Sightings from the Treehouse: Work with Creation, Not Against It – Part 2

Sightings from the Treehouse is an investigative blog series on climate change and the environment, from GIPL’s Power Wise Director Bob Donaghue. You can read all the blogs from the series here.
Is there a comprehensive, strategic approach to reverse or stall climate change? Not according to Paul Hawken, author, entrepreneur, and environmentalist. The author of Ecology of Commerce and Blessed Unrest and a coauthor of Natural Capitalism has recently edited a book containing a compilation of over 100 strategies to reverse global warming.
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming provides a wide-ranging and strategic approach with real time technologies and tactics to reduce the greenhouse gas loading to the atmosphere. These approaches have been researched extensively and provide the atmospheric carbon dioxide equivalent reduction (in gigatons), the net cost and lifetime savings (billions of US dollars). The solutions range from traditional technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels, and refrigerant management, food waste reduction to more holistic practices such as conservation agriculture, sustaining tropical forests and educating the world’s women.
The earth’s ecosystems obtain their energy from the sun and are cyclical. Waste becomes food returned back to the ecosystem to sustain its many components. This is how Creation works. The processes used by man, crude by comparison, are primarily linear and the raw materials are commonly modified with strong, harmful chemicals to make the products. They may generate non-biodegradable waste lasting in the environment for hundreds of years. Plastics are a prime example. Many of Drawdown’s strategies, besides promoting resource efficiency and better chemical management, stress preserving, mimicking or restoring natural areas and their ecosystem services.
Chemical Management
Harmful natural and synthetic chemicals are an everyday occurrence in today’s economy. Synthetic chemical growth started in 1950’s, and some like DDT, spread throughout the food chain to harm top predators such as the American eagle. This was documented in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. As a result, many chemicals that bioaccumulate are banned.
Coal is extracted from natural areas through deep and strip mining and mountaintop removal destroying existing ecosystems and their services and polluting others. Toxic chemicals are used in agriculture to kill weeds and insect pests, and some are used in products sold to the public developed through “Take, Make, Waste” linear industrial processes.
Medicines (anti-depressants and antibiotics) that we take and pour down the drain, or growth hormones and antibiotics used in cattle and chicken farming can cause physiological or behavioral changes to other organisms such as amphibians and fish in our waterways or to humans if eaten. Insidious chemicals such as mercury emitted through burning coal from power plants are spread by winds across many state and international boundaries accumulating in the aquatic food chain and limiting fish consumption by people globally.
Refrigerants are used to cool our homes, businesses and preserve our foods, but most are strong greenhouse gases when improperly managed and released into the atmosphere. Their proper management was the #1 strategy in Drawdown for reducing greenhouse gases almost 90 gigatons (GT) by 2050.
Renewable Energy
Nature depends on sunlight to drive primary production and its ecosystems. Man is just beginning to adopt solar energy. Solar technology has been around for years but prices have plummeted recently as the technology improves and matures. In some cases, solar energy is cheaper than energy derived from fossil fuels. The fossil fuel and utility industry have noticed and are actively impeding widespread adoption of solar by the public. They have done this through political interference with the solar industry and impeding net metering of household solar panels to maintain their monopolistic hold on energy production. Some utilities, including Southern Company, are now developing solar farms to add renewables to their energy portfolio. Combined solar farms and rooftop solar could reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by about 65 GT by 2050. Their Drawdown rankings are #8 and #10, respectively.
Both onshore and offshore wind farms are growing and today account for four percent of global energy production. Onshore wind farms are ranked #2 in Drawdown accounting for 85 GT of carbon dioxide reduction by 2050, while offshore wind farms would reduce carbon dioxide by about 14 GT. Wind energy is projected to be the lowest cost energy source within a decade according to a Goldman Sachs research paper. The figure below shows global growth of renewable energy employment in 2016.
Energy Efficiency
Since 2010, GIPL has performed 221 Power Wise energy audits at congregations across Georgia. Most have sanctuaries, administration offices and education buildings. Some buildings are over 50 years old while others are relatively new. Regardless, virtually every audit reveals that improved insulation, lighting upgrades and smart thermostats are the primary energy conservation measures recommended by Gary Gabriel, PE, GIPL energy auditor.    Congregations receiving Power Wise energy audits are eligible for GIPL’s annual energy efficiency matching grants of up to $10,000 to implement energy conservation measures identified in the audit. Since 2007, GIPL has awarded $831,032 to congregations. Congregations commit to match those funds 1:1. That is a result of almost $1.7M committed to energy efficiency projects by faith communities through GIPL’s program. That figure does not account for the many other projects that did not receive direct grant support from GIPL but congregations were still committed to getting them done!
Drawdown indicates that insulation is their 31st recommendation with an estimated reduction of carbon dioxide of 8GT by 2050. Commercial LED lighting upgrades, #44, would reduce carbon dioxide loading by another 13 GT during the same period. Smart thermostats, #57, and building automation systems, #45, provide an added 2.6 GT and 5GT carbon dioxide reduction.
