Drawdown Insights

May 8, 2021
Opinion: Linking reproductive rights and climate solutions is the only way forward
by Kristen P. Patterson
The time is ripe to include women’s reproductive rights as part of our climate solutions toolbox. This Mother’s Day, I’m asking myself tough questions about what it means to be a mom, a woman and a climate advocate in this critical cultural moment. After 20 years of working at the intersection of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and environmental conservation, I find there is still a strong hesitancy among some SRHR and climate advocates to link reproductive rights and climate. With the 26th Climate Conference of the Parties (COP) slated for this November—just as the pandemic has brought our world’s climate and health crises into sharp relief—the time is ripe to include women’s reproductive rights as part of our climate solutions toolbox. Doing more, together, is the best path to a more healthy, equitable climate future for women and girls around the world, particularly the most vulnerable among us. This hesitancy to link reproductive rights and climate dates back a few decades, and relates to a taboo around “population.” Beginning in the 1950s, the United Nations started hosting once-per-decade world population conferences, with a goal of encouraging countries to implement population programs to address rapid population growth that would inhibit economic development. The programs designed to address the “population problem” focused on promoting family planning, with women targeted to use contraception. A few countries, notably China and India, resorted to coercive policies that forced contraceptive use. In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, advocates understandably promoted a shift away from family planning as the sole solution to concerns about population.  Advocates also embraced reproductive health as much more than just family planning, to include sexual rights, sexually transmitted infections like HIV, safe motherhood and safe abortion (Newman et al 2014). The era of sexual and reproductive health and rights was born, and to this day, some SRHR advocates believe that any linkages with population or other sectors such as environmental conservation or climate change detract—and distract—from the message of SRHR for all and are tantamount to blaming women in the developing world for climate change. This mentality was on display at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of ICPD, held in Nairobi in 2019, where a fellow advocate who works at the intersection of SRHR and climate told me that she was shocked by the scant attention given to SRHR, population and climate change.  I share the feeling of dismay that our professional community can’t seem to blend these vital, complex and interconnected parts of an equitable and sustainable life on Earth. My passion for working at the nexus of reproductive health and climate solutions springs from my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger after college. I lived alongside Nigeriens for two years in a rural village, Sabon Gida, 500 kilometers east of the capital. I learned Hausa, lived in a mud-brick hut, and became close friends with many of the 800 Hausa and Fulani residents. I focused on agroforestry, and we certainly planted a lot of trees. But my friends and village leaders wanted to do more than restore their natural resources. They were concerned about keeping their children healthy (25 percent of children in Niger died before the age of five in the mid-’90s) and wanted to rehabilitate the main village well which served as the primary local water source for people and livestock. As I worked to respond to their diverse needs and connect them with local resources and extension agents, the seeds were sown for me to become a life-long advocate of holistic approaches to community-led development. In the mid-1990s, we didn’t talk about climate change—but after facing years of desertification along the edge of the Sahara Desert, my friends recognized that they needed to address multiple health and environmental challenges in order to become more resilient to frequent shocks and stresses that are common in Niger, including droughts, locusts, and disease outbreaks like meningitis. Planting trees and restoring depleted soil went hand-in-hand with improving health and access to clean water.  Most of my closest female friends were about 10 years older than me. I was single and childless at age 22, while they had gotten married at age 16 or 17 and had their first child soon after—girls in Niger marry earlier and give birth to their first child at a younger age than anywhere else in the world. As Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate-justice activist wrote recently, “Girls who have been to school grow up to be empowered women. They are not forced into early marriage, and they tend to have healthier, smaller families, reducing emissions well into the future.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single school in Sabon Gida. My friends were strong, smart women, yet all but my friend Mantou lost multiple children to ailments that were preventable or treatable in other countries with more resources than Niger. My friends and other women in Sabon Gida were eager to learn more about what they called maganin hutu in Hausa—“rest medicine.” Ten years later, when I gave birth to my first child, I finally grasped the absolute perfection of the translation of contraception into Hausa. In present-day Niger, demand for and uptake of contraception still faces many cultural hurdles, but during my time in Sabon Gida, many husbands were supportive of their wives using contraception because they could see the benefits of spacing births for both their wives and their children.   