March 15, 2021

We need four waves of climate action

by Dr. Jonathan Foley

jon-foley-four-waves-main-image-1.jpg

Ocean waves
Michael Olsen on Unsplash

Every climate solution works differently, unfolding at different speeds. We’ll need them all, traveling in four parallel waves, to stop climate change.

Addressing climate change is going to be a race against time. Already we have delayed too long, and now we don’t have a moment to lose.

According to the “Carbon Law”, designed to limit global warming to 2˚C, we need to cut emissions in half during this decade and reach “net zero” emissions by 2050. The bulk of the work will be emissions reductions, especially in the next ten years, followed by the build-out of carbon removal by the 2040s.

A simplified version of the “Carbon Law”, which would limit global warming to ~2˚C. It calls for steep emissions cuts immediately, and building out carbon removal projects, in the coming decades. Together, the emissions cuts and carbon removal would help us reach “net zero” by 2050. Graphic by Jonathan Foley © 2021.

As we look to halving emissions by ~2030 and reaching net-zero by ~2050, I like to think of climate solutions moving in “waves” along several parallel fronts. Each one of these “waves” needs to begin today — but they unfold differently and yield results over time.


To understand this, it is important to see that each family of climate solutions has a characteristic timescale associated with it. That is, climate solutions tend to cluster into different categories, each with its own sequencing and pace.

For example, some actions can return rapid results, like radically improving energy efficiency, stopping deforestation, or capping methane leaks and black carbon emissions. Others make steady progress as we upgrade the world’s infrastructure — electrifying millions of buildings and vehicles and changing practices on millions of farms and ranches across the globe. Some others are naturally slower, like sequestering carbon by planting trees or regenerating soils, which build up over decades. And some solutions could be game-changers in the future but still require decades of research and development to come to fruition.


I think we need all these solutions — pursued in parallel. The challenge is to weave them together over time, to make the most progress possible, decade by decade.

Below, I have organized climate solutions into four major waves of action, which I think can play out in different ways.


1. Quick Wins

To dramatically cut emissions in the 2020s, we need aggressive and immediate action. Fortunately, there are solutions that can help with this.

Some “Quick Win” solutions focus on halting highly destructive practices, such as widespread deforestation, flaring and fugitive emissions of methane, and “black carbon” emissions from dirty cookstoves, biomass burning, and other sources. The moment we stop these practices, their emissions cease too. And reducing methane and “black carbon” emissions helps a great deal in the short term, as they pack a huge warming punch up front, while carbon dioxide warms more gradually. In other words, cutting methane and black carbon emissions now buys us time while we tackle other emissions.

Other “Quick Win” solutions focus on efficiency and waste, which can also achieve rapid emissions reductions. There are enormous opportunities to be more efficient in electricity use (especially in buildings and industrial processes), industry (through better management of waste and materials, especially refrigerants), transportation (increased fuel efficiency and alternative transportation), and buildings (with weatherization, insulation, building automation, and preventing refrigerant leaks). And in the food sector, we should dramatically cut food waste (~30–40% of the world’s food is never eaten), which can also greatly lower emissions.

There are obstacles to implementing all of these solutions, of course, but they offer large and immediate emissions reductions, plus strong economic returns. They are among the lowest hanging fruits, and that’s what we need for immediate results.


2. New Infrastructure

In addition to “Quick Wins”, we simultaneously need to start replacing old infrastructure with new, low-emitting systems.

To begin, we have to shut down fossil fuel energy sources and deploy renewable energy across the planet as quickly as possible. But given the enormous physical infrastructure and capital involved, this will inevitably take time. Even the most aggressive scenarios of this energy transition require the 2020s and 2030s to complete.

Beyond phasing out fossil fuels and replacing them with renewables, we will simultaneously have to electrify everything. That means updating nearly every building on Earth so that heating and cooling systems are using renewable electricity. We will also have to retire nearly every vehicle on Earth, replacing them with electric bikes, cars, trucks, and trains.

