From Paris to Drawdown

June 7, 2017


Yes, it was a shameful poke in the world’s eye by the dangerously narcissistic, temporary occupant of the White House.

Like other unconscionable and unfathomable acts of the early 21st century—a period of historic great change already—Trump’s pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement has sent me searching for the deeper meaning of it all, while the pundits flail away.  

The attack on the World Trade Center, an iconic symbol of globalization if there ever was one, triggered for me a period of introspection and a personal existential crisis as it opened up a possible dark side of my previously unquestioned Wall Street-influenced worldview.  Then the financial crisis drove a stake in the heart of our failed neoliberal economics and finance ideology, leaving in its wake profound and still unanswered questions.  Brexit shined a light on the flawed architecture and economic assumptions underlying the European Union, while Trump’s unimaginable election should force America’s self-anointed elites, in particular, to face their own shadow.

Is there not a deeper message being offered up to us as we undergo the shock therapy that is the Trump phenomenon, with his extraordinary ignorance, egotism, and moral ineptitude, most recently evidenced by his unconscionable withdrawal from Paris?  It’s worth our reflection: Trump as cosmic messenger, the wake-up call we deserve.

Consider the reality. The Paris Agreement is not an enforceable treaty with binding emissions limits.  Nor is it even an adequate statement of intention, since even if all signatories live up to their promises, the best scientific projections suggest we will not stay below the intended 2-degree warming ceiling.  And, we know we actually need to stay below 1.5 degrees warming, a radically different proposition.  Finally, nothing in the Agreement addresses the existential threat it poses to all Petro States since the math implies that 80% of existing fossil fuel reserves, the lifeblood of these societies, must remain in the ground, demanding unprecedented economic transitions requiring a new development paradigm, and that it will that take decades of investment and hard work.  See Venezuela for a preview of the challenges to come.

Russia is such a Petro-State.  Hmm…Calling Jared?

So perhaps the first deeper message we need to hear, disguised below Trump’s disgraceful act is: “The Paris Agreement amounts to little more than appeasement; get serious, people.”  

So far, the initial response within the United States and globally is actually quite hopeful.  States led by California, cities led by Pittsburgh, and a vast cross-section of the business community have been emboldened to show the world (and ourselves) that the “current occupant” does not get to decide for its people on a matter of such grave importance.  “We’re still in!”  Perhaps the sleeping bear – we, the people – has finally been poked?

Second, one primary reason the Agreement was not a binding treaty is that all participants understood that Obama could never deliver the dysfunctional U.S. Congress.  So the deeper message we must confront is that many of the leading global institutions of governance, from the United Nations to the United States, to the European Union, are all incapable of addressing the urgent and interconnected global governance crises of the 21st century.  Where are the serious plans to address this reality, while at the same time reacting to the unending crises of the day?

Third, despite decades of scientific analysis and diplomacy around climate change, we are still working off a horribly inadequate playbook that reduces the complex challenge of restoring balance to the earth’s carbon cycle to simply a call by nations to “cut fossil fuel emissions” by some seemingly random, politically negotiated amount based on what each nation was willing to commit to, that collectively is grossly inadequate to the task at hand.

Just in time, Paul Hawken and colleagues have recently published Drawdown. The name calls out the real goal we must embrace: “drawdown” of the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, rather than the insufficient objective of reducing emissions.  We are at 402 PPM today and need to get below 350 in the face of a growing population and rising standards of living for the majority of humanity.  That’s the task.  It demands an integrated, multi-dimensional, rigorous plan.  Drawdown provides the analytical foundation for such a plan, documenting the 100 top viable solutions using available technology, and conservative assumptions about their realistic scale-up rates and economics over a thirty-year period between 2020 and 2050.  

Good news:  the math says we can do this!  It identifies 1000 Giga Tons reduction in atmospheric CO2 (or equivalent), and requires collectively a highly diversified investment of $30 trillion over thirty years, generating economic savings (in the aggregate) of two and half times that amount, on top of avoiding the worst-case consequences of climate change.  To be clear, this represents a profound and unprecedented shift in the allocation of resources from business as usual.  That’s the deal.

