Drawdown: a review of the Review

By Jane O’Sullivan

Hats off to Paul Hawken, the environmentalist behind Project Drawdown. Three years ago, he published a best-selling book, ‘Drawdown: the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming’. The concept was brilliantly simple. It stripped away the complexity of how to respond to climate change, by cataloguing the hundred most impactful actions that could be taken, using existing technologies, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Listed at numbers 6 and 7 were ‘Educating Girls’ and ‘Family Planning’, each attributed 59.6 Gt CO2-eq. Less obvious was that, when taken together, these two constituted the greatest single contribution of all, at 119 Gt. And they do go together, since they represent the emissions saved by reducing global population growth from the UN’s ‘medium fertility’ projection to its ‘low fertility’ projection. To his credit, Paul Hawken drew attention to this fact in talks on the project, particularly in his appearance on Damon Gameau’s uplifting climate-solutions movie ‘2040’.

Note that the UN’s low-fertility projection is an outcome-based projection (achieving half a child per woman fewer births globally), not based on the policies or actions required to achieve that outcome. Drawdown simply split the resulting emissions equally between ‘education for girls’ and ‘family planning access’, on an entirely arbitrary basis. By focusing most of the commentary on empowering girls, they might deflect the push-back against family planning programs, which many readers still wrongly associate with neo-colonial, victim-blaming, rights-abusing ‘population control’.

Recently, Project Drawdown has released a new book, ‘The Drawdown Review 2020: Climate Solutions for a New Decade’.

Population interventions are again included, but this time under the single entry ‘Health & Education’, attributed 85.4 Gt CO2-eq emissions reductions.

In the timid world of environmental advocacy, one must be grateful that Project Drawdown has chosen to include actions to lessen population growth, and dares to discuss it. But it is disappointing to see voluntary family planning further demoted to the fine-print explaining the item ‘Health & Education’.

Family planning counseling. Photo: Sala Lewis

Is political correctness causing population efforts to be misdirected?

The new presentation gives the impression that population growth is best minimised by indirect, rather than direct, interventions. We know this to be untrue: all instances of rapid fertility decline since 1955 have been associated with direct promotion of small families within national voluntary family planning programs. And yes, that includes China, where most fertility decline occurred under a voluntary program in the decade before the one-child policy was introduced. In contrast, the link between girls’ education and fertility tends to be weak, once co-determinants (such as parents’ socioeconomic status and support for gender equity) are taken into account.

Disappointingly, even less information is given about the calculation of this population contribution than in the original book ‘Drawdown’. There is no explanation for why the emissions reduction is lower than in round 1. The text in this section is mainly an attempt to ward off criticisms for including such an item at all. For example, it stresses that ‘It’s critical to note the vast disparities in emissions from high-income countries compared to low …’ and asserts that ‘The topic of population also raises the troubling, often racist, classist, and coercive history of population control.’ Like many current treatments of the topic, it ignores the profoundly humanitarian history of the voluntary family planning movement, instead elevating rare instances of ethnic targeting and coercion far beyond their importance. To assure that what they are advocating has the approval of the global community, they stress, ‘the United Nations notes that the international community has committed to ensuring that all people have access to family planning, should they wish to use it, and the ability to decide how many children to have and when.

The Drawdown Review states, ‘People’s choices about how many children to have should be theirs and theirs alone. And those children should inherit a livable planet.’ But it does not explore the tension between these two rights. Somehow, the use of the word ‘planet’ lifts the responsibility for each child to the entire human race, absolving parents of this responsibility. Yet the liveability of their community’s own local environment, under their own customary management, is directly diminished by increasing the size of each generation. Somehow, the rest of humanity bear the guilt if local destruction makes a misery of life for those children.

The UN human rights charter, affirmed in the Cairo Programme of Action on Population and Development, states that parents should be able to choose their family size ‘freely and responsibly’. The words ‘and responsibly’ are almost entirely forgotten in recent years. At least, the words ‘the ability to decide how many’ might be interpreted to include education on the personal responsibilities of parents, not only toward their own children, but to the others (human and non-human) against whom their children must compete for ever-diminishing means of subsistence.


