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Chapter Eight - Drawdown

Technology and Innovation

Technology, as we have seen, has played a critical role in shaping the modern world, paticularly in the last 250 years.  It has been central to our enjoying continued economic growth over that period; raising enormously our standards of living.  We do, however, require continued innovation to help solve the climate crisis.  Not only do we need to deploy existing technologies but also we need to invent new ones.

It is important, therefore, to ensure that technology advancement continues.  We cannot allow the economy to stagnate.  We need continued incentives for entrepreneurs to innovate and bring products to market.

The view now is that technology and innovation are realised within systems where there is also an active government intervention.  They cannot be left to markets alone although markets remain a powerful force.  Since we need to accelerate the process of innovation, we should focus our resources to create such an environment.  The U.K. government, for example, has recently announced a £1bn fund for clean technologies.

The caveat remains that technology will provide the complete answer.  It is unreasonable to expect that the rate of decarbonization required will be achieved through entirely technical solutions.  Social innovation/change/upheaval will be required also, which accompanies, typically, all technological change.

Types of 'Systems Thinking' Required

As established in Chapter 4, by mid-century at the latest the whole economy must be net zero-carbon.  This means that, but the 2020s, corporates and innovative start-ups will almost certainly have to be 'ahead of the curve' and effectively carbon neutral. This is now upon us and if we seek examples of companies truly engaged today, few can be found.  This is not reason to be despondent.  The challenge is to use our remaining carbon budget in ways that allow us to scale up renewable and nuclear energy so that, in future, businesses can be truly carbon neutral.

Finally, we need to think of technology in broad terms with CO2 reduction the paramount goal.  To this end, a 2017 study (Drawdown, The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, ed. Paul Hawken). in the U.S.A. identified 80 actionable technologies that, collectively, facilitate carbon neutrality by 2050.  I would urge readers to buy this Drawdown book or else check out its website and support the initiative as it is a living process.  The technology list has since expanded to 100 solutions and, most recently, 36 of them have been identified as being scalable within the next decade allowing the world to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 - an important interim milestone.  Here, for now, is a brief overview of the Top 15 CO2 saving solutions.

Drawdown Top 15


  1. Refrigerant Management - replacing 700 million air-conditioning units by 2030
  2. Wind Turbines
  3. Reduced Food Waste - currently one third of food produced is not consumed
  4. Plant-Rich Diet - according to the World Health Organisation only 10-15% of daily calories need to come from protein.
  5. Tropical Forests - restore 864 million acres before 2030
  6. Education - specifically girls to empower them to have smaller families.  Education is also benefial in its own right.
  7. Family Planning - without healthcare and family planning the world population could be 1bn higher by 2050.
  8. Solar Farms - set to become the least expensive energy in the world, although it would need back-up power
  9. Silvopasture - when cattle are grazed under a canopy of trees
  10. Rooftop Solar
  11. Regenerative Agriculture - restoring degraded land and soil carbon
  12. Temperate Forests
  13. Peatlands - carbon sinks when wet but if disrupted then carbon emitters.  Re-wetting them must be considered
  14. Tropical Staple Trees
  15. Afforestation - on both micro- and macroscales
Of the 15 possibilities above, it is surprising that few 'technology' solutions are considered because, although they make economic sense, they actually save comparatively little in CO2 terms.  Yet options such as geothermal, nuclear, electric vehicles, mass transit, LED lighting, heat pumps etc must all be considered and the authors stressed that efforts should be made with all options to achieve successfully what they term 'Drawdown' by 2050.

We need all stakeholders - corporates, governments, institutions and the wider public alike to rally behind this agenda if it to meet success.  We know what to do - now we just need  the will to do it!

Conclusion

The final point to note is that innovation is non-linear, systemic and often unpredictable.  It cannot be said with any certainty what shape companies and organisations will be in in 2030 let alone 2050.  Technology is path dependent - it depends on choices made in the past and it is this path which we now need to change by altering land-use, scaling-up renewables and energy efficient solutions now!

Footnote: What Individuals Can Do

Although the Drawdown list above might seem grand to the individual, the Union of Concerned Scientists has compiled a list of what individuals can do to contribute to stopping/reducing global warming:

  1. Cars - select one with the best fuel economy
  2. Houses - make your house air tight
  3. Heating - buy and use a programmable thermostat
  4. Diet - eat less meat, especially beef
  5. Energy - use power strips since these will curb 'phantom loads'
  6. Refrigerators and air conditioners - upgrade if over 5 years old since new appliances will, typically, payback within 3 years;
  7. Electricity monitors - these will help you identify where most domestic energy is used
  8. Light bulbs- switch to new LED lighting
  9. Washing - wash in cold water to save emissions; and
  10. Buy less and re-use and recycle.
As a world we also face clearly resource constraints as the population rises, and resources will, therefore, have to be much better managed.  More will be discussed on the Circular/Low Carbon Economy in the next chapter!

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