The results from the Drawdown analysis are not what most will expect.  First of all, the single largest solution is not solar or wind.  It’s refrigerant management.  HFCs, the “solution” to the ozone layer problem of the past, turns out to have somewhere between 1,000 and 9,000 times the greenhouse effect of CO2.  We must simply swap out the AC, which will have nine times the impact of converting to electric vehicles (only number 26 on the Drawdown list).  Who will be the Elon Musk of AC?

Perhaps more revealing is the combined impact of family planning and educating women, which, when looked at together, would move to the top, exceeding onshore and offshore wind combined.  Population is often a taboo subject.  But an extra billion people all desiring to live a middle-class lifestyle makes a massive difference, so we need to be able to talk about it as part of a comprehensive plan.

And perhaps most hopeful, the report rightly turns our attention to the amazing natural “technology” we take for granted: photosynthesis, the basis of all life on this planet.  Drawdown demands we focus on the massive carbon sinks where carbon is safely stored, in addition to reducing emissions.  Remarkably, few realize that our soils are the second largest carbon sink after the oceans, comparable to the world’s forests.  Small, achievable percentage changes in the stock of carbon held in our soils, through profitable regenerative agriculture hold massive potential for drawdown, without even factoring in all the ancillary benefits to human health and, therefore, our healthcare crisis, water retention, desertification, and species loss.  The role of regenerative agriculture and land use of all varieties, from no-till crop farming to holistic grazing accounts for fifteen of the top twenty-five drawdown solutions.

So the message we need to hear underlying Trump’s Paris fiasco:  The current occupant will be judged by history; but so will we:  wake-up call.  The U.S Congress and the Trump enablers in his Administration have a chance to restore their integrity, but no one is depending on it.  National leadership on climate has long been outside the U.S. federal government and that’s OK, but it’s a lost opportunity.  U.S. states, cities, the U.S. military, and the private sector are already mobilized and that will now only accelerate.  

We must shift our attention from grand diplomatic gestures by institutions of governance designed for a different time to a rigorous, empowering plan where there is no silver bullet but unlimited and empowering opportunities where the real leaders are already defining our future.  Those leaders are us.

The goal is simple: drawdown.  It’s no easy feat, and time is not on our side.  Let’s roll, people.

  • John Brown

    Exactly, John. And part of your role is likely to be communicating with other capital manipulators to invest their money and resources with willing land managers in this drawdown into soil without the expectations of returns we are used to. The returns are a livable planet, not a larger wallstreet portfolio or even land speculation investments with a cash-out strategy. This is ‘regenerative carbon-in’, not ‘extractive cash-out’.
    Saturday. the 10th of June, will find many Montana land managers exploring just this at our first Soil Crawl What are some results of just a few years of shift in management? Come join this conversation at the Indreland ranch and BBar ranch north of Big Timber.
    ‘Let’s roll, people!’

    • John Fullerton

      Thanks for this contribution and sharing about your june 10 event. You may not be aware of my own personal involvement and investment in this area, but I’m with you! And we need MUCH more of this. and we need to find innovative ways to bridge the gap with the return expectations of conventional investors as we shift them into stewards.

      • John Brown

        Thanks for your response, John. I have been following your posts and exploring more about you as I have time. I certainly have interest and motivation. The Soil Crawl was a big success in my metrics. Lots of very engaged conversations stimulated by sharing informed observations. Then attempting to translate those into personal applications. I hope this is just the first of many Crawls to learn and grow in practice and connection. And I find it curious that our paths have not crossed yet. I hope they do soon.

        • Julian McKinley


          Julian S. McKinley
          Director of Communications
          Capital Institute
          73 Arch Street, Suite 300
          Greenwich, CT 06830
          (203) 832-3920

          Click here to stay informed about Capital Institute, including a monthly e-bulletin for the organization and our Field Guide to Investing in a Regenerative Economy storytelling project!

