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Take Note: Organization Focused On Reversing Global Warming Partners With Penn State

Project Drawdown Executive Director Jonathan Foley and Director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State Tom Richard.
Penn State

We hear a lot about global warming, but not necessarily about how effective different proposed solutions actually are.

We talked with Tom Richard, the director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State, who helped organize the first ever Project Drawdown conference – which looked at the top 100 actions to reverse climate change.

And we talked with Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, about the conference and the book it’s based on.  


Emily Reddy: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Emily Reddy. We hear a lot about global warming, but not necessarily about how effective different proposed solutions actually are. Today we'll talk with Tom Richard, the director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State, who helped organize the first ever Project Drawdown Conference at Penn State. But first we'll talk with Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown about the book and conference about the top 100 actions to reverse climate change. Jonathan Foley, thanks for talking with us.
Jonathan Foley: Yeah, happy to be here.
Reddy: So the organization, the book, the conference are all "drawdown." What is drawdown?
Foley: Drawdown refers to a moment in time. It's actually a noun, not a verb. It's the moment in which we start to reverse the concentrations, the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Right now CO2, one of the greenhouse gases that's warming our planet, has risen up to about 415 parts per million that's higher than it's been in 5 million years. And it's still going up. So we've got to stop that increase, plateau it and then turn it around and bring it back down to what it's supposed to be. The moment that that happens is the moment of drawdown. And that's what we're working for us to begin the process of stopping and then reversing global warming.
Reddy: So the drawdown book was edited by Paul Hawken published in 2017. Basically, Hawken wanted a list of the most effective solutions to global warming, and what impact they could have if done on a large scale, but it didn't exist. So he decided to create it with the help of a bunch of scientists and researchers.
Foley: Yeah, I wasn't actually part of the team at that time, but I was admiring it from afar because yeah, Paul, and many others folks, were really kind of thinking like, "Hey, you know, we know we need solutions to climate change, how many are there? How big are they? Are they enough to start to reverse the problem?" Strangely, nobody bothered to write all that down before. So the team got together, including, you know, almost 100 different researchers over a period of a couple of years, investigating all these different solutions kind of doing research: Well, how big are they? What would they cost? What do we need to do to implement them? And instead of writing them in kind of obscure, kinda academic journals, they jumped right to a coffee table book, which appeared in 2017. Which has been a huge success and really great at kind of starting the conversation about how do we solve climate change?
Reddy: What are the different factors that go into making something a drawdown solution and how are those ranked?
Foley: Yeah, well, the drawdown solutions are really in three major areas. First are the solutions that help us bring down the emissions of greenhouse gases. You know, the first rule of stopping a problem is stop the problem, right? So a lot of areas in human economy are releasing greenhouse gases. That's like making electricity, how we use land to grow our food, moving our stuff around, in transportation, our buildings or industries. So we looked at a whole bunch of different economic sectors and said what are the opportunities to move away from high emissions activities like burning coal and oil and gas and things like that, too low or zero emissions opportunities. So that's the first kind of bucket of solutions. But the next were really around nature, because it turns out forest and oceans actually take up a lot of our greenhouse gases, especially CO2, and absorb them making more forest and healthier oceans. So it turns out a lot of our drawdown solutions are about protecting nature. And then we had a third category that really was focusing on equality and kind of health and education, where we found that in fact if you do things like have universal access to education--especially for girls and young women, also universal access to family planning--that those also had kind of as a secondary effect climate benefits as well. So that's how drawdown solutions were looked at. Like slow down the emissions, bring them to zero, enhance and protect nature and empower people around the world. We found a whole suite, hundreds of different candidates for drawdown solutions. But then as we look through them, you could rank them in terms of their just total impact on the atmosphere: How many billions of tons of greenhouse gases do they either prevent or remove? What do they cost? And but we also at drawdown believe very much in the kind of human dimensions of these solutions. We also looked at the lens of kind of equity. You know, are these good solutions for people? Do they respect human rights? Do they help marginalized communities and also do they have good impacts on nature? If they're harmful to other aspects of nature or to people we don't really want that. So drawdown solutions was very multifaceted and looked through these very, very carefully. And in the book and a lot of popular media associated with it, they're ranked from like one to, you know, 100, or effectively basically the first 80 are numerically ranked. And the rankings are very fun and interesting, because there's kind of a beauty contest, where everybody loves a ranking, to see where their favorite solution is. What's number one? What's number five? And all that. But actually, the people who work inside drawdown, we don't really look at the rankings very much because we need to do them all. It's not like five is less important than one, we gotta do one and five and 24 and 36, and 72. We kind of need them all. And the rankings change, depending on which time period you want to get to drawdown. If you want a more aggressive scenario, some other things pop up higher in the list and other things go down. So the kind of rankings that are in the book and the media are just one set of results, we can actually arrive at a whole bunch of different ones. So my preference is to look at the entire list. Not really ranked, but saying here, here's the whole team, we need it all. Because no one of the solutions is anywhere near adequate to do the job. We have to do them all.
