By now, most of us are guiltily aware that we should be eating less meat, reducing our food waste and getting round to switching to a renewable energy supplier. But—without wanting to add to your eco-anxiety—there are some even more important methods of tackling climate change that you might never even have heard of.
What follows is a rundown of five of the top 80 climate change solutions as ranked by research group Project Drawdown, and—although each solution needs global governmental action to become a reality—some of the small ways you can make a difference.
Solution #1: Refrigerant Management
In at number one is refrigerant management, ranking above wind turbines (#2), tropical forests (#5) and solar power (#8): but does this unsexy-sounding solution really have greater potential than traditional tactics like planting trees?
Refrigerants are substances that absorb and release heat, and they’re used in our air cons and fridges. When it was discovered in the eighties that some refrigerants were tearing a hole in the ozone layer, every country in the world came together to phase them out with the Montreal Protocol: one of the few treaties ever to achieve universal ratification.
This is usually cited as an example of how it’s possible for the world to work together to tackle global warming. But there’s a problem: the replacement refrigerants, like HFCs, can warm the atmosphere 1000 to 9000 times more than carbon dioxide, and they’re the fastest-growing source of emissions in every country on earth.
In a world that’s warming because of these refrigerants— a world where simply being outdoors in summer will be a health risk, where cities of millions like Karachi and Kolkata will become outright uninhabitable—access to refrigerants is both the difference between life and death, and the cause of yet more deadly global warming.
What needs to be done?
Along with regulations and economic incentives, we need to wean ourselves off our dependence on air con when it’s not really necessary. The United States currently consumes more electricity for space cooling than everyone in Africa does for everything: this despite the fact that air conditioning was considered a “flop” when it was first introduced to the US, as the public stubbornly refused the industry’s attempts to get them to see it as a necessity.
Rethinking giant concrete and glass towers as the global default building plan is one simple way to alleviate our air con addiction. With clever design—like orientating the building to a certain direction and incorporating greenery—it’s fully possible to create a building that stays cool with almost no energy requirements at all.
But refrigerants aren’t just in modern luxuries like air con. They’re also in countless essential devices like refrigerated trucks and vaccine freezers, so saying “just use less” doesn’t cut it in these cases. New, non-polluting refrigerants urgently need to be developed, which is what the Global Cooling Prize has been set up to encourage. Real-world testing of the finalists’ prototypes will begin in May 2020: watch this space.
What can you do?
- An obvious one: try not to use air conditioning when it’s not necessary. Use a fan instead.
- If you’re building or renovating a property, look into cooling design like the Passivhaus standard.
- A huge amount of refrigerant emissions happen at end of life, so make sure you dispose of them responsibly (definitely don’t do this).
Solution #6: Educating Girls
By educating the 63 million girls who are out of school around the world, we’d hit about six Sustainable Development Goals for the price of one. Not only would poverty and gender inequality be reduced, and women’s health improved, but the strain on the climate would also be alleviated: educated women have almost four to five fewer children.
What can you do?
There are a huge amount of barriers to girls’ education: paying girls’ school fees would help, but would do little to change cultural attitudes that shame girls for menstruating (responsible for 20% of all girls’ school days missed) or force them into child marriage. So when donating to girls’ education, be sure to give to charities like the Malala Fund that tackle the issue at its roots.
This solution is, essentially, about ethically controlling population growth: a topic few people like to think about. But, as David Attenborough explains, overpopulation is at the heart of the climate crisis:
“We now realise that the disasters that continue increasingly to afflict the natural world have one element that connects them all: the unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.” – David Attenborough
If you recognise the importance of a sustainable population, there are a couple of things you can do:
- Seriously consider having a smaller family yourself. It would be wrong for the responsibility to be shunted onto the developing world alone: the carbon footprint of a Western child is 60 tonnes a year; in Malawi, it’s <0.1 tonne.
- Sign petitions. Urge the United Nations to recognise the need for a sustainable population; protect global family planning from the Trump administration’s cuts.