And we will have to change almost every farm and ranch on Earth, transitioning them from highly-emitting farming techniques to low-emissions methods, including so-called regenerative practices.

We need to get started on all of these big transitions today, but given the massive infrastructure (and capital) turnover involved, this is going to take a concerted effort over two or three decades to accomplish. It reminds me of the old joke: Question: What’s the best time to get started? Answer: 30 years ago. Question: What’s the second-best time to get started? Answer: Today.


3. Growing Natural Sinks

The only viable paths to address climate change require we eventually bring emissions to zero. But we can also create carbon sinks — especially using nature-based carbon removal approaches — that absorb some of our emissions, or even begin to remove some of our past pollution.

To do this, we must start by protecting Earth’s existing carbon sinks, found in forests and the ocean. While we want to build additional carbon sinks, we first need to ensure that existing sinks — which remove ~55% of our carbon dioxide emissions and ~40% of our total greenhouse gas emissions — are maintained. If these start to decline, we will be under even more pressure to cut emissions and create other carbon sinks.

Beyond protecting nature’s existing carbon sinks, we can start to add new ones by restoring ecosystems, especially by planting trees. There are discussions about planting billions and billions of trees to absorb some of our remaining emissions. However, the merits and practicality of these schemes are still hotly debated. In addition to tree planting, we could use regenerative farming practices on croplands, pastures, and degraded lands — building back carbon in the soils and vegetation, creating new carbon sinks. There are debates about the effectiveness of these solutions, but there is enormous potential for carbon uptake on our working lands.

This wave of climate solutions is, by its very nature, steady and gradual, playing out over decades. Protecting nature’s current carbon sinks and adding new ones is a long-game, based on building carbon stocks in trees and soil. We should start this work today and continue to protect our natural ecosystems and regeneratively manage our working lands through the next few decades and beyond.


4. Deploying New Tech

The other waves can address most of our emissions and create significant new carbon sinks. But there are areas that are difficult to decarbonize and will require new technology. And there are opportunities to use technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere beyond what nature-based solutions can do. This is where focused research and development efforts, starting today, could pay off in the long run.

This wave of climate solutions depends on new technology, but as an “end game” move in the climate chess match. These will take time to develop, so we should rely on other, existing solutions in the next two decades, leaving these new technologies for the final moves.

Specifically, I think we need to focus on research and development, starting today, to make carbon-free cement, steel, plastic, and jet fuel. There are pilot projects to do this today, but they are far from economically competitive and scalable. But with some significant investment, I am confident we can find good, cheap, reliable ways to do this in the coming decades.

In addition, there are interesting ideas about removing carbon from the atmosphere using a variety of industrial and chemical processes. At present, these are only small pilot projects, not nearly enough to make a dent in the atmosphere. But with a decade or two of additional research and development, these technologies may mature to be able to remove our last, hard-to-decarbonize emissions in the 2040s.

A (potentially big) mistake would be to let the promise of carbon removal technology be an excuse to delay immediate emissions cuts. These technologies are likely decades away and only absorb some of our final emissions. That’s where they should focus.

A hypothetical example of how four different “waves” of climate solutions might unfold over time. Obviously, the details depend on our choices. Graphic by Jonathan Foley © 2021.

We are in a race to stop climate change. It’s the race of a lifetime. It’s a race for the future.

To win this race, we will need many different climate solutions — deployed strategically over time — to get the best possible result overall. In other words, we have to carefully stage our climate efforts to maximize the overall rate of progress — folding in new tools as we can — until we cross the finish line.


Dr. Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) is the Executive Director of Project Drawdown, the world’s leading resource for climate solutions.

