Skip to main content

Communities rise up to draw down on carbon

Calculating the "hopeful new math" on climate change with help from Paul Hawken's new book.

In early October, county residents overflowed the Marin Showcase Theatre in Northern California for Drawdown: Marin. Their purpose: to launch a campaign to put Marin County at the forefront of California’s efforts to reverse global warming by creating a carbon-free community.

County Supervisor Damon Connolly greeted those gathered with the core question, "What part will you play?"

"We mean it when we say we are all in this together," said Connolly. "Government cannot do this alone. Individuals cannot stop climate change alone. Businesses cannot single-handedly reduce climate change. Coming together as a community will pay for itself in many ways."

And the impacts of climate change, he said, "are not an abstraction." Indeed, a few weeks before the event, the nation watched as record-breaking hurricanes ravaged southeastern regions, prompting cities to double-down on climate action. A few weeks after the event, the nation watched again as record-breaking wildfires ravaged California wine country, polluting western regions with smoke, toxins and greenhouse gases. Climate change makes hurricanes and wildfires much worse, and the resulting loss of equilibrium makes climate change much worse. So goes a vicious cycle.

It turns out that we have viewed the carbon equation backward.
As the evening played out, I felt heightened energy in the room — perhaps even a sense of relief by what local leaders expressed so directly. Already feeling "woke" about climate change, those gathered were offered an extra jolt of coffee.

So, have a look at Marin County. More importantly, urge communities everywhere to wake up and smell the coffee. Or increasingly they may wake up to smell the smoke.

Climate leadership in Marin

Key to Marin’s climate leadership legacy is Marin Clean Energy, the state’s first Community Choice Aggregation energy option. "MCE allows everyone to opt for up to 100 percent renewable energy" while also providing a model for others in the state, said Connolly.

Marin County was one of the first jurisdictions in the state to adopt a Climate Action Plan (CAP). Dana Armanino, a sustainability planner for Marin County, outlined the robust goal for 2020 it had set in its CAP. After achieving it eight years early, the county set it again with a more ambitious target.

"2020 is coming down the road, so it will be time to plan for 2030," said Armanino. "We will re-examine our process. [It may] be more of a living thing." Meanwhile, it is on track to reach the state goal of CO2 levels 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Marin also has outlined five pillars of action which residents can take  "right now," "next" and "then." Pillars include: 100 percent renewable power; transportation; energy efficiency; local food and carbon sequestration; and climate resilient communities. Marin County Supervisor Kate Sears, program champion and event host, said, "We must take action… in our home, in our businesses and in the vehicles we drive. Each of us is the activist and the innovator."

Marin County high-school activists involved in the I Matter youth movement and the Generation Our Climate youth activist group also took the stage to describe the projects they are working on, and to urge their communities to do more. "These people are our future… and already they are our leaders," Sears said. "To protect the future of young people, we must act boldly and must act now."

What's possible

"We have everything we need to wake up to a different kind of world," declared Morgan Freeman in What’s Possible, an inspiring video on climate change shared with those gathered.

"We wake up every day thinking about what’s possible," said Joel Makower, GreenBiz Group chairman and executive editor. "What does that look like? How do we think about an economy that aligns prosperity, security and sustainability, and gives them equal weight? And for all citizens at all income levels?"

'Two of Marin's finest'

Makower invited two global climate leaders (and local Marin residents) to the stage. Leah Seligmann, previously chief sustainability officer for NRG Energy, now runs the climate program for the B Team. Paul Hawken, a prolific author of breakthrough books including "The Ecology of Commerce," is the editor of the new book "Drawdown," which just made the New York Times paperback bestseller list.

Climate change language is generally war metaphors and negativity.
The B Team is a not-for-profit initiative formed by a global group of business leaders to catalyze a better way of doing business, for the wellbeing of people and the planet. Plan A — where business has been motivated primarily by profit — is no longer an option. "We’re coming together to create collective platforms to help businesses to think more holistically," explained Seligmann. "Our purpose is to facilitate a just transition to net-zero by 2050, economy-wide.”