Industrial Recycling
In the last blog, cyclical, zero waste industries were highlighted as the next industrial revolution. No smokestacks or discharge pipes. All raw materials are derived from distributed products returned for recycling and wastes are squeezed out of the process. Pollution is just wasted raw material and lost profits. This concept was presented in Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism to counterbalance the accepted “Take, Make, Waste” industrial model.
Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface in Georgia, was the first industrial adopter of this new model and challenged his businesses to become sustainable through improved efficiencies and reuse of products returned to their operations as feedstock for new carpet. After his death in 2011, Interface continued its embrace of his dream, and they continue to climb Mount Sustainability most recently with their new Climate Take Back initiative. Since carbon is the building block of all life, Interface encourages people to stop seeing carbon as the enemy but as a resource. The Ray C. Anderson Foundation continues his quest for sustainability.
Drawdown ranks industrial recycling #56 with an estimated carbon dioxide reduction of 3 GT by 2050, although Interface sustainability program contains much more than industrial recycling
Preservation of Natural Forests
As discussed in the previous blog, natural ecosystems provide a wide range of ecosystem services to us and the environment. Logging destroys most of them and eliminates the forest’s carbon sequestration service (climate regulation), and also releases stored carbon dioxide in the soils when it is disturbed. Preserving old growth forests is ranked #38 and can reduce carbon dioxide by 6 GT with 896GT protected in the deep soils. Similarly, preservation of temperate forests was #12 with an estimated 23 GT of carbon dioxide loading eliminated. Finally, sustaining tropical forests was ranked #5 in Drawdown and could reduce an estimated 61 GT of carbon dioxide.
Forests provide a wide range of ecosystem services other than carbon sequestration. They cleanse water, mitigate flooding, provide habitat to thousands of plants and animals, and absorb the sun’s energy through their leaves known as primary production. This serves as the base of the foodchain. For man, forests also provide recreation and ecotourism benefits in addition to spiritual solitude and inspiration.
Coastal Wetland Protection
Coastal wetlands are composed of mangroves, saltmarshes and sea grasses. They provide a wide range of ecosystem services. The most important are its marine nursery and bird rookery services, but they also protect the land from storm surges, in addition to purifying water entering the coastal areas. These ecosystem services benefit society through its fisheries production, storm protection and recreation and tourism. About a third of mangroves have been destroyed since 1980 through development, aquaculture, and ditching typified by Louisiana. After Hurricane Katrina, efforts to rebuild the diminished coastal wetland buffers are underway, so far with limited success.
Drawdown estimates that coastal wetlands reduce 3GT of carbon dioxide loading to the atmosphere through sequestration, while protecting an additional 53GT of carbon dioxide buried deep in the soil.
Sustainable Agriculture
Sustainable agriculture consists of several farming techniques including regenerative and conservation agriculture. Conservation agriculture consists of three principles: limit soil disturbance, maintain soil cover and rotate crops. Unlike regenerative agriculture which also limits soil disturbances, conservation agriculture uses synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Crop rotation with legumes is important to restore natural nitrogen to the soil. These agricultural approaches provide resilience to farmlands during droughts and heavy downpours.
Conservation agriculture is ranked #16 by Drawdown would reduce 17GT of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, while regenerative agriculture is ranked #11 and could reduce carbon dioxide 23GT by 2050.
Managed grazing represents another agricultural approach that is ranked #19 and would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 16GT by 2050. Managed grazing mimics natural prairies with herds that feed on natural grasslands and cluster together for protection, such as bison.       Ted Turner has whole-heartedly embraced this approach by purchasing vast tracts of land in the West and allowed them to return to natural prairies populated with bison herds. Being the consummate business man, he has developed a new sustainable “farm to table” industry. Ted’s Montana Grill promotes consumption of leaner and healthier bison meat throughout the country.
Personal Choices
Many of the carbon dioxide reduction strategies identified in Drawdown focus on personal behaviors.   Conversion to plant-rich diets is ranked #4 with an estimated impact of 66GT carbon dioxide reduction by 2050, primarily since meat production requires vast amounts of energy compared to crop production. Household food waste reduction also is ranked #3 with an estimated 71 GT carbon dioxide reduction because less food would need to be grown if it was used more efficiently.
Home energy efficiency also offers great opportunities to cut costs and also reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Upgrading lights to LED and insuring your house is well insulated are important strategies with carbon dioxide reductions of 16GT combined. Adding solar panels on home roofs worldwide would result in an additional 25GT by 2050, while converting to electric vehicles could add another 11GT.
Drawdown Conclusions
Drawdown suggests their 100 strategies, if scaled up and implemented worldwide, could provide hope for reversing global warming over the next 30 years and result in cooling after another 20 years. Many of the approaches focus on using natural forces to provide our energy: sun, wind, water and wave energy and to move our transportation to electric powered by these forces. Additionally, the preservation or restoration of ecosystem services is another common strategy.
In other words, Drawdown promotes working with Creation, not against it. The success of Drawdown’s hopes, however, is based on the will of the public, business and government to embrace these approaches aggressively.
Stay tuned as we explore the question of will in the next edition of Sightings from the Treehouse, by Bob Donaghue.