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September 15, 2021
Project Drawdown welcomes Stephan Nicoleau to its Board of Directors
(September 15, 2021) — Project Drawdown is pleased to announce the election of Stephan Nicoleau—Partner at FullCycle, an investment firm focused on addressing the climate crisis—to its Board of Directors. Nicoleau is an investor, advisor, and founder with more than 15 years of experience in the social and environmental impact space. He joins eight longtime Project Drawdown Board members during a time of remarkable growth for the nonprofit organization. “We couldn’t have found a more passionate climate advocate to join our Board,” says Project Drawdown Executive Director Jonathan Foley, PhD. “Stephan knows how to think long-term while taking action on the best investment climate solutions we have in-hand today. Project Drawdown is proud to have his support—and an opportunity to learn from him—as we significantly level up our efforts to help the world reach drawdown quickly, safely, and equitably.” Visionary social, environmental, and financial leadership At FullCycle, Nicoleau heads capital solutions for the firm, managing institutional relationships and the firm’s capital formation for its fund vehicles. He began his career as a management consultant, as a founding member of Coalition Ltd., a boutique strategy consultancy, which advised the executive management teams of the top global investment banks such as JP Morgan, Credit Suisse and Barclays Capital.  Later—in founding Critical Value Advisors (“CVA”)—Nicoleau built an advisory practice which served private investors managing several billion in assets, working to source emerging managers and impact investment opportunities globally. CVA structured and advised investments in venture, real estate, and infrastructure, playing an integral role in identifying investment opportunities that would achieve environmental, social, and financial returns for private and institutional investors. In 2016, he founded LaGuardia Development Partners (“LDP”), a minority-owned infrastructure financing vehicle focused on the redevelopment of LaGuardia Airport—a project that was integral in reshaping the public private partnership (“P3”) to be more inclusive of minority and women-owned funders and operators.  In addition to serving on the board of Project Drawdown, Nicoleau serves on the boards of Monument Lab, a public arts studio leading national conversations about public space and history; and Future of Cities, a regenerative placemaking coalition focused on sustainable urban development. Nicoleau is an active mentor to entrepreneurs in his community, lives in New York City, and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. In his own words Project Drawdown: When did you first become passionate about climate change and solutions? Nicoleau: I have been an impact investor for over 15 years, so climate has always been part of my work. However, as the science became clearer for us all, I understood my role in having impact would be to work on this existential issue. My passion to have an impact is met by my desire to be as effective as possible in my work—and I’m grateful to do it every day. Because I have experience as an investor, operator, and finance professional, I feel especially lucky that I can meaningfully apply my lived and professional experience to addressing the greatest challenge of our times. PD: What are you doing to help the world reach drawdown—the future point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline? Nicoleau: I’d say this is most prominent in my work at FullCycle, where we are actively scaling climate-critical infrastructure that has the capacity for significant abatement and drawdown of CO2 and its equivalents. My advocacy for an “all-hands-on-deck” approach has been a hallmark of my efforts to help us meaningfully drawdown GHGs, and has spurred dialogue and action well beyond the fund with policy makers, philanthropists, and community stakeholders. PD: What’s your favorite part of your work with Fullcycle? Nicoleau: There is a lot to love about FullCycle’s mission—we’re invested with incredible capital partners and operators, and we’re a team that deeply cares about making a difference. This  compelling, activated community and ecosystem that we have built inspires me every day. The innovations we see —and indeed, those that we select to commercialize—are transformative, which gives me hope that we can mitigate the impact of climate change while investing and building the future that we and future generations deserve. PD: Which climate solution(s) do you wish the finance and investment community would adopt today to make an impact? Nicoleau: We’re going to need to accelerate investment in all of the available emissions-abating technologies, practices, and solutions that are available now. But because the climate crisis is so urgent, the order in which we invest matters significantly. Solutions that have the highest carbon abatement potential (per dollar invested) must be prioritized alongside those solutions that are ready for market and implementable at scale. For investors, that means investing with managers that are designed to accelerate solutions and deliver measurable climate and financial returns—galvanizing the