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REVIEW: Ed. Paul Hawken, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Penguin Books: NY, 2015
Did you know that wind does not “blow”? Do you know the six industrialized countries that have formally banned coal-fired power plants? You will need to read Drawdown to find out, if you do not know. Or, read this review!
Until, 2013 there was no comprehensive plan to “draw down” carbon emissions which are
devastating our little blue dot (thanks, Carl Sagan) with increasing drought, sea rise,
temperatures, human dislocation, migration, and conflict.
Drawdown is not a plan, but a goal descriptive of a blueprint which came from a then
unanswerable question posed as recently as 2001: “Do we know what we need to do to reduce
global warming?” “Sensible” and “empowering” solutions were drawn from citizens across the
globe who are devoted to finding ways to decrease carbon and other gases (nitrous oxide,
flourinated gas, water vapor) from our atmosphere by 2050. The 70 “citizens” whose research
contributed to this book came from 22 countries. They meant business.
The 80 scientifically researched and attainable solutions described will have the cumulative
effects of increasing national and personal security, job production, wellness, soil restoration,
and clean rivers, and decreasing pollution.
Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria have taken strong steps toward this goal by agreeing to phase-out coal-fired power plants. So, what will keep the lights on? Read on.
Not all of the blueprint is new to those who are conversant with the issue of global warming: we
know that fossil fuels are more expensive than wind or solar power, that zero-emission electric
cars car vastly reduce CO2 spew. An increase in bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly parklands
and forests, and the fact that recycling is no longer a novel idea–and even changing light
bulbs from incandescent to one of several affordable options–attest to our eco-friendly
Confucius noted that the beginning of wisdom was in calling things by their right names (Mr.
President, take note if you dare or care). Drawdown employs simple terms, and defines them.
“Climate” is defined as a function of biological activity on earth, and physics and chemistry in
the sky; “global warming” refers to the entrapment of gases in the atmosphere which increase
heating, thereby altering the climate; and “climate change” defines the many changes that
occur with an increase in temperature and greenhouse gases.
The solutions presented are ranked using complex formulae to determine the total amount of
greenhouse gases that can be avoided or removed from the atmosphere, and the cost to effect
each particular solution. Rankings are based on gigatons of carbon removed by each solution
between 2020 and 2050. An enormous quantity, one gigaton equals a billion metric tons of
water, or 400,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. If one multiplies this by 36 for the equivalent
of 14,400,000 pools…one learns the amount of Co2 emitted into the atmosphere in the year
Of the 80 solutions, I have summarized the most effective four:
1. Refrigerant management. Some carbons used to chill food and keep buildings and vehicles
cool once were the cause of ozone depletion in the stratosphere. These were replaced with
other carbons which do not cause ozone depletion but have, depending upon their
chemical composition, the capacity to warm the earth up to 9000 times that of CO2. After a
ground-breaking agreement reached in 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda, more than 170 countries
agreed to phase-in substitutes for these carbons, a many year process. However, disposal
of the refrigerants already in use will be expensive, although its mitigation potential,
reformulating them into non harmful chemicals, is large. The estimate that over 700M air
conditioning units will be online by 2030 makes this drawdown effort essential. John Kerry,
then Secretary of State, called this effort, “the biggest thing we can do [on climate] in one
2. Wind Turbines. Windmills have been in use since 500-900-AD in Persia. In 1893 at the
World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago, several types of windmill designs were displayed.
We know about the usefulness of windmills from the Dutch, and from farms in the 1920s and
This may seem a small point of physics, but air does not “blow.” Think of an undulating tidal
wave of air being drawn from areas of high pressure to low, which can propel blades of nearly
270’ to generate electricity. As this book was published there were 314 thousand turbines
providing nearly 4% of global electricity. Thirty-two of the largest, twice the length of the Statue
of Liberty, are off the coast of Liverpool, England, where one blade can generate enough
energy to power one home for a day.
Windmills have been extant in Persia from 500-900AD. In 1893 at the World’s Columbia
Exposition in Chicago, several types of windmill designs were displayed. We know windmills
from the use made of them by the Dutch, and from farms in the US from the 1920s and 1930s.