  • “The role of regenerative agriculture and land use of all varieties, from no-till crop farming to holistic grazing accounts for fifteen of the top twenty-five drawdown solutions.”

    Eric Toensmeier is Drawdown’s Senior Fellow for land use. I highly recommend his recent book, “The Carbon Farming Solution” (Chelsea Green, 2016). It’s about the climate change mitigation potential and adaptive resilience of perennial staple crops.

    There are a number of striking and fascinating statistics in the book. Did you know that roughly half of CO2 emissions are from our food system? Or that 77% of all carbon is stored in the oceans, when only 1.5% is in the atmosphere (and another 1.8% in biotic life)? Or that Holistic Management has limited CO2 sequestering abilities, and in some cases, actually is a net negative?

    Toensmeier also deftly weaves threads of social justice throughout the entire text, which is a vital and often-overlooked aspect of both food systems and global warming.

    • John Fullerton

      Thanks Will for filling in the extra details. I only have to question where you get your opinion about Holistic Management (a topic near and dear to my heart, and perhaps where i have some “owner’s bias”).

      Drawdown places it at number 19 out of 100.

      It had been higher in the preliminary calculations, but they had some noise in the data – no surprise. many people who try to understand its potential don’t look at it holistically. we need to calculate the impact of moving cattle from feed lots, back onto pasture. It’s not about “more cows”. and the grasslands evolved as you know in symbiotic relationship with large herbivores for thousands of years. the health of the grasslands (and the massive carbon sink they represent) are indivisible from large herds of large herbivores.

      if one were to also include the opportunity to reforest where forests were cleared for cows, the return of highly fertile corn and soybean fields (say all of Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois) to tall grass prairie (since no more feed lot demand), and the health benefits of grass fed beef over toxic beef, the benefits would be off the charts!

      • Thank you for your thorough response John!

        Eric’s main point is that more biomass means more carbon. Grasses are certainly better than bare earth, but in regard to relative biomass compared to silvopasture and forest, are relatively low in carbon.

        The two sections I’d point you to are “Grass Versus Trees” on page 33 of “The Carbon Farming Solution” and “New Research on Carbon Sequestration and Grazing” on page 93.

        From page 92: “I have found little scientific evidence that Holistic Grazing increases livestock productivity or ecosystem services.” And then goes on to mention that “There is disagreement among scientists about the carbon-sequestering potential of grazing and pasture practices.”

        And then on page 94: “Silvopasture and other pastures with woody plants sequester up to three times as much carbon as ordinary pastures.”

        Certainly the carbon footprint of CAFO beef vastly outpaces that of grass-fed. Personally, I would agree that Holistic Management is a massive leap forward over conventional practices. And yet if we’re taking drawdown seriously, we don’t just want solutions with less emissions—we want to maximize carbon sequestration potential, and that points towards silvopasture.