global markets to invest trillions into climate restoration. Focusing on infrastructure is the most effective way for asset managers to have a meaningful impact, as climate change is mostly driven by the operations of our global systems. PD: How should nonprofits like Project Drawdown commit more deeply to equity and justice in their climate work? How would you like to see this organization grow? Nicoleau: Project Drawdown can play a substantial and important role in identifying the critical link between climate solutions and a more just transition to a low-carbon future. As we identify the best innovations, practices, and nature-based solutions that actively drawdown greenhouse gases, we must consider the reparative power of implementation at every frontline and in communities that have been underserved. This intersection between the work to overhaul our aging infrastructure and the work to build a more equitable world is an important one for us to explore and activate through the solutions work at Project Drawdown. This includes working to include the voices of traditionally underrepresented communities and stakeholders in our conversations about a just transition to a low-carbon, more equitable, and increasingly resilient global economy. About Project Drawdown Founded in 2014, Project Drawdown® is a nonprofit organization that seeks to help the world reach “drawdown”—the future point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline. Since the 2017 publication of the New York Times bestseller Drawdown, the organization has emerged as a leading resource for information and insight about climate solutions. We continue to develop that resource by conducting rigorous review and assessment of climate solutions, creating compelling and human communication across media, and partnering with efforts to accelerate climate solutions globally. Cities, universities, corporations, philanthropies, policymakers, communities, educators, activists, and more turn to Project Drawdown as they look to advance effective climate action. We aim to support the growing constellation of efforts to move climate solutions forward and move the world toward drawdown—as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Project Drawdown is funded by individual and institutional donations.
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August 23, 2021
Young girl in school
Essential tips for talking about Project Drawdown's Health and Education solution
by Carissa Patrone, Program Coordinator—Drawdown Lift
Drawdown Lift—a new program at Project Drawdown—is reflecting on how our team works to break down disciplinary walls and lift up global solutions that address climate change and extreme poverty, and enhance human well-being around the world. We are thrilled that so many thought-leaders and changemakers continue to champion action on (and communicate around) Project Drawdown’s work, including our organization’s Health and Education solution, given the foundational roles that reproductive health and education play in poverty alleviation. Collaboratively, Drawdown Lift focuses on advancing solutions designed to catalyze positive, equitable change in the most under-financially resourced communities in low- and middle- income countries.  When we work together to address societal inequities by lifting up gender equality, universal education, and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), we can also advance long-term solutions to climate change.  In communicating Project Drawdown’s Health and Education solution, it is important to avoid oversimplifying the complexities and interconnectedness of this work. Anyone working in this space must examine power structures and work to unpack the various systems of oppression (e.g., white supremacy and racism, patriarchy and sexism, colonization, classism, and more) that surface when working to reach “drawdown”—the point in the future when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline, thereby stopping catastrophic climate change.  Drawdown Lift has created this resource guide to welcome everyone (researchers, practitioners, and advocates) to communicate this solution in a way that centers equity and bodily autonomy, does not induce harm or reinforce systems of oppression, and reflects the vision of Project Drawdown.  Gender equality Women and girls from emerging economy countries continue to be disproportionately impacted by climate change, environmental degradation and exploitation, and a lack of environmental protections around the world.  Almost half of consumption-related emissions are generated by just 10% of people globally. Project Drawdown recognizes that a majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from high-income, high-consumption countries. Women and girls in emerging economy countries are often disproportionately (first and worst) impacted by the effects of climate change, including but not limited to extreme weather events and natural disasters. We do not have the ability to “empower” anyone. Every person on this planet has power within themselves, but many people have been systematically and historically excluded from spaces, conversations, and vital resources.  Women and girls are not passive victims. However, they have been systematically excluded from many decision-making opportunities, resources, institutions, and spaces to support their own growth and leadership.  