The cross-cutting benefits of population rendered invisible

The new Drawdown report stresses their attempts to integrate solutions in the scenarios presented: ‘The individual “bottom-up” solution models can be run in isolation, but we also integrate the models within and across multiple sectors. This allows us to consider how the ensemble of solutions might work together, … and addresses interaction between solutions where possible.

It is very difficult to incorporate all likely interactions, without introducing dangerously uncertain assumptions, and it is understandable that Project Drawdown does not do this comprehensively. That the results are presented as an inventory of separate and additive items means that the benefits of interactions are attributed to one or other action, with little transparency.

Population affects the scale of most of the emissions sources on their list, and hence the impact of most of the remediation actions. But there is no evidence that these interactions were studied, let alone reported on. The Drawdown Review presents two scenarios, representing strong climate action and truly heroic climate action, with greater implementation of each solution in the second scenario. Emissions are compared with a baseline, no-climate-action scenario. But ‘Health and Education’ is one item that is not varied. The same low population projection is assumed in both scenarios, against the higher population assumed in the baseline scenario. This presentation maximises the emissions avoidance from other solutions, while minimising the role of population growth reduction. For example, the deforestation avoided as a direct result of less population growth in tropical forest countries (the World Resources Institute estimated this as an area the size of Germany in Africa alone) is attributed to ‘Forest Protection’. The lower demand for food under ‘Reduced food waste’ incorporates the lower demand for food resulting from a lower population than the baseline. Obscuring in this manner the multiple climate benefits that fewer people could provide is par for the course, but a missed opportunity.

Summary of the human footprint on Earth. Source: Population Matters

It is also worth noting that Drawdown estimates only emissions reductions to the year 2050. Most of its ‘solutions’ are one-off transitions from current practices (such as electricity generation moving from coal to renewables, diets changing from meat-rich to meat-free). If fully implemented by 2050, they offer no subsequent reductions. In contrast, a shift in fertility between now and 2050 generates a much greater impact on population size beyond 2050 than before that year. The urgency of fertility reduction is precisely so that any of the gains that might be achieved on Drawdown’s other items are not undone by increased human demands beyond the modelling horizon. The longer our time-frame, the more important are this decade’s birth reductions. This importance is unstated in Drawdown.

It is good that Drawdown includes some treatment of population and family planning, when so few do. But we are yet to see honest and accurate attention given to the role of proactively reducing birth rates in minimising climate change.

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10 thoughts on “Drawdown: a review of the Review

  1. Excellent analysis, piling on yet another degree of exasperation over all the tap-dancing being done around the subject of overpopulation. Drawdown is better than nothing, but we need bolder leadership out of the PC wilderness.

  2. No question in my mind that simple population control measures, i.e. education, and free contraception would be the most effective global warming measures for the dollar

    1. Thanks Ed, yes those two do help, but are not enough without promoting smaller families, which really are the greatest way out of poverty for high-fertility countries, as well as the most effective way to reduce global population growth.

      1. Surely “promoting” is not the answer. I suggest “enabling people to make their own decisions about having children”. Or simply “meeting the need for planning the number of children”. Promoting is about us telling them, not listening to what they may be feeling but (especially for women) not allowed to say.
        The effect of unplanned births is individuals and families that face even worse poverty. Please let’s take the discussion to the individual and her needs, not global numbers.
        Further argument in my book “A Matter of Life and Death”

    2. Free contraception: yes! But please don’t define this as “population control”. Control over births should be in the hands of individual women and men, not “us” controlling “them”.

      1. Promoting smaller families must really be included in an integrated approach towards solving overpopulation, right next to family planning, education and more rights.
        Choosing a smaller family must not only be a economic or cultural decision, but also ethical and ecological. That is why the story of ‘we are with too many’ must always be included.
        If one day all women and men would choose for three children you will have to convince them. This is the big mistake the UN and other FP organizations did since the nineties, they started to focus on ‘choice’ and ‘reproductive rights’ but they left the ‘reproductive responsibilities’ part out of the picture. That’s more than half the story they left out!

  3. Jane
    Perhaps it would help if, as a former climate campaigner for a major international ngo, I explained why I think so many climate campaigners are reluctant to talk about population. The answer has nothing to do with timidity (have you ever tried to justify higher fuel taxes to a group of irate truckers?). It has more to do with the question of who pays and who gains (and possiblity also the complexity of the issue).

