books climate change

Drawdown’s top ten climate change solutions

Drawdown, which I reviewed last week, is a book with 100 solutions to climate change, each quantified and ranked for effectiveness. I was rather surprised by the top ten, especially given how much attention certain solutions get relative to others. So here it is, and all the technical details are available online if you want to see the maths:

  1. Refrigeration – the most effective thing we can do to help reverse climate change is dispose of fridges and air conditioning units properly, so that their HFC gases don’t escape into the atmosphere. I don’t think I’ve ever written about refrigeration on the blog here, which now seems like a major oversight and I will correct that in due course.
  2. Onshore wind – the most cost effective form of electricity generation, and therefore the cheapest way to displace fossil fuels. There is room for widespread adoption of wind power in many parts of the world.
  3. Food waste – everyone can agree that less food waste is a good thing, and when you factor in the emissions that go into producing what we throw away, as well as emissions from landfill, it’s at number three in the list of solutions.
  4. Plant-rich diets – or eating less meat, if you prefer. Of everything on the list, this is the one that most of us could make a start on right now, and make a serious dent in our personal carbon footprint.
  5. Tropical forests – forests in the tropical regions have the highest carbon uptake, but have been extensively cleared in recent decades. Restoring and protecting tropical forests would turn a source of emissions into a carbon sink, and have many benefits for people and development too.
  6. Educating girls – another surprise at how high this comes in, and again, it shouldn’t be controversial. Educating girls qualifies as a climate change solution because the more years of education women complete, the fewer children they tend to have. At 100% enrollment of girls in secondary school, the world population would be 843 million lower in 2050 than current projections, dramatically improving the chances of providing a decent way of life for everyone in a stable climate.
  7. Family planning – on a related note, providing contraceptives to all those that want them would also reduce the burden on the planet while improving opportunities for women.
  8. Solar farms – with their full life cycle considered, solar farms produce 94% fewer carbon emissions than coal power. The Drawdown research suggests that from 0.4% of global electricity, utility-scale PV could expand to provide 10% by 2050.
  9. Silvopasture – I’m not sure I’ve even heard the word before, but it’s “the integration of trees and pasture or forage into a single system for raising livestock.” In other words, you graze your sheep, cows or deer amongst the trees. This agroforestry technique gives good yields on the animals, sequesters carbon and restores soil, and has been practiced for thousands of years. The idea of clearing land of trees in order to raise cattle is starting to look really dumb.
  10. Rooftop solar – a second entry into the top ten for solar, rooftop PV has the advantage of being decentralised and suitable for off-grid applications. It could prove to be the easiest way for rural households without electricity to get the power that they need, making it a technology for everyone.

I should mention that if you were writing a list for reducing your personal carbon footprint, there are some things you’d definitely see on there – such as avoiding flying or reducing your car use. These things do feature in the Drawdown list, but they’re often scattered across several solutions. So reducing car use is addressed by trains, bus rapid transit, walkable cities, cycling and EVs. It’s not that they don’t matter or have been forgotten.

Here’s the top ten in its context, showing its relative impact and the next twenty solutions in the list. To see the whole list, I can recommend the book or an extended browse through the Drawdown website.


  1. I’m surprised to see educating girls and family planning so far down the list! For every child not conceived by a wealthy couple, you save a whole lifetime of high volume emissions / consumption…and more if that child goes on to have children. In poor communities, fewer children tend to lead to less environmental degradation (eg trees cleared for agriculture, fish caught, grassland overgrazed etc). Again there is a huge multiplier down the generations. And a child not conceived is never going to have a fridge or aircon to dispose of, are they?!

    1. Correct, but the wealthiest couples already have fewer children, as do those in middle income countries. The biggest change will come lower down the ladder, and so have a lower impact. It’s still very significant though.

  2. If we give up industrial meat production I’d imagine ‘sustainable’ meat would be priced out of range for most people. It’s about time people focused more on food production for the climate footprint. Personally, there are other ethical reasons for giving up meat but industrial meat has to go.

    1. Agreed. And yes, it would but up meat prices, although in the past meat was more of a luxury and was saved for special occasions. Still is in many places. Since there would be so many benefits to eating less meat anyway, more expensive meat wouldn’t be a great loss.

  3. Circular economy features in various different interventions rather than one single one – for instance in refrigeration right at the top. Likewise efficiency, which crops up in a number of them, from LED bulbs to water pumping.

    I was surprised that aviation and cutting car use didn’t feature higher, but the focus is on reversing climate change rather than cutting CO2, and many of the items towards the top are carbon positive.

  4. This is all good and well, but it takes a completely apolitical stance. What about transferring massive fossil fuel subsidies to renewables? Or pressuring banks to stop funding new fossil fuel infrastructure and coal mining? Or implementing a global carbon tax? Or kicking polluters out of global climate talks?
    An apolitical stance pretends that there are no vested interests in propping up the existing system. In reality, there are, and while the work done by Drawdown is excellent, the progress to be made is both technological and political. I would love to see political considerations and what-if scenarios incorporated here.

    1. A fair point, and I don’t think the Drawdown fellows are unaware of politics, it’s just not the focus of their work. The idea here is to present a workable plan that proves that climate change can be reversed, even without politically controversial solutions. It’s a list that people of all political persuasions could read and understand and support, which is really important. It’s also a list of quantifiable solutions, and many of the more campaigning ideas you suggest there would be hard to pin down.

      As it works out in reality, of course it will encounter power structures that need more political solutions. But getting a broad base of support for a plan of action would reduce that, and that’s what Drawdown can contribute.

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