Reddy: And these are not futuristic hypotheticals. These are things that actually exist right now.
Foley: Yeah, that's right. Eighty of the solutions are ones we could actually... because they're out in the world now in small ways... we asked, you know, what would happen if they got much bigger? And kind of estimated their size and the cost of deploying those things. That's based on, you know, the research done for the 2017 book. Now, only a couple years later, some of those numbers have changed a lot because things like solar and wind and batteries have gotten a lot cheaper. But fossil fuels got a little cheaper too even though renewables got much cheaper than that. And but things like nuclear got more expensive over time. So to redo all those calculations now--which we've just done--actually, the orders and the sizes, kind of flip around a little bit, which is kind of interesting. So it's a very dynamic thing. But what we find is that 80 of those solutions are here right now. And 20 of them we called kind of coming attractions. They're things that aren't really here yet, but you can see them on the horizon. And some of them might work. Some of them might not. We don't know yet. But those are things that are kind of interesting, like, you know, kind of pending technologies, policies, practices. And some of those are fun too.
Reddy: I think a lot of these solutions aren't something that, you know, your everyday people can do a lot about. You know, maybe they can eat less meat, recycle, put solar panels on their roof. But a lot of it is beyond what one individual can do. What would you say to someone who said that to you? Or? Or is this meant more for scientists and researchers who are actually working on these problems?
Foley: No, the book was really intended for everybody, not for scientists in particular, or not just policymakers or something. In fact, I think the larger audience would be really the general kind of interested public of you know, all of us who care about this issue, regardless of their job or what they do in their life. Yes, though, some of the solutions are very much really at the kind of macro level there has to be kind of a macro scale of like a utility grid or you know, entire buildings or retrofitting cities and that kind of thing, of course. But a lot of them do have personal behavioral kind of elements, things that you and I can do to help. A lot of the solutions are around things like, like food waste was one of the top or one of the largest kind of opportunities for climate solutions is around food waste. Another is changing our diets. So those are things that, you know, Washington D.C. doesn't do that for us, we do that. And so reducing food waste, a lot of it happens around us. It happens in our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our places of worship, in our restaurants, and all these kinds of things. But it's important to recognize, and this is crucial, that personal behavior changes alone... if we only act as an individual, all by ourselves and don't talk to anybody, we don't try to influence anybody, we don't get engaged in our politics or civics of our community about climate change, our impact will be very small. But if we do that, and we engage in conversations with our community with our friends and neighbors, our elected leaders, our individual impact can be so much larger. And also, for people who are a little critical of like, "Oh, those individual actions don't matter." Well, in a way, they're sending a little vote to the world every time you do one, because it's sending a market signal if you choose not to buy a big, you know, greenhouse gas emitting vehicle, and you bought an electric car. So like, you just sent a big powerful signal with your wallet, to a whole bunch of companies right away, and to the oil companies, you're not sending them any more money anymore to fill up your gas tank. That's like voting every single day. So that's kind of good. You're voting with your wallet and your behavior and you're sending a signal to businesses and to politicians and to your neighbors and to your friends who see what you're doing that maybe this is important. So some of this kind of first adopter stuff at the personal level does matter. But we can't stop there. We have to keep going far beyond that and have bigger system changes. Otherwise, we're just changing our own backyards.
Reddy: And you're now moving on to Drawdown 2.0. What is that?