        • Allan Savory

          Will, I hope I can help here because there is such profound confusion and lack of understanding about what managing holistically involves. Your statement “… Holistic Management has limited CO2 sequestering abilities, and in some cases, actually is a net negative? Whoever first made this frankly incorrect statement is clearly thinking that managing holistically is some form of prescriptive management system. In reality it is the opposite. Holistic Management (& policy development) is a management process involving all current science, while enabling us to account for the web of social, environmental and economic complexity that is inescapable in management from our homes to governance.
          Even our best minds today blame global desertification and climate change on livestock, coal and oil. However these are simply resources that will be needed by humans for centuries, and no resource can ever be the cause of any problem. Desertification and climate change are 100% due to management of those resources. It is management of livestock over centuries, and continuing today, that results in desertification. It is management that destroys tropical forests to run livestock, or to put livestock in CAFOs. It is management that chooses to call fossil resources “fossil fuels”, and burn them at a damaging rate.
          Management has always been and remains reductionist in a holistic world. Even our most sophisticated integrated teams of scientists developing policy today who are fully aware that it will have social, economic and environmental consequences, still do so in a reductionist manner. By that I mean that they reduce the entire web of complexity to the “problem” to be addresses as the context for policy actions. And when managing (or developing policy) holistically we simply use a holistic framework and holistic context to guide management – a process that addresses the root cause of almost all management problems.
          Vilifying livestock rather than management is gravely endangering all of humanity. I say this because to both stop the atmospheric pollutants from biomass burning, cropland soil destruction and global desertification while regenerating the world’s soil and soil life, is a biological issue not technological. It is simply not possible to solve it with any technology even imaginable, fire, resting land or using technology to plant trees, shrubs or grasses. Those are the sole “tools” available to humans given our reductionist decision making. I know this is a great jolt to most people, as it was to me when first I realized this profound truth in the 1960s. Only when we add livestock properly managed does all become possible, and what could constitute proper management we worked out half a century ago.
          Let us assume two things we know to be untrue – that the world’s vast grassland and cropland soils can sequester no carbon at all, and that livestock emit 10 times the methane they do. Now, what could we scientists do to address global desertification? We have only technology, fire, resting land or using technology to plant trees, etc. none of which can address global desertification and thus climate change. We would have no option but to use livestock. The longer we delay while arguing or discussing one factor – carbon – the greater the suffering and deaths will be. The very future of civilization as we know it depends on changing our attitude to livestock.
          Having become deeply concerned some sixty years ago when we had none of today’s buzz words – desertification, biodiversity loss or climate change – I would place management (and policy) need to be holistic, and holistic planned grazing (or better process when developed) in first and second positions in any drawdown strategy, followed closely by eduction and empowerment of women.

          • Julian McKinley


            Julian S. McKinley
            Director of Communications
            Capital Institute
            73 Arch Street, Suite 300
            Greenwich, CT 06830
            (203) 832-3920

            Click here to stay informed about Capital Institute, including a monthly e-bulletin for the organization and our Field Guide to Investing in a Regenerative Economy storytelling project!

        • John Fullerton

          There is a long running debate in the scientific community on this topic, and a LOT of misinformation. Thankfully, the recent soil carbon conference in Paris, and the analysis in Drawdown, seems to have put an end to the confusion. The key to understand, is that the carbon sequestration related to the grasslands is not in the grass! It’s in the soil. Growing healthy perennial pastures means massive photosynthesis, deep roots, deposing carbon deep into the soil where it stays if the pasture remains healthy. Drawdown looked at all the “science” and concluded (conservatively) that this is one of the top opportunities to sequester carbon. Lots of info at Savory Institute by scientists that explains why the so called peer reviewed science was not actually testing “holistically planned grazing” but rather, mechanistic rotattion systems.

  • PaulK2

    Paul Hawken says something in “Drawdown” which bothers me to no end. He says that we have all of the technology that we need, now.

    No. Hawken’s statement is false. Moreover, Hawken’s claim endangers human civilization as we know it and much of the plant and animal kingdoms too.

    If we go looking for incremental improvements to solar technology then we’re certainly going to find a few of them. Just as surely as the price of photovoltaic cells has dropped from 100 times the cost of oil-fired electricity to below the cost of oil, so we can be reasonably certain that the following technologies will rapidly displace vast amounts of fuel per year:

    1. If the sun falls on a building, that building should be solar heated. Concentrated sunlight will heat to any desired temperature. Storage of heat is dirt cheap assuming that you use dirt for thermal storage.

    2. If the sun falls anywhere near that building, heliostats can daylight that building.

    3. It shall usually be easier to grow extremely fresh vegetables locally than to import flavorless green tennis balls from a “frost-free” place on the earth.

    4. Hydrocarbons will be grown, not mined.

    5. Above-grade automated transit will use 90% less lifetime energy than our car-strangled freeway system.

    Climate change is an expanding forest fire that was lit quite a while ago. Rounding up the arsonists is a nice thought, but right now this catastrophe is in a positive feedback loop. Even if we cut humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions by 90%, that still won’t stop the Arctic from dumping vast quantities of methane and carbon into the air. Humanity is called to stop nature’s big dump.

