What Matters Most?

If you’ve been reading my previous posts, you know that my focus on “saving the world one choice at a time” has focused on choices I make routinely every day and how, with a little informed effort, I can make better choices that can make a difference. For example, eliminating red meat (to decrease green-house gas emissions); eliminate or minimize plastics (especially single-use); conserve electricity at home; purchase locally sourced products whenever possible (to lower fossil fuel emissions); buy less “stuff”; and support tree planting initiatives since trees are a great vehicle for absorbing CO2 . These are all worthwhile pursuits but I’ve become more curious as to what else matters.

How important is it to eliminate or reduce red meat consumption?

I was with my son and a group of his friends a few months ago and we were talking about the impacts of global warming and someone asked the question: “What would be the most significant change I could make to address climate change?”  My son volunteered: “Eliminate red meat from your diet.” I thought that was a pretty good answer, unless you are a vegetarian, in which case it wouldn’t matter. But the question struck me that I really didn’t have an understanding of which things impact climate change more or less than others.

My sister-in-law (thank you Judy) brought to my attention a book published in 2017 entitled Drawdown, The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed To Reverse Global Warming.  The Drawdown project is the product of over 200 scientists and researchers (and counting) who have chronicled one hundred creative ideas – some technological, some ecological, and some social.  Paul Hawken, editor of Drawdown was recently interviewed and appears in Sierra, the National magazine of the Sierra Club.  When asked about the title, Drawdown, Hawken explained that when addressing climate change, terms like “mitigate” or “curb” or “stabilize” were insufficient relative to what was needed.  Instead, he said we needed to “drawdown” global greenhouse gas emissions, that is reduce what is trapped in the atmosphere, like drawing down your checking account.

Hawken acknowledges that when the project began, it was unclear what the 100 most substantive solutions to reversing global warming were.  He recognized he had a bias that most solutions would be related to energy, like solar or wind, but the remaining solutions were foggy.  After their analysis, the team learned that while the “combustion of fossil fuels is 60+ percent of the emissions on a yearly basis…” that alone wouldn’t solve the problem.  Because, “even if we went to (100%) clean energy today… we would still be in deep, deep trouble because of the levels of CO2 and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the fact that we haven’t addressed the other causes of greenhouse gases.”

The material in the book is organized by segments including Energy, Food, Buildings and Cities, Land Use, Transport, and Materials.  Each initiative is explained and evaluated calculating the CO2 savings between the years 2020 and 2050.  In this way, each initiative can be compared with others, thus addressing the question, is A more effective than B, and if so by how much.  And finally, the cost and benefits of each plan is calculated. 

Below is a list of many of the initiatives assessed in Drawdown, along with their relative ranks (i.e., # 1 being most important) and estimated gigatons (GT) of CO2 that would be reduced under the plausible, or most conservative set of assumptions.  This list is organized by major segment:

Buildings and Cities (e.g., District or Centralized Heating/Cooling (#27); Insulation (#31); LED Lighting – Household (#33) & Commercial (#44); Heat Pumps (#42); and other projects):  54.5 GT CO2 Reduction

Energy (e.g., Wind Turbines – Onshore (#2), Offshore (#22); Solar – Farms (#8) & Rooftop (#10) & Concentrated (#25); Geothermal (#18); Nuclear (#20);  and other projects): 246.14 GT CO2 Reduction

Foods (e.g., Reduced Food Waste (#3); Plant-Rich Diet (#4); Silvopasture, i.e., integration of forests and grazing (#9); Managed Grazing (#19); Expanding Tropical Staple Trees (#14); Restoring degraded land (#11); Clean Cookstoves (#21); and other projects): 321.93 GT CO2 Reduction

Land Use  (e.g., Restoring Tropical Forests (#5);  Increasing Peatlands (#13); Expanding Temperate Forests (# 12); Afforestation – i.e., new forests (#15); Forest Protection (# 38); and other projects:  149.60 GT CO2 Reduction

Materials  (e.g., Refrigerant Management (#1); Home Water Saving  (#46); Recycling – Household (#55) & Industrial (# 56) & Paper (#70); and other projects):  111.78 GT CO2 Reduction

Transport  (e.g., electric vehicles (#26); ship efficiency (#32); mass transit (#37); truck efficiency (# 40); hybrid vehicles (# 49); airplane efficiency (# 43); telepresence: (#63); high speed rail (# 66); electric trains (#74): 45.78 GT CO2 Reduction

This illustration of the variety of ways CO2 can be reduced and the relative importance of each of the major areas clearly shows there’s a lot more than just more solar and wind energy displacing fossil fuels!   It also underscores the significance of many solutions that don’t usually get much public attention.  For those interested in further descriptions of these various solutions, I invite you to check out the book.  It is a fascinating read and provides a clear and understandable explanation of the various solutions and information regarding the assumptions, modeling, etc.  Those interested in more information regarding the assumptions and the modeling and much, much more information can visit www.drawdown.org.

Regarding the importance of “eliminating red meat” well, that is part of having a “plant-rich diet” which is the 4th most important initiative! Turns out that if “cattle” were its own nation, it ranks as the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases. So, my son’s answer, as well as my personal decision to eliminate (or significantly reduce) my red meat consumption, is a significant move, even by one person.

One final, but very important note. If all of the recommendations outlined in the Drawdown project were implemented, then the net CO2 emissions by 2050 could be zero – thus eliminating any further increase in global warming and potentially avoiding the catastrophic consequence of climate change.  What a wonderful gift we would leave for our children and grandchildren!

5 thoughts on “What Matters Most?

  1. That’s fascinating!!! What a great explanation to help understand the relative benefits of different initiatives. Granted, we should do what we can in each area but understanding the relative impact of different options (some of which are new to me!) inspires action. Thanks Food Guy!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, TFG! You’ve done a really nice job summarizing a wide variety of solutions, of varying complexity. I look forward to reading into these in more detail. Keep up the great work!

    Liked by 1 person

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