Field Notes

Paul Hawken and Project Drawdown

hawken drawdown

With his new Project Drawdown plan, entrepreneur and visionary Paul Hawken has an important story to tell. It’s a story about humanity’s positive future. A story about surmounting and, indeed, reversing climate change. Getting the words right for this story is something he cares deeply about.

“You can’t fight climate change,” Hawken told the sold-out crowd gathered in our Modern Grange this January.

“The last thing I want to use are metaphors of war, because that’s failing to bring people together,” he said. “And that’s because the human brain does not respond to future existential threats, period. We’re wired to meet human needs now.”

Where we are now is in a state of fear, Hawken observed. The news is bad, the headlines promise worse, the weather is crazy, we’ve tipped past the point, it’s all horrible.

Not so fast.

A companion to the website, Hawken’s new book Drawdown promises that it is “the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming.” It’s nothing less than audacious. But better than that, it’s nothing less than absolutely possible.

Because Drawdown posits that the information, technology, and scientists needed to reverse global warming by 2050 already exist. The methods are already in place. The data points have been proven. The people are ready. But they’re everywhere. Scattered. Far-flung.

What no one has so far done is to take all of that innovative, solution-forward data on the atmospheric concentration of green house gases — and put it in one spot.

Gathering research from scientists working in what Hawken terms “cautious, moderate, respected institutions” in 22 countries across the globe, Project Drawdown does just that. The result, online and in Drawdown, is a considered, mathematical list of the top 100 best ways to draw down atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases — either by avoiding emissions or sequestering carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.

The Drawdown coalition is composed of over 100 researchers, scientists, graduate students, business leaders, and others from various fields who comb the scientific results. All of the research they use is peer-reviewed. “We simply do the math,” Hawken said.

Organized into sections like “Energy,” “Land Use,” “Materials,” and even “Women and Girls,” Drawdown examines innovations already in use — as with solar water heating in the Energy section — and extrapolates what would happen if their application were expanded.

With the solar water heating example, Project Drawdown researchers estimate that if the current 5.5% of the “adressable market” — those who get enough sun to use it to heat water — rose to 25% by 2050, the savings would be roughly $774 billion. Remarkably, 6.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions would be negated.

These are big numbers. Speaking to the SHED audience, Hawken referenced wind turbines as just one example. If wind turbines were adequately increased in their addressable markets by 2050, the financial windfall would be over $7 trillion. “And that’s a conservative estimate,” he stressed.

In fact, Project Drawdown’s conservatism is the most repeated criticism it receives. Rather than spinning fanciful numbers, its projections seem fantastical enough just remaining within the slim confines of reality.

“Ninety-eight of the 100 solutions in Drawdown have so many benefits that we’d want to do them even we weren’t in a crisis,” Hawken said. “We will have reversed global warming by taking care of people’s needs — not their greeds.”

Hawken is an advocate of no-till farming and told the audience about a type of kelp that is attractive to cows and, once ingested, reduces the resulting methane emissions by a full 70 percent. There are so many solutions. “Humanity is on the case,” he assures. “The ideas and implementation we need are already happening.”

According to the statistics compiled by the Project Drawdown team, the #1 problem of global warming is food production and waste and the #1 solution is refrigeration.

But take problems #6 and #7 and combine them. Suddenly the math changes again. Problem #6 is the education of girls; problem #7 is access to family planning. Add those two together and suddenly you have both the #1 problem and the #1 solution all rolled up into one. Might be, the future truly is female.

“Why do we never hear about women?” Hawken asked, seemingly exasperated. “It’s always this promethean attraction to technology.”

Project Drawdown and its companion book are weighty considerations of what it means to be a human on this Earth, with all of the possibility and peril humanity entails. The time for pragmatism, Hawken said, is now.

“Hope is fine,” he told the audience with a broadening smile. “But we’re about reality.”

Field Notes

ZeroFoodprint: Interview with Anthony Myint

zero foodprint myint

Anthony Myint was in Copenhagen at a thought leadership conference sponsored by Noma restaurant in 2014 when the idea for ZeroFoodprint was born.