Foley: Well, Drawdown 2.0 is going to be a whole bunch of new things. So we're going to move to a whole new digital platform. So the book will be kind of retired, at some point. We'll keep publishing I'm sure but it will be, it's already sort of the numbers are getting more and more out-of-date as the days go by. So it's a digital platform is the first thing. It'll have the newest, the latest, greatest research, good new online tools like models and kind of communication kits. It's going to have a directory of organizations doing drawdown kind of work that you can connect to if you want to. It's also gonna have an education channel with educational resources of some online courses that will be developed over time. That'll be really exciting, help people learn and share drawdown with others. All free by the way. We're also going to start doing more storytelling about not just the solution, but the people doing the solutions and trying to get the word out through kind of a human dimension, not just a climate dimension. And also we're going to do a lot more kind of thought leadership, like kind of engaging in particular policy conversations. The first version of drawdown was kind of agnostic to a Green New Deal. Didn't even exist when that book came out, by the way, let alone a carbon tax or other things like that. So we could actually use our approach and say, "Well, what if you implemented so and so's plan for climate change? What would it do?" Or if you put a carbon tax on this, or you did this with agriculture or industry or whatever, what would happen. We can actually answer those questions. So that's gonna be very exciting. But then another big part of drawdown 2.0 is not just describing drawdown, but moving to implement it. So we're developing partnerships with communities around the world, with companies that are trying to be leaders in climate change, not just reluctant compliers of climate regulation, the people who actually want to lead the revolution to fix this problem. We're excited about that. But also investors and philanthropist there are a lot of philanthropy, you know, big foundations, people want to give away money to good causes, who are putting money into climate change. But they you know, some of them have really good advisors telling them what they should be investing in. Some could use some more help because there may be smaller and don't have large staff. So we're trying to fill in some of those gaps and help make better decisions. And the last thing about drawdown 2.0, so we have like a digital go to place for climate solutions, partnerships to implement them, and third is we really want to work with other especially in the media to help change this conversation a little bit. Americans now overwhelmingly know and believe that climate change is real. Finally, we've finally overcome that silly hurdle of disbelief. But we don't want to lapse into now despair. Where people think, "Oh, my God, it's real, but I can't do anything about it. So let's give up." That's not true. There's a lot we can do about it.There's going to be some warming. There already is. There'll be a little bit more. But if we act with determination and speed and real vigor, we can affect a much better future for the world and stop climate change very, very effectively in the coming decades. And we have all the tools we need to do that. So we want to change the conversation from denial and despair to determination. How do we do it? How do we get there? How do we solve the problem? And we'd really be very excited about that.
Reddy: Do you think that there is cause for optimism when it comes to looking at the situation with climate change?
Foley: Yeah, everywhere you look. Well the problem is, people aren't looking for it. I think we're kind of pre programmed, especially the way sometimes our media works is pre programmed to look at the bad news. You know, "if it bleeds, it leads" kind of mantra in journalism. But there's lots of good news if you go and look for it. And I think our job is to go look for some of that good news and amplify it and double it and triple it and tenfold it. Make sure that there's more of that out there. For example, a lot of people are surprised to know the United States actually peaked our greenhouse gas emissions back in 2007. For the last 11 or 12 years, they've been going down. We're now 15% below the peak that we had back in 2007 here in the US, even though the economy has grown hugely since then. The UK has dropped its emissions by 40% since its highest peak. Actually 42 countries in the world, I believe, are at or near their peak emissions. Now there's like 140 more to go, including like China and India and some big ones. The world has not yet peaked overall, but we're about to. And then we have to kind of accelerate the movement to a low carbon future. And you know, I'm not interested in pessimism, I'm not interested in climate doom, you know, because it doesn't help. I understand when you look at the numbers, it's scary. And we all probably have to stop for a moment and grieve a little bit and kind of, say, "Wow, if things don't change, everything I love about this world could be up for grabs." So it could be in a very bad way. I don't want to leave that world to my kids. I don't want to leave that world for anybody. So nobody does. So I can see people kind of stopping and traveling through this kind of period of reckoning and maybe grief is a good word for that. But after a while, I won't speak for others but for me, I want to get off the mat and try to figure out what to do. And I think there's a lot to do and fueled a little bit by the power of examples of other people who are doing good things. They're out there, we just need to look for them and scale them up. This is not going to be easy. This is not going to happen automatically. This won't happen by invisible hands of the market or technology swooping in and saving us. We will have to do some hard work. But when have we ever back down from hard work in this country, really?