    6. We can use thermal loops to draw heat from the top 100 feet of the Arctic Ocean into the Arctic winter. For a cost of about $1 billion per year we can neutralize this part of the disaster. The U.S. thinks nothing of spending $1 trillion per year on dirty little wars.

    7. Automated snowmaking machines can artificially coat the tundra with snow, restoring the Arctic land’s albedo.

    • John Fullerton

      I know Paul would happily invite and expect new technological developments, and you are right to point out that there will be unexpected scenarios we need to be building a buffer for. think he says so, but great for your to emphasize this important point. but Paul’s thesis is that even with only existing technology, an analytical assessment based on only conservative assumptions including a “no new technology” assumption, leaves us with a clear blue print on how to organize and execute drawdown. Like a military plan that we know will need to evolve as we go with the changing context. some of that change will no doubt be adverse, and some most surely will be breakthroughs in technology creating positive change. But how refreshing as contrasted with statements of political intent by politicians who don’t have the power to implement as we’ve learned…

      • PaulK2

        Any drawdown that doesn’t affect the Arctic methane and CO2 releases will be relatively ineffective. It will be a military loss for human civilization, a catastrophe. We’ll probably have too many people and not enough food. Construing a military loss as a partial victory is par for the course among losing generals and politicians, but the actual loss still hurts.

        In the critical fields that I’ve named, new technology is a potent and probably effective tool. Humanity puts in a certain measured amount of engineering and it most likely reaps vast gains. Deliberate failure to look at these fields is exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants. If they possibly can, big fossil will buy up all of the available solar patents and throw them in the safe for 20 years.

        I repeat, “existing technology” loses and “technology coming soon” does far better. If existing technology loses the battle and if medium-hanging fruit, or in certain cases low-hanging fruit, almost certainly does better, then we all need to drop the “existing technology” semantic argument like a hot potato. So, I encourage all people to never, ever, echo the “even with no new technology” semantics game ever again.

        Because I want to think ahead and Drawdown focuses on the present, most of my top five aren’t Drawdown’s top five. I wish that I’d been in on the book’s creation.

  • John Fullerton

    I ran across a correspondence by accident that I had with Paul on Drawdown early this year that I wish I had recalled before I wrote the piece. So adding the key part here to the conversation which reveals some of Paul’s motivation for the project.

    Excerpts from Hawken to me on Feb 13, 2017 (typos and all, I trust Paul would not mind!):

    I had a conversation with a close friend, someone who is very literate and active in climate, climate communication and climate funding. When she was going to COP21 some 14 months ago, I said that I did not believe anyone in Paris could name the top ten climate solutions, regardless of the order ( inlcuding me ). When we spoke recently (we have known eachother for 25 years so are very comfortable talking), I told her how surprised WE were by the end result of our models, the listing and ranking of the top 80 solutions to climate change (the other 20 are Coming Attractions, which we do not model). Surprised is an understatement. Even though we had our nose to the numbers for two years, we had not hit the total button until the last month. When we did, we went back in to check every model. We were stunned. I told my friend that I now believe that no one can name the top five solutions, from Jim Hansen to Christiana Figueres to Jeffrey Sachs to certainly me until. She asked what are they? And I said “You tell me?” And so she began to discuss, and put this solution on the list, changed her mind, put that one one, put it aside, then another, and on and on. And finally there were five solutions, the top five in terms of carbon impact over the next 30 years if rigously but reasonably scaled. She then asked if she had got them right?

    I told her the point of the question wasn’t whether she got them right. The point was that she took five minutes of hemming, pondering, hawing, and rethinking to come up with her list. She is at the heart of the climate movement/establishment etc. Yet she didn’t know the top five. And she is not alone. I daresay the world does not. If it did, you, I, and her would know it cold. I am not sure anyone would get the top five correct yet when you see them, the math, etc, they make sense. By the way, my friend got all five wrong, but as I said that was not the point. This is not a contest. It attests to the fact that the list does not exist, a credible map that measures and models that top solutions to reverse global warming and project out rigorous but reasonable scaling rates for several decades. Or to invoke the title of the book, Drawdown, to see if there is a realistic pathway to achieving peak greenhouse gases and reversing it within 30 years.