Today, all of America’s electrical needs can be met through wind undulating through Kansas,
North Dakota, and Texas. New designs are successfully addressing the concerns of harm to
bats and birds, aesthetics, and noise. As with so many constructive ecological benefits,
especially in today’s tornado of political climate, what is lacking for this to become a reality is
political will and leadership.
3. Reduced Food Waste. There are more than 7.4 billion human food eaters in the world.
Hunger affects more than 800 million of them. And, about one third of all food raised or grown
does not make it to the table. Some is left to rot in the fields due to unprofitably, some is
discarded because it is not aesthetically pleasing despite efforts like the “Ugli” food movement (I
doubt if you will find a blemish on anything at your local Whole Foods, for example), some may
grow stale in storage because it may be too expensive for consumers, and too much food is
wasted in restaurants due to the large portions served. Alas, wasted food contributes 4.4
gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, or 8% of all emissions per year.
In 2015, France passed a law mandating that restaurants donate unused food rather than
discard it, and Italy has followed this practice. It is time for more countries to learn creative
ways to maintain food stocks to help save lives and decrease CO2 emissions. Festivals like
“Feeding the 5000” are an important step in promoting this solution.
4. Plant-Rich Diet. What is the first thing you see when you open the food ad section of your
newspaper? Chances are, it will be sales on meat, mostly beef, but not all. Raising livestock
accounts for nearly 15% of greenhouse gas emissions… and some estimate the amount of
direct and indirect emissions at 50%, much more than growing plants for consumption.
Drawdown notes, “If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest
emitter of greenhouse gas.”
Over-consumption of animal flesh accounts for many human health ills: cancers, strokes, heart
disease among them. People in the US and Canada consume 90+ grams of animal protein per
day when the daily requirement of protein is 50 grams. The World Health Association suggests
that from 10-15% of one’s daily calories need come from protein, easily met in a plant-based
diet. Worldwide, emissions could be reduced 70% through a vegan diet and 63% from a
vegetarian diet including cheese, milk, and eggs. The monetary impact of this switch could
save 1 Trillion in health care costs and lost productivity, in addition to lessening the impact of
global warming, and reducing the bulldozing of forests to create grazing lands, reducing animal
suffering and eliminating “dead zones” from fertilizer runoff.
Meat substitutes made from plants are available for those who want a minimal disruption to
their patterns of cooking and eating (examples: Beyond Meat, and Impossible Foods).
Vegetarian and vegan cookbooks abound. For those who wish to continue to eat meat, seeing
it more as a delicacy may help lessen consumption. A tax on meat (!) has even been proposed
to dissuade purchases. It is a truism, based in research, to say that transitioning to a plant-based
diet may be the most effective way an individual can stop climate change.
This marvelous book stands as an essential primer on how our species can redeem itself from
the harm it has done and is doing to the planet it inhabits through incessant wars, environmental
degradation, and greed. If heed and action are not taken, the consequences for the survival of
Homo sapiens are dire. It may be the luckiest thing for the planet that life on earth is not
dependent on OUR life on earth!
I’m in the middle of this book right now. One small point: if one blade of those giant 7 MW windmills could power one home for a day, then the windmill could only support three homes. I think what was meant is one SWEEP of a blade could power a home. And I think we need some nuance on the plant-based diet bit (some of which is in the book)–it makes a big difference HOW the meat (or eggs or dairy) are produced–the book also has some sections on regenerative farming, including grazing animals. What is most destructive in climate and other terms, is CAFOs–but I read that 99% of the meat in supermarkets in the US comes from CAFOs. So banning them (on the policy level) or refusing to buy commercial meat (on the personal level)could make a big difference. Buying locally raised, grass-fed beef or chicken from free-range operations I think is not destructive, but likely it would not be possible for such operations to supply the meat-heavy diet of Americans. One bit the book didn’t mention is encouraging people to change their recipes from the habit of having a slab of meat alongside some vegetable and some starch, to using meat more like a condiment–a little burger cooked in with onions and garlic and vegetables and noodles or rice, for example.
You should read my paper “Farming Before 1950” about the farm/ranch where I was raised. We were net carbon negative for all energy including that for transportation to and from the farm.
“Waste Biomass” is where any and all solutions must start. That is what I “learned” after 30 years of research.
Let me know of you interest.
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