Reddy: Jonathan Foley, thanks for talking with us.
Foley: Yeah, thanks so much for having me here. Appreciate it.
Reddy: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. We've been talking with Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, a project that looks at the top 100 actions to reverse climate change. Now we'll talk with Tom Richard, the director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State, which helped organize the first ever Project Drawdown conference, which was held recently at Penn State. Tom Richard, thanks for talking with us.
Tom Richard: My pleasure.
Reddy: So why did Penn State decide to become a part of this drawdown project and host this conference, the first drawdown conference of its kind?
Richard: Well, a couple of years ago, we had a colloquium speaker, Paul Hawken, who was one of the original founders of Project Drawdown. And he talked about the book down at the State Theater, and was really a powerful presentation. Unlike most of the discussions around climate change, which are rather depressing, this one was just full of hope and possibility. And it caught people's imagination. And that was lots of students, faculty, community members, but also lots of folks in the administration. And with that enthusiasm, we then continue the conversation. And there there was a strong sense from Project Drawdown that they needed to engage more deeply with the scientific community. They had already made some initial contacts was several universities around the world. But with our enthusiasm top to bottom at this university, we were able to really offer a lot. One of the things we did a couple of months... in the first few months after that initial engagement was a survey of our faculty to find out who would be interested in helping look at some of the solutions, of which there are about 80 that are practical and well defined and 20 more that are what they call coming attractions. Well, of those 100 solutions, we had coverage for 99 of them. Over 120 faculty volunteered and most of the faculty volunteered for more than one, so we had depth. And that then translated into the planning for the conference which we volunteered to host and which was very well welcomed. And also the Drawdown Scholars Program, which is an undergraduate research experience which we premiered this last summer.
Reddy: And that had students from all different universities. Yeah?
Richard: Yes. We had over 55 students. About 15 of them were from Penn State from multiple campuses, and also from universities and colleges across the United States. And those students were extraordinary. They now have all been to Penn State and, and many of them are back here for the conference. And they, they worked on solutions. And they helped to advance them. Many of them really identified new opportunities to expand some of these climate solutions. Some of it was fine tuning. One of the things that was really nice was a group of them worked on educational modules. How do we translate these ideas into things that can become part of the curriculum? And one of them even put together a whole series of podcasts that are available online that are really sort of, you know, for public radio listeners. So anyway, that's, that's a little bit of the history and how we got to where we are right now.
Reddy: We know that air travel causes a lot of harmful emissions, people had to come here from all over. Why do you think it's important to get people together in person for a conference like Project Drawdown at Penn State here?
Richard: Well, there are a number of reasons that it's important to get people together. First of all, there's a chemistry that happens when you're face to face with someone that simply isn't the same over the internet, especially if you haven't met somebody. And and what we're doing with Drawdown is actually hard. It's it's controversial. People are passionate about it. And having an opportunity to work together for two or three days to actually talk things through these difficult problems and challenge each other in a way that isn't taken as an as an affront is really valuable. So I don't I don't think that's as easy to do at a distance. But it is a question mark that we faced as we organized the conference. So we did two things to try to minimize our carbon footprint, and also to maximize our educational and scientific impact. One of them is we live streamed the entire conference free globally, and we're recording it all so that it's it will be available to people whenever they want to watch it. And the other is that we purchased carbon offsets. So we did that for everyone who traveled. Now we know that some people who traveled here do that as a routine. And so we've got a few people. I mean, a few of the trips were actually double offset. That's not a bad thing. But carbon offsets are an interesting idea. So the the important piece of that is that you're paying for a reduction in emissions, that wouldn't have happened otherwise. So you don't want to pay people to do something they're already doing. Right. So we wouldn't, for example, pay for forest sequesteration in a national park or a wilderness area where it's already happening. On the other hand, there are private forest lands all around the world in areas which do not have protections where there are organizations that will do third party certification that, that that timber management strategy will be changed from what it is now. And that they'll they'll make sure that that system is storing more carbon than it would have otherwise, for at least 100 years.
