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Drawing Down

November 5, 2018
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Running in the forests of Siam Reap this weekend

Over the weekend I was in Siam Reap and, for whatever reason, found myself enchanted by the trees and the colours and the red earth. Not in any particular novel way, but in a way that connected to something I may have simply been ignoring for my entire adult life: that simple truth about the fragility of life and changing our own lives whilst we are fortunate enough to be here.

It’s not as if I haven’t been listening to the scientists and the campaigners. Even on these pages I’ve been known to write poetry about nature, have routinely made calls to action on various related themes, and posted pictures of me and my daughter 9 years ago taking part in a climate change march (the same daughter who now, aged 10, just returned from a school camp fully signed up as a pescatarian.)

So, you know, I talk a good game and encourage others to do lots (plus I now have one daughter doing her thing to contribute towards lowering the demand for meat) versus I fly 1,000s of miles every year, like a bit of air conditioning in the Saigon heat and probably, on most other climate friendly criteria, would likely score pretty poorly.

And yet, the science on climate change has been public for years now. As much as a decade ago, I remember seeing a campaign in the UK to highlight the effects of climate change on the poorest communities the world over. The strapline’s call to action being: “turn down the thermostat – it’s getting hot over here.” The accompanying picture was of a pastoralist with his herd of livestock, sweltering in the heat of an African savannah.

Wind forward to the most recent round of climate change headlines (momentarily competing on the front pages with the familiar and depressing daily churn and circus) and the news about our warming planet remains bleak.

It’s not worth calculating anymore whether we’ve passed the “tipping point” of no return, and allowed ourselves a get-out-of-jail-free moment. Many claim the moment in which irreversible damage will be done to the planet has indeed passed.

Those who believe this moment is still way, way off in the distance, are living in a land not of trees and clouds, but cuckoos.

If you think that our reckless hurtling towards impending doom and extinction, like some driver-less car picking up pace down the street, is suddenly going to change its course and reverse, based on the last 30 years of us ignoring all the signals, then you are either an optimist or, like me, you’ve just been hoping it will all disappear and everything will just turn out alright in the end.

It doesn’t seem to matter who is warning us, so many of us just seem to brazenly push on.

At the institutional level, this can be in the form of a multi-national corporation, obsessed with shareholder profits, and employing greedy individuals – not satisfied with millions in their bank accounts, they want billions. The truth is that, not all, but too many of these organisations simply don’t care about the pastoralist farmer. They sell things and make money and get rich.

Or, we could be talking about a Government, regulating the industry of that same multi-national corporation but, again, obsessed with making decisions that will result in some kind of net gain – profit, usually, for those sat fat at the top of the chain. Government decisions and gains of course also come in the form of securing the popular vote – more critical, it would appear, than influencing the lemming-like trajectory of our species.

In the roundest of terms, what is the ultimate point of any of these gains, that so obsess and corrupt people, if we are all set to blow ourselves up and off the planet inside of the next handful of generations?

Coming down to the level of individuals, what do we know?

It now appears to be ‘fact’ that grounding all the planes, vegan-izing all the meat-eaters, recycling all the paper – take your pick – what were once noble endeavours that every responsible person could employ, to crowd source solutions to the problem are, today, recognized as simply being of too little consequence, too late in the day. “Our restaurant only serves metal straws” – the sign reads. That’ll fix it, will it?

Metaphorically speaking, we are ‘circling the drain’ in the most colossal way possible as a species, by ignoring the last several decades of warnings.

Billions are spent every day by Governments on their nuclear capabilities and, from what many learned scientists are predicting, it may yet appear more likely an outcome for everyone that the effects of climate change are standing by, draped in Grim Reaper garb, ready to render anything associated with nuclear capabilities utterly redundant. No point fretting about World War III if we’ve caused irreversible damage to our one planet.