Malala Yousafzai (esteemed advocate for girls’ education from Pakistan) and Wangari Maathai (environmental activist and creator of the Green Belt Movement from Kenya) are two inspiring examples of women who have stood up to make waves for women and girls in education and environmental conservation. Through leadership and holistic actions, Yousafzai—and Maathai, who passed away in 2011 but whose legacy lives on—challenged systems and made sure that their voices were heard around the world. The importance of universal education Access to high-quality education is not a privilege, but a fundamental human right. Education provides an opportunity for children to develop their capacity, empower themselves, and increase their knowledge in various subject areas. Recent data show many inequities within our education systems across the world. According to UNICEF, “Forty-four percent of girls and 34 percent of boys (10-19 years old) from the poorest families have never attended school or dropped out before completing primary education." High-quality universal education is transformative, and is a basic human right for all people. Inequities within education systems perpetuate injustice in both the social and economic spheres. A focus on high-quality education is particularly important for girls, who are often left behind in terms of educational access and quality. Still today, according to UNICEF, around 129 million girls around the world don’t attend school. Also, the COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately impacted girls (ages 12–17) in low- and lower-income countries who often have a greater risk of dropping out of school. Educating girls and committing fully to climate action go hand-in-hand.  Girls are important agents of change, particularly in the climate space. When girls have access to high-quality education, their ability to contribute to climate change mitigation and adapt to climate shocks increases. Girls who have access to education are more likely to become informed about climate change and take action on climate solutions.  Sexual and reproductive health and rights High-quality universal education and SRHR are both important due to the ancillary benefits they have as climate solutions. At times—regardless of a person’s intentions—these topics can be communicated in a way that is not rights-based or does not convey the importance of the right of girls and women to have full bodily autonomy.  Gender equality and women’s and girls’ reproductive rights must be embedded into climate solutions and climate justice. Project Drawdown does not advocate for “small” or “ideal” family sizes or limiting fertility; such policies are generally racist, classist, and often coercive. Our model reflects changes in future population growth scenarios based on the United Nations’ population projections. We unequivocally advocate for all adolescents and women to have full bodily autonomy to decide whether, when, with whom, and how many children to have.   When communicating about reproductive health, it is important to use language that reflects the agency of women and girls and their own choices while also considering different laws, policies, and practices around the world.  When speaking about reproductive health, it is important to recognize differences within socio-cultural norms in different places and spaces. In order for families, communities, countries, and the world to reach gender equality, there must be a shift in attitudes, beliefs, and policy to mitigate harmful gender norms. Furthermore, engaging men is a crucial part of the solution to achieve gender equality.  Universal education and SRHR have numerous benefits for all people and must be embedded in climate conversations and solutions. It’s important to recognize that women and girls in both emerging economy countries and high-income countries can lack access to high-quality and affordable reproductive health care.  Access to high-quality reproductive health care (including voluntary family planning) and universal education are essential human rights with profound cascading benefits that include enhanced overall health of women and their families, economic growth, and an increased ability of individuals and households to cope with climate shocks and stressors. In addition, addressing inequities in society provides ancillary climate benefits as population growth slows at a global level. Climate impacts and the power of women in action Gender inequality and power imbalances are often amplified during times of crises, such as the climate crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic. Gender-based violence has also been linked to power struggles over natural resources (especially in resource-scarce or degraded lands), environmental crimes, extractive industries, weather-related disasters, and climate-related conflict.        Prevalence of gender-based violence often increases during times of extreme environmental stressors and climate shocks, which amplify pre-existing gender inequalities.  