Accessing contraception during my years in Niger was hard. Women had to walk on sandy paths (usually carrying their youngest child on their back) nearly four hours roundtrip to the nearest health clinic, which sometimes was out of stock. The consequences of failing to resupply contraception were stark: maternal and child health tragedies were a weekly occurrence in Sabon Gida. An acquaintance on the other side of the village, Salama, died during childbirth. Another woman experienced an obstetric fistula; her baby died, because she was taken to the nearest hospital—65 kilometers away—too late, by donkey cart, after 48 hours in labor. And I still think of Amadou regularly, the son of my two closest friends, Haoua and Gado, who asked me to name him. Amadou died of whooping cough soon after his first birthday because he had missed a round of vaccinations, which required the same punishing walk to the health clinic. My experience of motherhood—though I’m a white woman living in the U.S.—has been deeply influenced by my time in Niger. I carry my friends’ stories and those of other women in Sabon Gida with me still, as if it was yesterday; their influence on my life’s work cannot be understated.  It’s time for the world to recognize that reproductive health is a key component of climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience. In addition to reproductive and primary health care challenges, climate change is now a main character in the lives of every person in Niger. Climate impacts worsen each year, and with the world’s highest fertility rate, Niger’s population has more than doubled from 10 to 23 million in the past 25 years. More than perhaps any other place in the world, Sahelian countries like Niger exhibit the intertwined challenges of SRHR, rapid population growth and climate change. Evidence shows that boosting women’s rights to decide whether and when to have children enhances equity, slows population growth at a global scale, and contributes to climate mitigation. I like to think that bridging sectors and bringing more advocates to the table to support universal reproductive rights and climate action will help save lives. The publication of Project Drawdown’s seminal book in 2017 raised awareness for the first time among thousands of climate advocates of the importance of enhancing equity through education and women’s reproductive health, and the cascading benefits such investments have as climate solutions. As the inaugural director of Drawdown Lift, I’m eager to collaboratively identify, promote and advance interdisciplinary solutions-based approaches that alleviate extreme poverty and address climate change.  The evidence calling for advocates and other stakeholders to let go of the population taboo is growing. Connecting human health, population and climate change is essential—we need advocates who deeply understand that our lives are entwined with nature, and defending both is the way forward. Ensuring that people in places like Niger and across the Sahel have full access to (and knowledge about) reproductive health services and programs that boost their resilience to climate change—as well as quality education—should be non-negotiable. This opinion piece was originally published by Ms. Magazine on May 8, 2021. Hear more on the link between reproductive justice and environmental justice on the recent episode of “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin”: Climate Change Is Real. Now What? (with Osprey Orielle Lake and Nourbese Flint).
Read more
May 7, 2021
Opinion: New EPA coolant rule is a no-brainer for addressing the climate crisis
by Paul West
This article originally appeared on The Hill. The EPA’s new rule to phase down the manufacturing and use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — the coolants used in air conditioners and refrigerators — will likely be a drop in the bucket for consumers but a huge step forward on global climate action. The move is a critical step toward the Biden administration’s larger goal of reducing 55 percent of emissions by 2035. What you might not know: The climate impact of this rule could be more than doubled if it’s coupled with efforts to properly dispose of the refrigerants in the appliances already in people’s homes and businesses. Project Drawdown, the non-profit where I explore science-based solutions to the climate crisis, ranked switching to alternative refrigerants one of the top 10 climate solutions we have in-hand today. The EPA estimates that phasing down HFCs globally can avoid 0.5 degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century — a large feat with real-world benefits to every community. However, using alternative coolants in new appliances is only half of the potential benefits, as a focus on proper refrigerant disposal is critical to maximizing success. HFCs became widely used after researchers in the 1970s discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the main refrigerants used at the time, were causing a hole in the ozone layer and leading to more people getting skin cancer as a result. In a 1987 response, nations around the world created The Montreal Protocol, a global agreement to phase out the production and use of ozone-depleting substances like CFCs. Substituting HFCs for CFCs helped heal the ozone layer, but still warmed the planet. Although HFCs and other fluorinated gases cause “only” about 2 percent of Earth’s current warming, each molecule of HFC can trap between 1,000 to 9,000 times more heat than a molecule of CO2. In short, a little bit has a big impact. The challenge continues to grow. As temperatures warm and more of the world’s population accumulates additional wealth, demand for cooling increases. There are currently 3.6 billion cooling appliances in use today, and that number is increasing at a rate of 10 devices per second. Energy demand for powering these appliances has increased three-fold since 1990 and is projected to double again