And you will have heard this all before. I expect you watched Al Gore’s movie and you’re halfway through Blue Planet II as I type this. Maybe you are already donating to an environmental organization. You’ve switched coffee brands. You “do your bit” to recycle your wine bottles and your cereal boxes. And, maybe, like me, you might have felt a frission of excitement at the story last week about Mumbai’s militant banning of plastic bags. Just think of the scale potential in India, right? It all adds up, doesn’t it?

In Taiwan, regulation came out which mandated citizens to reduce their air conditioners by 3 degrees. What if all air conditioners made in every country followed suit with similar regulatory controls? Maybe this is our ticket to our salvation after all?

Maybe (to quote a friend from this weekend) the development of Artificial Intelligence will end up resolving the issue of our rising temperatures by creating a solution that we’d never ourselves be able to conjure up?

Maybe.

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Siam Reap’s flooded fields. A remarkable reminder of the effects of climate change as the flood waters rise higher each year. Good for kayaking though!

What I did learn recently is this: not only do we have the knowledge on how it is still possible to cool down the temperature of our planet, but that knowledge and know-how is not all steeped in technological and scientific jargon and intangibility – which, I feel, can so often be a barrier to engaging one and all in uniform messages and ideas.

Let me introduce here Dr Katharine Wilkinson’s Project Drawdown.

Simply put, the research and resulting data that exists, in relation to reversing the effects of climate change, has been prioritized by Dr Wilkinson into a list of the top 80 actions which can be taken to draw down global temperatures. A shopping list, if you will, of the most significant things which can save us from extinction.

Top of this list is the reduction of HFCs, and the various institutional regulations that are in effect related to our use of refrigerated units. The size of the prize when it comes to what this #1 entry to our list carries would be an 89.74 Gigaton/GT (so, 89 billion ton) reduction of CO2.

Here is a direct lift from the site to explain this in detail:

“Every refrigerator and air conditioner contains chemical refrigerants that absorb and release heat to enable chilling. Refrigerants, specifically CFCs and HCFCs, were once culprits in depleting the ozone layer. Thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, they have been phased out. HFCs, the primary replacement, spare the ozone layer, but have 1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

In October 2016, officials from more than 170 countries met in Kigali, Rwanda, to negotiate a deal to address this problem. Through an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the world will phase out HFCs—starting with high-income countries in 2019, then some low-income countries in 2024 and others in 2028. Substitutes are already on the market, including natural refrigerants such as propane and ammonium.

Scientists estimate the Kigali accord will reduce global warming by nearly one degree Fahrenheit. Still, the bank of HFCs will grow substantially before all countries halt their use. Because 90 percent of refrigerant emissions happen at end of life, effective disposal of those currently in circulation is essential. After being carefully removed and stored, refrigerants can be purified for reuse or transformed into other chemicals that do not cause warming.”

Closely following HFCs, we have onshore wind turbines (84.60 GTs) and reduced food waste (70.53 GTs).

These top 3 combined come with a hefty positive net impact.

What is also intriguing about this list, is that after #8 the impact of each entry diminishes considerably, meaning that the highest ranked eight actions, together, take on the large majority of burden (or, if you prefer, the solution). Air travel, in at #43, whilst still important, comes in at only 5.05 gigatons.

But wait, what are those in at #6 and #7? I here you gasp? They don’t sound climate related?

Indeed, #6 is Girls Education and #7 is Family Planning and, for someone working for, and writing about, women’s empowerment for a few years now, these two highly ranked topics certainly caught me by surprise. The logic less so, but the potential impact they could have is mesmerizingly high.

That these core social development realms sit so high up the charts – with a combined potential of a 119.40 GT reduction – perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me so much as they did. CARE has formulated theories on how levels of poverty and social injustice will decrease in a more “equal” world for a long time.

The twist, for me at least in this tale, is a question that Dr Wilkinson’s campaign poses, as an accompaniment to this research, which is this: “can we reduce the effects of climate change if we don’t dismantle patriarchy?”

If this science pairs as concretely with these two social development interventions, as is being indicated by Drawdown, then the answer to this question can only be an emphatic “no – we cannot”.

And so we must.

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