Access to high-quality, universal education and SRHR are two separate but interconnected domains encompassed in Project Drawdown’s Health and Education solution. This solution models changes in population growth by 2050, and includes two rights-based measures: (1) universal right and voluntary access to reproductive healthcare and (2) universal access to quality primary and secondary education (12–13 years of schooling). It was assumed that these interventions are inherently synergistic. Education and knowledge are power and can be a gateway for girls to become active community members and leaders.  Girls with access to high-quality education and full knowledge and access to SRHR can be more involved in political, social, and economic spheres of life.  Studies show that gender equality—for example, a greater proportion of women in national government—is strongly associated with more robust environmentalism on a national level. In other words, women in national legislatures have shown to vote for more stringent climate and environmental protections. Among many reasons, some include the fact that more harm from environmental degradation is felt by women and that women participate more than men in social movements.    Greater involvement of women in local decision making leads to better natural resource management and conservation outcomes.  We all benefit when women have equal access to opportunities to educate ourselves and have full autonomy over our bodies. When referencing Project Drawdown’s Health and Education solution in ways that are rights-based and acknowledge the important work and power of women in an unequal world, we can advance health, equity, and human well-being and also generate cascading benefits for climate. Call to action  We need everyone—activists, SRHR leaders, human well-being experts, and concerned global citizens—to stand up and support equity-driven climate solutions. We hope that the inclusive, rights-based language highlighted here will support everyone working to champion universal, high-quality education and family planning for all as important goals, which are made more powerful by the double-duty they serve as climate solutions. 
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June 17, 2021
California coast and sunset
Opinion: The world needs better climate pledges
by Jonathan Foley
Governments and businesses are looking to lead on climate change, but too many of their commitments are built on flawed “net zero” frameworks and problematic “carbon offsets.” Authentic climate leadership requires more—a transparent and meaningful “Emissions 360” pledge that is focused on bringing real emissions to zero, helping others do the same, and equitably addressing historic climate pollution. The world’s conversations about climate change have fundamentally shifted during the last few years. We have moved beyond old debates around whether climate change is happening (hint: it is) to more constructive discussions about addressing it. That’s excellent news, even if we spent decades getting here. In the sudden rush to address climate change—or at least look like we are—we have seen many companies, industry groups, and countries stake out leadership positions. Many of them have made so-called “net zero” climate pledges, complete with fancy logos and bold-sounding names. Making and fulfilling pledges is a crucial aspect of climate leadership, but it’s only a first step. As my Project Drawdown colleague, Jamie Alexander, points out in a recent Fast Company article: “Corporate emissions reductions pledges — however ambitious they may be for a particular company — completely miss the deeper issues that the climate crisis demands we grapple with, and only play at the edges of the revolutionary change we need.” She calls for companies to adopt more robust climate pledges and targets, as well as push for better climate policy, support stronger climate action in the community, and be transformative climate leaders. And she’s right. Building better pledges is the first step in transforming climate leadership As a cornerstone of climate leadership, the weakness of today’s pledges is particularly troubling. Without clear, robust, and scientifically-sound goals, it is impossible to raise climate action to the level Earth needs. Today it seems “net zero” pledges are all the rage. And in the lead-up to the next big climate conference—the “COP26” meeting in Glasgow—we will see even more politicians, CEOs, and celebrities make net-zero pledges. Unfortunately, net-zero commitments—which once seemed like a good idea—have become so distorted and abused they are now largely meaningless. Sadly, the net-zero concept has been misused by bad or indifferent actors, allowing them to make bold-sounding climate pledges without really reducing emissions at all. Misusing “net zero” Before it was co-opted, the term “net zero” was used by climate scientists to describe scenarios when the entire atmosphere was, on balance, no longer building up greenhouse gases. Not a company or a country. The whole planet. These scenarios describe a time in the future when the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced (by 90% or more), and carbon removal projects are only used for a few remaining emissions. They did not say we should avoid cutting emissions and rely on fictional levels of carbon removal instead. But that’s exactly what many companies are trying to do. A lot of companies have made dubious climate