. First, nowhere does the book mention emissions from positive feedbacks arising from the human-induced warming that has already taken place. “Positive feedbacks” are effects that reinforce the original effect, while “negative feedbacks” are effects that tend to counateract the original effect. In this case a positive effect of global warming would be one that would amplify (exacerbate) global warming.

There are several known sources of positive feedbacks, among them release of methane from thawed tundra, and several groups of modelers have tried to estimate the total effect of all such feedbacks. The estimate showing the largest total of feedback effects comes from a publication by David Wasdell, and I chose his data when writing A Leap to an Ecological Economy, so as not to underestimate the feedbacks. In Wasdell’s scheme, the direct heating of the climate through human-induced CO~2~ emissions amounts to only 15 percent of the total, with 85 percent coming (long afterwards, of course) from the feedbacks. While the 85 percent could turn out to be an overestimate, it is unwise to underestimate feedback effects, especially now that they have started and are accelerating.

The next omission from Drawdown is a full discussion of the further destruction of the tropical rainforests. Not mentioned are any projections for the lifetimes of these forests. The total amounts of sequestration to 2050 by these forests amount to a staggering 3000 gigatonnes, more than twice what Drawdown’s current projects hope to sequester. Therefore, a statement is required on the vital importance of preserving those forests, with new proposals, if possible, for halting any further decline.

This big question has been a matter for diplomatic action and persuasion for some decades and, while forest destruction has been slowed down here and there, it continues, for example in the Amazon, though at a slower pace. Brazil has received considerable assistance to halt or reduce the Amazonian forest destruction, but even generous subsidies (most recently from Norway) have not yet entirely stemmed the tide.

In a second edition of Drawdown, which I would hope to read before long, the above two matters would need thorough discussion and, it is to be hoped, new proposals for stopping the damage.

Apart from those few lapses, and editorial shortcomings to be ignored here, Drawdown presents a fine first collection of worthwhile contributions to addressing climate change.

Appendix on Transport

On the title page of Drawdown’s transport section, the authors note “You will find here solutions that will significantly improve fuel efficiency of plane, trains, ships, and trucks that will continue to rely on fossil fuels.”

There is an interesting theorem in traditional economics due to Jevons. The theorem states that improvements in efficiency of engines lead to more usage of systems using those engines, and thus no overall reduction in fuel consumption. Some examples illustrating Jevons’s theorem are:

  1. the development of the airbus, which has resulted in more tourism and more air fuel use;
  2. higher fuel efficiency of cars, leading to more luxuries and computerized systems with no improvement in fuel required to travel a given distance;
  3. larger (and possibly more efficient) engines yielding higher uphill speeds for large trucks, with no overall fuel economy;
  4. more container ships.

Therefore, fuel efficiency alone is not a part solution. I have argued with a traditional economist that Jevons’s theorem is not fundamentally correct (as he believes) but the facts support his view. However, in an ecological economy, other factors likely will invalidate Jevons’s theorem.

Mass transit

The transport sector is responsible for 23 percent of global emissions. Drawdown rightly favours mass transit over transport by private car, but fails to point out that the success of mass transit, especially in cold climates, depends on the frequency of mass transit vehicles. By contrast, providing more mass transit is often done by purchasing large, articulating buses or trams, rather than improving frequency. And this is because the traditional economy counts the salaries paid to drivers but ignores the enormous time wastage of passengers waiting for public transport.

High-speed rail

From a climate change standpoint, electrified high-speed rail is important in replacing medium-distance air travel, since no emissions-free aircraft engines are currently available.

The high-speed train also avoids the long waits that passengers are subject to at airports. With regard to energy expenditure, above a certain speed, aircraft are more efficient.

The further developments expected for high-speed rail would, according to Drawdown, reduce emissions globally by a total of 1.5 gigatonnes by 2050, but the development of a non-emitting aircraft engine would reduce emissions by many times that amount.

Electric vehicles

This is a fine section, though Drawdown’s conclusion that only six percent of cars globally will be hybrid by 2050 is disappointing. If so little progress can be made in such an important sector of the economy by 2050, it is very likely that the tipping point in climate change could not be avoided, and we would face a global calamity.

By contrast, Robert Hoffman (A Leap to an Ecological Economy, chapter 8) has concluded that government policy is essential in the case of transport, because otherwise, the reduction of emissions to zero in that important sector will be much too late, whereas reduction of emissions to zero could be achieved by 2040, through a policy to do so.

Derek Paul is a retired physicist now living in Montréal. His most recent publication is A Leap to an Ecological Economy (Archway Publishing, 2017).

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2018

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2018, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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