Reddy: I watched some of the streams and I saw some of the workshops and there was a lot of brainstorming and coming up with ideas for this and that and what's going to be done with that information that was gathered at the conference here?
Richard: Well, that one of the goals of this conference was to really expand the scientific base of the Drawdown analysis. And one of the things that's kind of surprising is that this sort of comprehensive look at climate solutions hasn't really been done in the same way at a global scale before. So there have been some consulting groups that have done certain projects to try to estimate what the potential was and the cost. But, um, but they didn't have the ability to think or they hadn't taken the effort to think about all the interactions and the positive synergies and their lists of solutions were not as extensive. So for a first attempt to do a global analysis of a portfolio of 100 different solutions to's pretty amazing that it's even happened at all. But every one of those solutions has certain amounts of uncertainty associated with it. And, and they also are done at a global scale. But there's lots of local effects. So one of the goals the conference is to brainstorm about what are those uncertainties? What needs to be done to sort of fine tune the analysis? Where are there are some assumptions that maybe should be challenged? Because we're always learning new things. A lot of the assumptions that went into that analysis were from 2015. It's only four years ago, but actually in the mind of a college student that's a long time. And, and we're learning a lot and we're learning a lot about climate solutions. So so going back and revisiting that, understanding some of the emerging opportunities is really important. For example, just in the last year here at Penn State and we had an invention for solid state refrigeration. So, the loss of those high global warming gases in current refrigerants could actually be eliminated by a solid state device that might look like a TV on the wall that would cool your room with radiant cooling. That's just a brand new thing that looks like it's dramatically more energy efficient, less costly than conventional refrigeration, and didn't exist four years ago. So that's this just sort of thinking about: What needs to be improved? What are the new solutions? Getting some more creative minds working on it. Challenging assumptions. That's the way we advance the body of knowledge that we depend on as a society and Penn State's really happy to be able to host such an activity.
Reddy: And what is Penn State doing next with the Drawdown concept?
Richard: One of the things that is really important is that there's a different portfolio of solutions for every locality, for every organization. And so we now have a good idea of how a global portfolio looks and what are some of the big levers we can pull to combat climate change. But how do they play out here in Pennsylvania, and for Penn State? And this is something which I mean, we've we've done some analysis, it's focused on our renewable energy or on our energy system. That's not a big surprise. We have some analysis of our greenhouse gas footprint. But we haven't taken a portfolio approach, and particularly we haven't looked at our agricultural systems, our 30,000 plus acres of land, most of which is in forest. One of the projects that was funded by our strategic plan implementation process is to look at forests. Another is to look at renewable energy in 2100. How do we bring that information into our own operations? And what can we do with our agricultural system, with our forest system, with our buildings that can complement what we're doing with our energy systems? So so I'd really like to see a Penn State focused Drawdown analysis. I think some of the students that have been working on this would love to do that. Our physical plant and our administration is interested in seeing what a portfolio would look like. So that seems to be a great opportunity for me. Similarly, the state of Pennsylvania has a Climate Action Plan. And they've made a first cut analysis on a lot of different possibilities. And actually, it's pretty detailed. But are there some things that they missed? How can we help them actually explore a broader portfolio? Take our understanding of Pennsylvania, its energy systems, it's built environment and its landscapes, and actually tune that up and think about how we can build economic opportunities, businesses, and jobs and economic development to to compliment the improvements in the climate that we need.
Reddy: And Penn State just broke ground on a really huge solar array.
Richard: Over 500 acres, and it's going to provide us with 25% of our electricity needs. So that's a fantastic investment. And actually, it's one that's already paying itself off. So in this case, our timing was good. But the the program is the saving the university money, where we switch 25% of electricity to renewables. And and that's a great example of our institution looking at the opportunities, making investments where it counts, and demonstrating positive approach to the rest of the our communities and our state and the rest of the world.
Reddy: Tom Richard, thanks so much for talking with me.
Richard: Thank you, Emily was my pleasure.
Reddy: Tom Richard is the director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State. He helped organize the first ever Project Drawdown conference, which was held recently At Penn State. Before that, we heard from Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown. Thanks for listening to Take Note on WPSU. To listen to past episodes of Take Note, go to for WPSU, I'm Emily Reddy.

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.
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