Project Drawdown is a book and ongoing research effort which gives a comprehensive and exciting view of what’s possible to address global warming. "Drawdown is when greenhouse gases peak and draw down, on a year-by-year basis," explained Hawkin. Project Drawdown outlines "solutions that we know how to do, and are doing right now."

B Team: Time is of the essence

In addition to their achievements so far, the place where Marin really can show leadership, suggested Seligmann, is putting dates to its ambition.

Seligmann’s schedule for local business large and small is as follows: "By 2018, we need to show our cards. By 2020, we need to peak global emissions and bend the curve down; by 2050, we need to be net-zero. ... There is a website which can tell you how to set a science-based target, i.e. how to get to zero emissions by 2050," using tools that make it "easy."

Drawdown: Research Institute

"'Drawdown' is likely the most hopeful thing you’ll ever read about our ability to take on global warming," said Makower. He introduced the newly released book and its hopeful new math earlier this year.

"Humanity is on the case,” reported Hawken. "'Drawdown' includes 80 solutions, which we scale over 30 years through modeling, plus 20 more coming attractions."

Hawken continued, "We use all peer-reviewed sources, on the science side, the carbon side and economic side — World Bank, IEA, IPCC, etc. The data is not our data. But we scaled them over 30 years and hit the total button" to assess their potential impacts. Project Drawdown is becoming an ongoing Research Institute. As a result, "the book changes every month."

Drawdown: Solutions

"Drawdown" includes solutions which any citizen easily can take. These include reducing food waste (ranked third on an effectiveness scale) and eating a plant-rich diet (just behind at fourth place). Fifteen more solutions are focused specifically on cities and the buildings within them, and nearly all may apply at the county level.  

The surprise No. 1 solution for effective drawdown and emissions prevention is the careful disposal of chemical refrigerants. "We were shocked," said Hawken.

Educating girls and family planning are Nos. 6 and 7, respectively a real powerhouse in combination. The restoration of tropical forests, a growing trend, comes in at No. 5. Silvopasture, "the integration of trees and pasture or forage into a single system for raising livestock" is No. 9. More familiar examples in energy (onshore wind, solar farms and rooftop solar) round out the top 10.

Reclaiming carbon

It turns out that we have viewed the carbon equation backward. Carbon, after all, is a basis of life on earth. "A carbon-free Marin? You’re all made of carbon," said Hawken. "We speak of de-carbonization, but what we need is re-carbonization." "Drawdown" represents a process of putting escaped greenhouse gases back into our carbon-based natural world. "We took fossil fuels, coal, gas and oil and put it up there. We need to bring it back home."

Natural design guru Bill McDonough gave language to this re-imagination of carbon by distinguishing between "fugitive carbon" (emissions), "living carbon" (organic material) and "durable carbon" (locked in stable solids). 

Seligmann urged: "If you could do one thing [to effectively address global warming], it is putting a price on ["fugitive"] carbon. In absence of that, we need to look at the value of carbon. What are some of the cool things you can do with that recaptured carbon?" As we’ve begun to discover, we can create new "durable carbon" by turning it (and other greenhouse gases) into valuable products. 

Also, as it turns out, climate change itself is a symptom, not the core problem. "What we need to change is global warming," Hawken reminded. "Climate change language is generally war metaphors and negativity, such as 'fighting climate change.' In fact, [we need] to do what carbon does, which is to hold hands and collaborate."

Human needs open the door

The human brain is not wired to respond to future existential threats. We are not listening to people and responding to people’s needs," observed Hawken. Seligman concurred: "Preaching won’t get us to the outcome we want. Meet people where they are and what they need. Engage them in connecting with specific solutions that address what they care about."

By way of example: "Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and a member of the B Team, ran on 'No jobs on a dead planet' — and 100 million people voted for her because of that platform."

"The future we’re painting is a future they want to be part of," Seligmann concluded.

The Drawdown: Marin community arrived with a well-earned sense of pride and satisfaction in its leadership and achievements. They left, I suspect, with a quickened sense that their adventure had just begun. 

In closing, Sears applauded her community: "Thank you for understanding the fierce urgency of now."

More on this topic

More by This Author