What will it take to kickstart the 'drawdown' movement?

Katharine Wilkinson of Project Drawdown at GreenBiz 18
Gordon Murray
"This isn't just about greenhouse gas emissions," said Katharine Wilkinson of Project Drawdown. "These are the means of building a more equitable, healthy, prosperous, vibrant world."

"Is the planet doomed?"

It's the sort of question that many adults might be too polite to vocalize in a public forum, but your typical tween probably has no compunction in asking. After all, most of them will be around longer than many of the people reading this story.

That deep-rooted anxiety underscores a dilemma facing many champions of the corporate sustainability movement: how to convey the urgent need for individuals, communities, corporations and nations to step up and address the factors contributing to human-caused global warming without making humankind feel so pessimistic about the chances for success that we don't feel like trying.

Offering an antidote to that negativity, that "nightmare" is one central tenet of Project Drawdown, an organization dedicated to championing pragmatic ways that entrepreneurs and innovators can act to reverse — not just slow down — concentrations of carbon dioxide emissions.

"It makes sense that they're asking that question when so much of the communication about climate change is about the problem statement," observed Katharine Wilkinson, senior writer with Project Drawdown, during a plenary discussion Tuesday at GreenBiz 18 in Scottsdale, Arizona. "They're not hearing much about meaningful solutions."

It's Project Drawdown's aspiration to change that dialogue. The organization — and the coalition it represents — was behind a book published in April that talks up more than 80 potential ideas of reversing emissions, along with 20 more aspirational solutions that aren't necessarily for prime time.

Mathematically speaking, if society and the business world were to scale all of these solutions, it could reach "drawdown" by 2050. At least that's the hope.

The top solution talked up in the book (now in its seventh printing) is decidedly pragmatic and it's still Project Drawdown's top priority today: encouraging in technologies that help the world (especially emerging economies) manage hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are widely used in air-conditioning and supermarket "cold cases." While these chemicals are being phased out in a regulatory sense, there's a real opportunity to counteract the negative impact of refrigerant disposal, Wilkinson noted. This is especially important as more individuals enter the middle class in places such as India.

Many of the highest ranked solutions, actually, are centered on food and agriculture — including reducing food waste, encouraging plant-rich protein diets and reintroducing the ancient concept of silvopastures, the idea of allowing animals to graze in forests planted with fruit and nut crops.

"In some ways it's a catalog of solutions but add those together and net-net what you end up with is a vision of what's possible," Wilkinson said. "You start to see, I think, the way in which this isn't just about greenhouse gas emissions. These are the means of building a more equitable, healthy, prosperous, vibrant world."

Many organizations drawing on the Project Drawdown mantra are startups inspired by its messages of optimism and empowerment, she said. With that in mind, the organization is hoping to orchestrate a $500 million fund designed to catalyze that work.

One of the larger proponents is carpet maker Interface, with its Climate Take Back agenda. Here are the four commitments of that initiative, announced in June 2016, with wording very much unlike many corporate sustainability recipes other companies are following:

  • We will bring carbon home and reverse climate change.
  • We will create supply chains that benefit all life.
  • We will make factories that are like forests.
  • We will transform dispersed materials into products and goodness.

You could describe the corporate response to Project Drawdown so far as somewhat lukewarm, but Wilkinson is hopeful that the ideas will earn more buy-in from larger public companies at a grassroots level.

"I think that it will be much more ecological in its movement than it will be hierarchical and top-down," she said.

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