Myint’s friend, Lucky Peach editor Chris Ying, had just been tapped to lead the next year’s conference, and the men huddled with environmental consultant Peter Freed to brainstorm ideas. Recently becoming a father had amplified Myint’s desire to make a difference. In researching food waste, he learned that the effects are more dire than he could have imagined.

Myint, the co-founder of San Francisco’s famed Mission Chinese and The Perennial restaurants, says that the topic immediately turned to the role of restaurants in responding to climate change.

“The food system is about 43-56 percent of all greenhouse emissions — processing, storage, deforestation,” Myint recently explained by phone from the kitchen at Mission Chinese, where he worked as he talked. “A lot of people think of fossil fuels as being the culprit and while that stuff matters, food is such a big part of it that it seemed that we should find as many ways as we could to stem it.”

The friends knew that restaurateurs would donate money to the cause, sure. But there had to be something that was deeper, that offered a more robust commitment, in order for the actions to deepen and resonate. That something turned out to be ZeroFoodprint.

“We started the organization to learn more about what specific aspects of the industry contribute to greenhouse gas emissions the most and how we can change those things,” Myint says. “There’s an element of taking responsibility but it’s more specific to what each restaurant is doing. It’s learning about your carbon footprint and making the changes that you can and specifically offsetting them.”

To that end, ZeroFoodprint has a certification program that allows restaurants to be evaluated on their carbon emission “foodprint” and learn to take steps to both rectify and offset the valuation. SHED launches its relationship with ZeroFoodprint this month, learning how to change our practices and creating a pathway to offset our emissions.

Even though we built the Healdsburg SHED with an eye to sustainability, insulating our walls with recycled denim, installing photovoltaic panels, and establishing a rigorous composting program from the start, there are still ways that we can diminish our impact. And for those things that simply can’t be changed, we can purchase carbon credits for offset. Working with the ZeroFoodprint organization helps us make these efforts count.

Because, as Myint well knows, it goes beyond simply not throwing away food scraps that could be used to make soup stock or pesto. That kind of waste is accounted for on the bottom line and most restaurants are rigorous in preventing money from being literally thrown away. As we are known to say, it all comes down to soil.

“It was really exciting to learn how farming can change climate change,” Myint says. “The soil used to have a lot more organic matter. We can revise our farming practices to put it back in the soil. In the long run, our goal would be to have zero foodprint contributions to those efforts.”

Carbon offset monies currently go to such entities as the Marin Carbon Project and the American Carbon Registry.

ZeroFoodprint is also working with the Open Table reservation platform to add a category that allows diners to choose a participating restaurant when making a dining choice. It’s still in the “proving out stage,” he says. Once that’s in place, Myint allows, the movement will have a more concrete footing. “It will be easier to have metrics,” he admits. “In the absence of that, it’s a little bit esoteric.”

Myint’s Mission Chinese has always had an altruistic bent, donating 75 cents for every meal purchased to the San Francisco Food Bank. In becoming a ZeroFoodprint establishment itself, it now donates 10 cents for every meal to offset its carbon emissions, too. Myint sees this as a way forward for all dining, even fast food.

But how would this apply, say, to a national franchise like Pizza Hut? Myint goes back to the 10 cents per meal he already charges for offset.

“[Mission Chinese] is not as inexpensive as Pizza Hut, but I’m pretty confident that no one is electing not to eat here because of 10 cents,” he says.

“If leaders in the restaurant industry like SHED are willing to take a stand… that’s how a market is created. We don’t give customers the option; it’s just part of the program.”

For the Pizza Hut example, Myint suggests that they would offer customers the option to donate 20 cents from each purchase to carbon offsets. The only inconvenience would be in checking off a box.

“That seems pretty approachable,” Myint muses. “That actually is the model that we’re trying to get chefs and restaurants to adopt.”

Learn more about the ZeroFoodprint initiative, meet Anthony Myint with colleague J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats, and help us offset our carbon emissions at a very special dinner on Wednesday, Sept. 27

To learn more about the ZeroFoodprint initiative, read Myint’s excellent James Beard op-ed.

Anthony Myint photo by Alanna Hale.