Over the last 12 months, we have seen increasing interest in the climate crisis. We hear explicit warnings on climate risks from respected commentators like David Attenborough. Greta Thunberg is energising younger people to campaign for their future. Activists like Extinction Rebellion are responding to the warnings of scientists with direct action. Many experts are promoting a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle as something each consumer can adopt to reduce their carbon footprint.
I am encouraged that more and more people are talking about climate risks, but we need a practical plan to address climate change. That must focus down on to specific changes in how we organise and run our societies and our economies.
Converting the Paris Agreement into a practical plan
The Paris Agreement was a diplomatic triumph. It sets a clear goal to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 C but is light on how to achieve it. So there are many ideas about how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; each promoted with enthusiasm and apparent authority by this expert or that lobby group. How can policymakers to identify the best options for emission reduction?
Each country and region should focus on the fastest and simplest way to cut emissions. That will depend on the structure of their economy and how society has evolved. The best way to cut emissions is location specific.
For example, these two pie charts show the distribution of global emissions by sector compared to the UK position. The figures are not exactly comparable, but they show the main differences. Transport, commercial activities and residential heat are a larger proportion of UK emissions, and energy production, agriculture and industrial production a larger proportion of global emissions.
In the UK we have done the easiest stuff. What is next?
In the UK we have successfully reduced greenhouse gas emissions; mainly as a result of getting rid of coal-fired power stations. That is a positive story, but since much of the coal generating capacity was coming to the end of its useful life, it was low-hanging fruit. It was a technical fix buried in the nation’s infrastructure that had little impact on consumers and voters. To continue cutting emissions, we will need to tackle other significant sources of greenhouse gases; ones that are more difficult to solve, and which the consumer will notice. For the UK the next big challenge is transport and energy efficiency in buildings. You can’t tackle that behind the scenes, it is too visible. There is no political consensus on what happens next, and the UK is beginning to drop below the planned rate of emissions reduction.
Each polity will need to choose which emission to tackle first. What we need is a way of comparing possible approaches in terms of potential emissions savings, cost and benefits. It is easy to say we must cut emissions from agriculture, but which of twenty ideas will work in a specific situation?
Project Drawdown directly compares different solutions to climate change
The nearest I have seen to providing high-quality information using a standardised approach is Project Drawdown. They analysed 82 potential solutions to reverse global warming that are ready to be deployed now, together with a bonus 20 that are in development and show great promise. They group the solutions into:
- Electricity generation
- Women and girls
- Buildings and cities
- Land use
- Coming attractions (the 20 bonus solutions)
For each approach, they calculated the potential CO2 savings, the cost of deployment and the operational savings. Each calculation backed up by references and a description of where the numbers came from.
For example, increasing the market penetration of clean cookstoves from 1.3% to 16% globally would save about 16Gt CO2 equivalent. That would cost $72bn, but save $166bn in operating costs before including the health savings from better air quality.
Project Drawdown is a great website to explore, and the core information is also available as an engaging book, excellent for browsing. Research continues, and the site is regularly updated
The top 10 solutions in terms of potential global emissions savings are:
|Onshore Wind Turbines||2||85|
|Reduced Food Waste||3||71|
Although transport is a big emitter in the UK, deployable solutions don’t have a large impact on a global scale. The highest ranked is electric vehicles at number 26, with a potential to save 11 Gt CO2 equivalent. The big wins are in food production and use, electricity generation, supporting women and girls, land use and materials.
No definite answers, but good questions
Is this a comprehensive list? No, there are many other established and emerging technologies vying for attention. But where else will you find 100 possible solutions to climate change fairly compared?
Are the numbers beyond question? No, the analysis is full of assumptions and estimates. But all the evidence is referenced, and the methods used to calculate costs and benefits consistent and clearly described. You can argue with the findings.
Policymakers should be reviewing potential solutions for areas of high emission in their economy and looking at Project Drawdown for potential solutions. Then identifying barriers to wider adoption and developing ways to overcome them.
Innovators should be looking at the possible solutions and asking, “how can we improve them and how can we scale them faster?”. They will find a lot of commercial opportunity in making solutions a better fit to the climate challenges.
Individual citizens should be thinking about the solutions that could work in their community, promoting them and pressuring politicians to deliver on practical approaches to greenhouse gas reduction. Your arguments are stronger when they blend passion with hard evidence.
Project Drawdown was previously discussed in A Roadmap to Reverse Global Warming