commitments using accounting tricks—usually relying on problematic “carbon offsets” to make the books look better than they are. And what’s worse: Of the Fortune 500 companies that have made public net-zero commitments, only ~20% have robust frameworks, and very few are reporting their progress. Many carbon offsets are problematic Unfortunately, net-zero pledges have become so distorted they allow for any combination of emissions cuts and carbon offsets to reach their goal. In fact, one can claim net-zero emissions by only buying carbon offsets — without actually reducing emissions at all. This is a carbon shell game, not a real commitment to climate action. It’s quite telling that the oil and gas industry is heavily invested in the net-zero concept. They don’t plan to actually reduce the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, of course. Instead, most are buying dubious carbon offsets to cover their operational emissions (but not the emissions from burning the oil and gas they sell) while claiming to be “net zero” climate leaders. It’s complete bullshit, of course, but it makes for good PR. It looks like action, without really acting. And that’s precisely why they’re doing it. Carbon offsets come in two flavors—either (1) paying others to reduce their emissions, who in turn give you imaginary “carbon credits” in exchange, or (2) banking on risky or non-existent carbon removal schemes to effectively “undo” your emissions sometime in the future. The first kind of carbon offsets, where you pay someone else to reduce emissions, is a zero-sum game. In the short run, it can help pump cash into projects that may reduce emissions somewhere—assuming the offsets are genuine. But because the entire world needs to bring emissions to zero, not just a few wealthy companies, we can’t simply pay “someone else” to do it forever. At the end of the day, there’s no one left to pay. The second kind of carbon offsets, which bank on trees, farms, oceans, and machines to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, makes a very risky bet. Yes, forests, soils, and coastal ecosystems can naturally absorb some carbon from the atmosphere, but only to a point. These carbon sinks are not infinite (and are probably smaller than many advocates claim), they take years to build, and they are only effective if we maintain them forever — never allowing them to be cleared, plowed, or burned down. And while carbon removal machines are getting a lot of attention, they are laughably small compared to the job at hand. Even a million-fold scale-up of carbon removal technology would only absorb a tiny percentage of our emissions. Most of all, we need to see that vague promises of future carbon removal are just sneaky ways of allowing emissions to continue unchecked today. It’s no surprise that the biggest proponents of carbon removal technology are oil and gas companies, who have no interest in addressing climate change. It’s just a predatory delay tactic, which their industry has mastered. Climate pledges that play games with net-zero math and rely on make-believe offsets may be good PR, as oil and gas companies have found, but they’re not addressing the real challenges we face. Serious climate commitments recognize that we need to bring emissions to zero, not “Net Zero”, as quickly as we can. We cannot achieve this with imaginary offsets, carbon trading schemes, or vague “pollute now and remove it later” promises. Most pledges ignore the pollution we’ve already emitted Another issue with most net-zero climate pledges is that they only look at future emissions and ignore the pollution they have already released. A robust climate pledge needs to address historical emissions too. After all, most of the greenhouse gases we have emitted are still in the atmosphere—contributing to the continued warming of the planet. We can’t just forgive and forget them. In fact, we must ultimately find ways to remove our share of that pollution. Think “historic zero” instead of “net zero”. If this sounds odd, it shouldn’t. After all, if a factory was dumping toxic sludge into a local lake, government agencies would order them to do two things—stop polluting the lake as quickly as possible and then clean up the pollution they already dumped there. Why is the atmosphere any different? Most pledges only have faraway goals with no accountability Another serious problem with many of today’s climate pledges is that they set very distant goals—like “Net Zero by 2050”—with no near-term accountability. Setting mid-century corporate goals, without any specific benchmarks in the meantime, is ridiculous. Many companies on Earth today won’t even exist in 2050. And it’s almost certain that their current CEOs and board members won’t be around. So, where’s the accountability? A better climate pledge would start with bold, long-term goals. But they would also have more immediate metrics. For example, cutting emissions to zero by 2050 may be an excellent long-term goal, but it should come with intermediate (e.g., cutting emissions in half by 2030) and short-term (e.g., cutting emissions by at least 7% every year) milestones. Moreover, every business should carefully audit and report their progress on climate goals along the way. The results should be reported as seriously as financial statements, with