by 2040. The good news: Alternative, climate-friendly coolants already exist and the transition to using them is already underway. In 2016, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol created a legally binding agreement to phase down the production and use of HFCs, with developed countries committing to an 85 percent reduction between 2019 and 2036. Despite the U.S. failing to ratify the amendment, many American manufacturers endorsed it and began phasing out HFCs to stay competitive in the global market. The American Innovation and Manufacturing Act (AIM), enacted in December 2020 as part of a COVID-19 relief package, gave the EPA new authority to phase down HFCs in accordance with the Kigali Amendment. The U.S and China indicated in April that they will join the more than 120 nations and island states that have already signed amendment. Meeting target reductions is certainly within reach — the European Union is on track to phase down HFCs by 2030. Changes in the U.S. will accelerate the global shift through our manufacturing and imports of cooling appliances.  This new EPA rule puts us on a path to reduce damage caused by future appliances. But what about those 3.6 billion cooling devices that are currently in use? Or the countless more that are in salvage yards? Building a cleaner tomorrow is great, but we can’t move forward without taking care of today’s mess. Coupling the next generation of refrigerants with proper disposal and high-efficiency appliances will further advance climate benefits. In the U.S., 16 million refrigerators, freezers, window air conditioners and dehumidifiers are thrown out each year, yet only a little more than 600,000 were properly discarded through the Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) Program. Project Drawdown estimates that removing or destroying the coolants in these appliances could more than double the impact of using alternative coolants in new appliances. Groups like Tradewater show that a market can be created for eliminating (by collecting and incinerating) the emissions in discarded appliances. Further, additional gains are possible by incentivizing high efficiency air conditioners. High-efficiency appliances are available today and there are promising new options in the near future. The Global Cooling Prize recently awarded two residential-scale air conditioner prototypes that offer five times lower impact than the standard ones used today. This policy change will make it easier for people to purchase appliances that use alternative coolants. One of the best things we as individuals can do to further reduce our energy used for cooling is to purchase Energy Star-rated appliances, using smart thermostats and insulating our homes. This carries a cost not every renter or homeowner can bear, but it’s important to keep in mind when changes can be made. Perhaps most important, proper disposal of old cooling appliances through the Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) Program will ensure that HFCs are captured or destroyed and don’t leak into the atmosphere. Although systemic and equitable change is needed across all sectors to address the climate crisis, targeted policies like this one are necessary and will have an immediate, outsized impact. Destroying existing HFCs — the current mess we can’t avoid — and using more efficient appliances will transform this rule from good to great in a moment where big climate wins deserve fast action. Paul West, Ph.D., is an ecologist exploring science-based solutions to help people and nature thrive on a warming planet. He is the director of Special Projects at Project Drawdown and a researcher at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter: @coolfireecology.
Read more
March 16, 2021
Sunrise over the Earth
Climate Solutions 101, presented by Project Drawdown—free online!
by Haley Bowling
Your climate solutions journey begins now. Climate Solutions 101 is the world’s first major educational effort focused solely on solutions. Global challenges require hearts, minds, and hands to dig-in on meaningful change. Project Drawdown is committed to sharing—at no cost—the science and inspiration behind the safest, fastest, and most equitable climate solutions available today. Filled with the latest need-to-know science and fascinating insights from global leaders in climate policy, research, investment, and beyond, this video series is a brain-shift toward a brighter climate reality. Rather than rehashing well-known climate challenges, Climate Solutions 101 centers world-changing climate action based on its own rigorous scientific review and assessment. This course, presented in a six-part video series along with in-depth conversations, combines Project Drawdown’s trusted resources with the expertise of inspiring thought leaders from around the world.   Listen to weather expert Marshall Shepherd, paleoclimatologist Lisa Graumlich, food and agriculture scientist Navin Ramankutty, transportation specialist Ryan Allard, climatology scientist Marcos Costa, global change pioneer Jessica Hellmann, climate and environmental politics expert Leah Stokes, angel investor and energy advocate Ramez Naam, renowned venture capitalist Ibrahim AlHusseini, and air quality scientist Tracey Holloway detail their vision for the climate road ahead.   Climate solutions become attainable with increased access to free, science-based educational resources, elevated public discourse, and tangible examples of real-world action. Explore this course free of cost, and embrace a sense of hope, action, and purpose for our climate future.   Collaboration is core to Project Drawdown’s mission and ambitious, publicly-available resources. Climate Solutions 101 Presented by Project Drawdown is generously supported by Trane Technologies, Chris Kohlhardt, and Intuit. For press inquiries, please contact press@drawdown.org.
