N4C interviews Project Drawdown’s VP, Chad Frischmann

News 08.09.18


Project Drawdown is one of the most exciting developments in the fight against climate change. Around a quarter of the solutions put forward by the Project Drawdown team could be described as natural climate solutions.  So, we caught up with its Vice President and Research Director, Chad Frischmann to learn more.

Project Drawdown is one of the most exciting developments in the fight against climate change. The subject of a bestselling book from 2017, it is a comprehensive plan to reverse global warming, comprising of 80 substantive, scalable solutions to avoid greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon. 

Around a quarter of the solutions put forward by the Project Drawdown team could be described as natural climate solutions.  So, we caught up with its Vice President and Research Director, Chad Frischmann to find out more – and get an update on the latest developments.

For anyone who’s not aware of it, how would you summarise Project Drawdown? 

At its core, Project Drawdown is a research and communications organisation. We map, measure and describe the most substantive solutions that already exist and, taken together, can reverse global warming.

It’s all about reducing concentrations of greenhouse gases. And Drawdown, as a concept, is that point in time when we start to take more carbon out of the atmosphere than we put into it. So, you could say we’re transfixed by the solution, which is carbon reduction – not the problem, which is global warming.

Importantly, it’s more than just a research organisation. It’s a collaboration of individuals and organisations from around the world, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

We’re not just data junkies who sit behind our computers. We also bring in people from disciplines like law, human rights, business, architecture, transportation, forestry and agriculture. Because, to solve the problem, we need a diversity of perspectives.

How would you characterise Drawdown itself?  Is it a hope?  An aspiration?  Or a realistic goal?
I’m reluctant to use the word ‘hope’, just like I’m reluctant to use the word ‘fear’. They are emotionally driven responses to what we wish for or wish to avoid. I prefer ‘aspiration’, because the very word implies that we have a clear vision and set-out a pathway to achieve it. What’s great about the pathway to Drawdown is there are no limits. We can go beyond any finite objective and keep on improving – because we believe these solutions are right for the planet anyway, irrespective of global warming.

What’s your own story?  How did you come to be a member of the Drawdown team?  And what convinced you to sign-up?
For the past ten years, my career has been focussed on the nexus of sustainable development, environmental conservation, and local and indigenous people’s rights. And when you get into these areas, you can’t avoid getting into climate change.

What grabbed me about Drawdown was the brilliant, audacious idea behind it, which seemed so simple and obvious – but is so hard to achieve – and is backed-up by a collaborative, solution-oriented ethos.

I was asked to build the methodology and models behind Project Drawdown, and create a fellowship programme, bringing together 65 researchers from around the world. It’s about doing the math to validate the solutions, and also reframing the way we communicate about climate change.

Can you give us an update on what’s happened since Project Drawdown was launched?  What changes have you seen?
One of the most interesting changes is the prevalence of the term ‘drawdown’ itself.

We didn’t make it up. We stumbled across it in an august academic journal from the mid-1990s, but hardly anyone had heard of it. Now, a year or so after the book was launched, we see it everywhere. And that indicates to me that the whole discourse has changed.

Instead of only ever hearing about the impacts of climate change, I’m now hearing about solutions, solutions, solutions. I’m also hearing about working collaboratively towards collective impact. And I’m seeing the creation of self-organising independent initiatives and hubs. These are all core tenets of Project Drawdown.

Tell us, specifically, about natural climate solutions. How prominent are they in your overall ranking of solutions?
If you were to guess which sector was to have the biggest impact, which one would you go for?  If you’re like most people, you might assume it’s energy generation, or maybe transportation.  And, yes, these are incredibly important sectors, because they emit so much carbon. But, in terms of the actual solutions, 12 of the top 20 relate directly to how and why we use land.  This, in itself, challenges the way we think about climate solutions.

Of course, it includes land management, in terms of how we manage our forests, wetlands, and currently degraded land. Because, by protecting and restoring these land types, we are preventing emissions from entering the atmosphere, as well as continuing to sequester carbon.

But it goes way beyond simple land-use decisions. If we think about how we actually produce food, 13 of our solutions relate directly to agricultural practices, and six of these solutions are within our top 20.

And the reason is rather simple, because modern agricultural practices degrade land. They focus on monoculture, they increasingly use synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and they routinely release organo-carbons into the atmosphere. By contrast, regenerative agricultural practices do the exact opposite – whilst also increasing water retention and improving the livelihoods of local farmers. It’s win-win-win-win-win.

But you don’t have to put all the onus on farmers and landowners. As consumers we can also make choices about our diet, and how we store food, and ensure we don’t waste our food. In aggregate these small decisions make a huge difference.

At Nature4Climate, we often describe nature as the Forgotten Solution?  What’s your view?  Do you think natural climate solutions get the prominence they deserve?
In one sense, yes, they are forgotten solutions because they’ve been overlooked by the conventional climate discourse.

The world, in general, has made itself aware of the problem of global warming, but hasn’t done a great job of framing the solutions. Natural climate solutions are wrapped up in this same paradigm.  They’re there in the mix, but they maybe haven’t broken through to mainstream consciousness.

On the other hand, these solutions are happening, and have continued to happen for hundreds of years. This is not a new way of thinking about land use or agricultural production. Instead it’s about applying time-proven techniques, that may have been displaced by industrial farming concerns, but are still practiced by a large proportion of the world’s smallholder farmers.

Broadly speaking, what do you think has “gone wrong” with natural climate solutions.  Why have so many people taken detrimental land-use decisions?  Is there a common denominator?
There’s no malevolence, here.  Generally, things have been done with the best of intentions, and a genuine belief that modern agricultural practices would be a solution to feeding the world’s population.

And, yes, they did liberate some new efficiencies but, at the time they were first introduced, no one could foresee the extent of degradation or the impact on emissions and global warming. So, we’re now in a situation in which many farmers are ambivalently following a monoculture system, because they’re not sure what else to do.

I’d characterise this as an information problem. I think it’s common denominator, not just for natural climate solutions, but for every solution across Drawdown as a whole.

This is about information barriers and breaking those barriers, and Project Drawdown is intended as a platform to surface and flow that information from the local, to the regional, to the global.

What haven’t we covered?  Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you think is important to get across?
The message is simple.  Join us!
There’s an open invitation to researchers, practitioners and communicators to participate in our coalition. Drawdown is a living, evolving movement that doesn’t start and doesn’t stop. We are constantly refining our work.  For example, we are opening a new fellowship programme later this year. And we and preparing to launch a new book, Drawdown 2.0, in 2020.

One our core goals is to build an ecosystem of collective ownership and distribution and leadership. And the more people who take part, the quicker we can reach the moment of Drawdown, and the further we can progress beyond it.