leaders taking real responsibility for them. A new “Emissions 360” climate pledge framework Moving forward, we need better, more transparent climate pledges. They are a necessary foundation for meaningful climate leadership. Here I outline a possible new framework—called the “Emissions 360” approach—that is built on five pillars. (1) Cut your own emissions towards zero, not “net zero,” as quickly as possible. Look hard at your own emissions, and find ways to reduce them as quickly as possible. Pay particular attention to cutting short-lived warming agents like methane and black carbon, which will help slow climate change even more than cutting carbon dioxide. Some of these cuts will be easy and fast. But some emissions are going to take a while to phase out. Keep at it. Steady progress is what matters here. Don’t even think about “offsets”, which can give the illusion of progress without truly reducing emissions. Commit to short-term and long-term goals. Be transparent. Report how you’ve cut emissions and where you’re still struggling each year. (2) Only use carbon removal as a last resort—for truly unavoidable emissions. One of the most significant abuses of net-zero frameworks allows companies to make vague promises of future carbon removal to avoid cutting emissions today. This kind of carbon shell game is designed to delay climate action and can no longer be tolerated. However, there may be a few areas where cutting greenhouse gas emissions will be exceptionally difficult or physically impractical. These truly unavoidable emissions cases might justify some limited carbon removal projects. Carbon neutral (or negative) ways to make jet fuel, cement, and steel come to mind. But that’s about it. Carbon removal should only be used to offset emissions as a last resort, decades from now, after every practical means of cutting them has been exhausted. Promises of future carbon removal can no longer be used as a dodge, avoiding the real work of cutting emissions today. In particular, carbon removal schemes should never be used to justify the continued use of fossil fuels, bad agricultural practices, or wasteful materials. (3) Pay the “Social Cost of Carbon” for your ongoing pollution. As your company works to cut emissions, donate significant sums of money (based on the “Social Cost of Carbon” for your ongoing pollution) to help advance the world’s broader climate efforts. Ideally, these funds would help others (especially disenfranchised and vulnerable communities) reduce their emissions, become more climate resilient, and address long-standing climate justice issues. But, once again, don’t count these donations as “offsets” to your own emissions. They’re not, and they never were. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do. Or count it as a business cost. Either way, I suspect you will be rewarded for a more transparent, honest, and forthright way of addressing your emissions—and for supporting others around the world to address climate change. (4) Don’t stop here: Address your historic emissions too. Strong climate pledges should also commit to removing as much of your historic climate pollution from the atmosphere as possible. In other words, try to reach “historic zero” emissions, reflecting the impact your company has had over time. This will help reduce future climate change and address the long-standing inequities in greenhouse gas emissions seen around the world. Lay out a plan to address these historic emissions with transparent, carefully-managed carbon removal projects. It may be impossible to sequester all of your historical emissions, of course—given the physical and technological limits of carbon removal—but we should do as much as we can. This is one place where well-managed carbon removal projects make sense. Using carbon removal to avoid reducing our ongoing emissions is a mistake, and perpetuates a false image of meaningful climate action. Instead, let’s use this technology (and its limited removal capacity) to address historical emissions, not future ones. (5) Carefully weigh issues of climate justice in everything you do. Climate change presents a lens through which we can see some of the worst injustices of human history. The rich and powerful have benefitted most from the rise of the fossil-fueled economy, while other, disenfranchised communities — especially people of color and those in poorer countries — paid the highest price. And today’s generations still enjoy the spoils of a fossil-powered, high-energy world and a stable planetary environment. But unless we change our ways quickly, future generations might not see either one. Addressing climate change requires more than restoring the balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is necessary, but not sufficient. Along the way, we must be careful that climate solutions do not introduce more even more inequities, injustices, and harm to people alive today—particularly the most vulnerable among us—or generations yet to come. This piece was originally published on Dr. Jonathan Foley's Medium page June 16, 2021. Foley is a climate and environmental scientist, writer, and speaker. He is also the executive director of Project Drawdown, the world’s leading resource for climate solutions.  
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