    That is why I set out to do this. A comprehensive list of solutions thorougly analyzed with respect to carbon and cost does not exist. Believe me, if anything close to it existed we would have latched on to it 🙂 We have over 5 million data points in the models, over 5k citations and references for the written content. The key to this work was to make that information accessible and comprehensible to a general audience.

  • Here in NZ – AC is changing to Propane.
    And there are still a few R22 units operating, and quite a few HFC units.

    So many assumptions in that report.

    To me, it reads more like a well crafted smoke screen than a real solution, and that may be entirely unintentional. It is so hard to judge motive from action (almost impossible).

    Technical solutions are relatively easy.

    Weaning people away from using markets and money as measures of value is much more difficult, even when the logic of the necessity is beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.
    Much like my experience of cancer sufferers over the last 7 years, most would rather die than change their diet. I just can’t imagine valuing life so lowly. And I guess that is just one of the very many ways I am not at all normal.

    • John Fullerton

      maybe an analogy is we need to both cut out the tumor so it doesn’t spread out of control and kill us before we can change, AND, change our lifestyles so the cancer doesn’t reoccur (which it most certainly will if all we do is swap out our energy system and think it’s all good! Getting aggressively on the task of drawing down carbon, using existing economic system and existing technologies is a must, while we re-engineer our entire economics, and indeed culture.

      • Hi John,

        In a very real sense, that is exactly what I did after my terminal cancer diagnosis.
        I continued cutting out identifiable tumours, while radically altering diet and lifestyle.
        Both were necessary.
        Now over 6 years since the last tumour.

        That danger is thinking one can get away with just one of them.

        Fundamental change is required.

        We have to forget the common illusion that humans are fundamentally competitive, and understand that humans are fundamentally cooperative, and we will compete if the conditions demand it.

        We have to start to see that our current economic system is demanding competitive behaviour from humans generally, and that such a level of competition imposes fundamental existential risk to everyone, as it undermines the fundamental cooperation that is required to sustain social order.

        We can tolerate competition when it is necessary.
        We cannot tolerate it when it is unnecessary and unwanted.

        Social complexity requires boundaries, and the largest single necessary boundary set is what most call morality.

        Forcing people into competition when it is not required fundamentally undermines morality as a concept and thereby breaks the bonds that allow social cohesion.

        Fully automated systems simply make clear what has actually been the case for hundreds of years.

        We are in a full blown existential crisis.

        We have a way out.
        That way out requires fundamental change.
        UBI (Universal Basic Income) is now the only real hope any of us has.

        To understand just how deeply these issues are embodied and embedded within us, one needs to understand all that Jordan Peterson has to say about evolved levels of embodied cognition.

        • Ted, you’ve said “We have to forget the common illusion that humans are fundamentally competitive, and understand that humans are fundamentally cooperative, and we will compete if the conditions demand it.”

          I strongly disagree. Some people are inherently and fundamentally cooperative. Some other people are inherently and fundamentally competitive. Generally, whichever measure you apply, we are very different between ourselves as individuals. You’ve got to read my book on this subject! Some info at I would gladly provide a PDF reproduction of the book, if you are interested.

          • Hi Lev,
            Send the pdf to my gmail address tedhowardnz – or send a link to that address, and I’ll take a look.
            I accept that there is a broad spectrum of behavioural modalities found in human populations.
            And I make the assertion that we are all fundamentally cooperative based on the very long dependency of our juveniles.
            The class of individuals we behave cooperatively towards may be very small, and in some contexts actually get to zero, and a good case can be made that it is actually our base modality.

            With sufficient resource, distributed trust networks, and hi fidelity memory, it should be possible to stabilise cooperative behaviour at a global scale. And that will take a bit of time and effort to establish.