Solution #9: Silvopasture
You’ll know that we urgently need to plant more trees and overhaul industrial agriculture: with silvopasture, we can kill both birds with one stone.
Silvopasture (from the Latin for “forest” + “grazing”) essentially just means planting trees in grazing land: this simple change would sequester five to ten times more carbon, and produce a huge wealth of products for farmers to sell beyond livestock.
For example: on traditional Spanish dehesas, the pigs that produce the famously delicious jamon iberico are reared (it’s believed they’re so tasty because they roam freely and feed on the acorns that fall from the oak trees). Farmers can charge a hefty fee for this high-quality meat, and they can supplement their profits by selling the mushrooms, honey, cork and wood that also grow on the pasture.
If it’s such a win-win, why isn’t it widespread? Like many other natural climate solutions, it can be initially expensive and slow to set up—not to mention a terrifying leap into the unknown for farmers who’ve always practised industrial agriculture—so extensive education, support and funding are needed to help farmers transition.
What can you do?
Not very much, unless you happen to be a farmer!
Solution #13: Peatlands
It’s extremely unfortunate that peatlands—expanses of decaying vegetation, also known as bogs, or mires—don’t have the glamour of lush, vibrant forests: because peatlands store twice as much carbon (500-600 gigatons), and are the most efficient carbon sinks in the world.
But if they’re disrupted—which they are being at the moment, for agriculture, forestry and fuel—peatlands become unstoppable carbon chimneys. When peat catches fire, it can smoulder for months, burning downwards and sideways through the soil. And this fire is noxious: the daily carbon emissions of the 2015 peatland fires in Indonesia were more than the daily emissions of the entire US economy.
What can you do?
We need to restore the 15% of peatlands that have been damaged, and protect those that have managed to remain intact. You might think that there’s little you can do if you’re not a conservationist, but the UNEP’s Dianna Kopansky disagrees:
“Peatland rewetting, restoration, protection and management is not only the duty of governments but should be the goal of every single one of us if we want to reach the goals set out in the Paris Agreement and in the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Peatlands are found almost everywhere on earth, from Scotland to Southeast Asia, so there’s likely a project you can get involved in in your country:
- Find peatlands projects in the UK here and worldwide here. If you want to feel you’re taking practical climate action, hands-on volunteering somewhere like the Wildlife Trust could be a great option.
- Celebrate Bog Day! It’s on the fourth Sunday of every July (the 26th of July in 2020), and there’ll be events organised across the UK.
- If you’re a gardener, always buy peat-free compost.
Solution #21: Clean Cookstoves
Discussion of air pollution is usually focused on the thick smog that now cloaks so many of our cities: but air pollution in and from the home also contributes significantly to climate change.
Three billion people in the developing world cook on open fires or rudimentary stoves, powered by fuels like dung, wood and coal. Burning these materials in a closed space isn’t only a health disaster—killing 4000 people every day—but also adds up to an incredible 2-5% of all greenhouse gas emissions each year.
To tackle this, the UN resolved to distribute 100 million cleaner cookstoves by 2020, an initiative Hillary Clinton hailed potentially as transformative as vaccines: but things haven’t gone to plan. It seems the “improved biomass” stoves that were being distributed actually did little to reduce disease, so naturally people reverted back to their familiar, traditional cooking methods. Somewhat ironically, the UN is now promoting propane (fossil fuel) stoves, as they have greater energy efficiency and therefore overall smaller climate impacts.
What can you do?
The best approach to this problem is still to be found; but, if you’re comfortable with fossil fuel stoves as a stopgap solution, you can donate to the UN’s Clean Cooking Alliance here; you can also contribute to many clean cooking projects through carbon offsetting (like this one).
The above list is just five of Project Drawdown’s solutions: there’s plenty more to explore. From the everyday (smart thermostats, electric vehicles) to the ambitious (retrofitting all 1.6 trillion square feet of buildings on earth), there’s endless ways the destructive patterns of modern life need to be transformed: and endless ways each of us can participate in the transition.