    Climate change is an intragenerational and intergenerational injustice. Firstly, the principal polluters are wealthy people, many in developed nations, while the people who are expected to suffer soonest and most are poor people in less developed nations. Secondly, the effects will be felt over centuries – as the half-life of carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere is about 100 years and there is also a time-lag between emissons and effects – so older people will not face the consequences of their actions while younger people will suffer for what they haven’t done.

    Climate campaigners, especially those with international experience, are very sensitive to these equity issues which have been debated since the creation of UNFCCC.

    We are also well-used to public debates where older, often wealthy, usually white people ask questions like “Isn’t the answer to this problem to educate the young?” and “Surely, we in the UK are such a small country that there’s no point in our acting when China is doing nothing?” or even “shouldn’t you be doing something about the overpopulation in Africa? If there were fewer people in the world, there would be more space for everyone.”

    Very often, these questions boil down to “Shouldn’t someone else do something about this?” (We also hear the motor industry lobbyists saying the problem is to do with electricity generation and the power industry lobbyists saying that the priority should be transport)

    I suspect most climate campaigners would support greater public funding for girls’ education and family planning advice – although many of us live in countries where girls are educated and there is family planning advice. Personally, I’d be reluctant to do anything that might appear to place the burden of responsibility for action on poor people in less developed countries (who pollute so little) – as that might appear to reduce the burden of responsibility on the wealthier people in developed countries (who pollute so much).

    And then there is the fraught issue of whether and when donor countries have a right to say how aid money to other countries is spent. There are strong ethical arguments on both sides of that debate. Personally, I’d be reluctant to suggest that aid to a country like Uganda, which has a lower population density than the UK, should be tied to family planning if the Ugandan Government thought otherwise.

    I also mentioned the complexity issue. The problem can be addressed in many different ways. We’re used to,industry and our own Governments, presenting the data in ways that further particular agendas (e.g. conflating power with energy in order, to exaggerate the potential impact of nuclear new build). Project Drawdown was very laudable, but even it had to narrow down its range of ‘solutions’ to 100 – and to define those solutions in particular ways.

    It’s worth noting that ‘efficient aviation’ makes it into the 100 while ‘less aviation’ doesn’t. Likewise, energy taxes don’t seem to feature, which is odd, since they are usually thought of as an essential part of any solution. Nor does reduced consumption generally (even though a significant proportion of developed country emissions are embodied in the goods they import from abroad).

    I hope this helps.

    Roger Higman

    1. Roger, thanks for your comments. But your stereotyped argument (which I’ve heard and responded to many times) completely misses the point. Providing and promoting family planning is not “placing the burden of responsibility” on people in poor countries, it is providing the absolutely most essential component of their path out of poverty. This provision is being withheld, by myths carefully cultivated by opponents to contraception and women’s emancipation, and ardently reinforced by well-meaning people like you. This political correctness is not a defence of equity, it is actively harming people in high-fertility countries. The economic benefits of smaller families have been deliberately discredited, just as its relevance to emissions reduction has been. And it’s not all about people in poor countries – having one child fewer is the most powerful action a developed country citizen can take to reduce emissions. But they’re not allowed to know this, because the “don’t blame the poor” vigilantes close off the conversation. Remember, overpopulation is also “an intragenerational and intergenerational injustice” – as well as an interspecific injustice. I invite you to read a more detailed response here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320632925_Synergy_between_Population_Policy_Climate_Adaptation_and_Mitigation

    2. Roger, we are too intimidated by the antis and who has the right to say what. Our task is to define the issues the way we want to. I define the “population” issue as meeting the needs of individuals to have children as and when they decide. The problem is not really lack of formal education, the problem is the contraception deficit (not “family planning advice” but “availability of safe and effective contraception”). This should be within the context of universal basic health provision.
      The issue of health, by the way, is not being mentioned in this debate but it would be top of many people’s priorities, in developing even more than developed countries. We need to listen more to the people, especially the women, that we are trying to “advise”.
      A new initiative is required to thrash out these issues, and how to make a real step forward. International working conference perhaps? My own proposals are in my book, “A Matter of Life and Death”.

  4. Yes, Roger Higman, it helps. But it leaves me thinking we may be “overthinking.”

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