Read more
March 15, 2021
Photo of Erin Meezan, Interface
Drawdown Labs interview: Erin Meezan on the need for bold corporate climate action
by Aiyana Bodi
The flooring industry isn’t a typical bastion of bold climate action. And Erin Meezan, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer of Interface—the world’s largest carpet tile manufacturer—knows it. “It’s not Tesla,” she says. “It’s maybe not the most exciting place to save the world.” Because flooring companies aren’t usually expected to set the bar for innovation, Interface’s climate aspirations are especially compelling. Through its ambitious targets and innovative engagement strategies, Interface is setting a high climate action bar for the corporate world. Interface began its sustainability journey in 1994, far sooner than most corporations. And while many businesses publicize mediocre climate goals—like reducing “X” amount of their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by “Y” date—Interface takes a new approach, moving beyond “doing less harm” to making measurable positive impacts on people and the planet. Interface’s restorative approach to climate change means eliminating its carbon footprint, but also promotes carbon removal and protection of natural carbon sinks as well as engaging employees, other businesses, and policymakers. Through its first major initiative, dubbed Mission Zero®, Interface dramatically cut impacts on the environment in its operations, raw materials, and products over a span of 25 years: globally, it cut 96% in GHG emissions, 92% of waste to landfills, and 89% of water usage per unit of production. The company charged beyond its goals faster than expected (meeting its Mission Zero targets in 2019, one year ahead of schedule), and in 2015, Interface leaders knew they were ready for the next steps in their sustainability journey. This is the moment, Meezan says, Interface chose to deliberately transform from a company looking to reduce its impact, into a place that works towards the type of future the world deserves. Their goals were framed around the Climate Take Back initiative, a plan to create a “climate fit for life” by reversing global warming, restoring the planet, and making a positive impact. Part of this plan mandates that the company has a negative carbon footprint. As a bare minimum standard, all of Interface’s products are carbon neutral. In 2020, the company went a step further with the release of a carbon negative carpet tile, a manifestation of their “climate fit for life” initiative in product form. This carpet, made from recycled content and bio-based materials, stores more carbon than it releases and proves businesses in every sector can push their goals beyond do no harm. “It's possible to offer [these types of] products worldwide...and still make money and still grow,” says Meezan. “If we can do it, our competitors can do it.” Interface understands the power of people and smart policy, and extends its climate activities to employees and other institutions. On the policy front, Interface is working to expand the Buy Clean program in California, so that government procurement of interior finishings takes into account global warming potential. Hand in hand with advocacy, Interface also works to ensure the proper tools and infrastructure are in place for a policy to be successful, like the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3). This requires constant education and awareness building for state and local governments, customers, and other stakeholders. Sometimes, Meezan says, it’s as simple as getting others to “understand the link between making a carbon commitment and how they can live up to that.” It also means collaborating with other pioneering companies to advocate for change together. In 2018, Interface co-created the Materials Carbon Action Network (materialsCAN), a group of manufacturers pushing for the consideration of embodied carbon in building projects. Inside company walls, every employee is needed to implement Interface’s mission, and so company leaders use both learning and celebration to weave climate advocacy into employees’ day-to-day lives. There are many internal learning opportunities for staff, including  Carbon 101 classes that cover the basic science of climate change and give employees tools for how to communicate the importance of climate action to customers. “It’s real, deep investment that's perpetual,” Meezan says, emphasizing the need to meet each employee where they are in terms of their climate literacy and providing a suite of ways to get involved. And in fact, as Interface continues to engage its staff across all departments, it finds that employee desire to push the company beyond its goals has grown.    By approaching climate change with a holistic perspective, Interface sets a corporate example for what’s possible. It shares its knowledge with others through radical transparency—an obligatory part of leading a private sector transformation. Fundamental change lies at the heart of Interface’s mission, with an understanding that meaningful action requires an open, flexible approach to business. Meezan notes that in the century following the American Revolution, businesses were originally given the right to operate because they provided benefits to their communities, and if we are to fully address the climate crisis, we need to return to this narrative in a way that mirrors the broader natural system. “Saying we're here to make money and that's our primary [goal] is not good enough anymore,” Meezan says. “We need to serve a higher purpose.” This piece is the first in an ongoing series of interviews presented by Drawdown Labs. Sign up to the Project Drawdown newsletter for future updates.
Read more