Ep 16: Jonathan Foley on Project Drawdown & mobilizing climate solutions

Dr. Jonathan Foley is Executive Director of Project Drawdown. He has published over 130 peer-reviewed scientific articles, including many highly cited works in Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. has been featured by hundreds of prestigious venues, including the Aspen Institute, the World Bank, the National Geographic Society, the Chautauqua Institution, the Commonwealth Club, the National Science March in Washington, D.C., and TED.

At the University of Wisconsin, he launched the Climate, People, and Environment Program (CPEP), founded the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), and served as the first Gaylord Nelson Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies. He was founding director of the Institute on the Environment(IonE) at the University of Minnesota and served as the Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences, the greenest and more forward-thinking science museum on the planet.

Our host Don Shelby describes Foley, a friend, as “The best science communicator I’ve ever known.” He asks:

Can we successfully draw down climate-forcing compounds (greenhouse gases) using solutions we already have?

Yes, says Foley. Project Drawdown assessed existing solutions and found that deploying the best solutions, including natural systems and clean technologies, at scale, we can succeed in keeping global warming to between 1.5ºC and 2ºC, the core goal of the Paris Agreement. New technologies will eventually become part of our overall response, but we cannot afford to lose any more time in getting climate solutions to scale.

Is this urgency a result of the fact that climate impacts compound each other?

Yes, that’s part of it. We have to reduce emissions by 50% in the 2020s. Then, we need to steadily increase carbon removal. Nature provides ways of doing this, in the form of trees and sustainable farming practices. There may be carbon capture and sequestration technologies in the future, but they are a pretty long way from being practical.

Is climate-smart agriculture, and the building of soil carbon, an important part of natural carbon drawdown?

Food systems and land use are important segments of the Project Drawdown solutions matrix. Dr. Foley notes that about 1/4 of greenhouse gas emissions come from electricity and another 1/4 from food and land use. About 35% of all land on Earth is now agricultural land. Three primary sources of climate pollution come from agriculture:

  • Deforestation as land is cleared for farming and ranching
  • Methane emissions, primarily from cattle and rice
  • Fertilizer-driven release of nitrous oxide (another GHG)

Agricultural lands could become “carbon sponges”, if regenerative practices are used for “building back the soil organic matter”.

Myra Jackson notes the science of soil ecology is still largely undeveloped. By some estimates we understand only about 3% of what happens with soil. Increasingly, we see that keeping soil healthy requires cooperation with Nature.

Can halophytes (salt-tolerant plants) play a role in restoring natural soil resilience and transitioning to Nature-positive production?

Dr. Foley admits soil microbiology is still new. While the geological record tells us how much carbon has been lost from natural systems since the dawn of agriculture, we still have a lot to learn about how ecosystems develop and sustain soil biomass. What happens on land also affects what happens in the ocean, and the ocean itself provides added carbon-absorption potential. Dr. Foley cites macrophytes (kelp and sea grasses) as interesting for climate resilience. A critical part of the solutions process will be stewarding carbon absorbing ecosystems. We cannot just provide that benefit now, while allowing future farmers or developers to destroy those critical carbon sinks.

Can integration of Earth science data into financial data and everyday farming practices help to provide insight into measurable resilience value?

That would be really exciting, says Foley. Too much of American agriculture operates on the mantra “Get big or get out”, which is terrible for people, for food system quality, and for the environment. If we can get data-driven science insights to small farmers, to help them get resilience-building practices to scale, including agro-forestry and regenerative land management, that could help transform farming from a climate-disrupting industry to a strategy for climate-restoration.

Dr. Foley envisions a new age of sustainable enterprise:

A true investor, not a profiteer, would be investing in things that last… we’re liquidating a planet, and we’ve got profiteers. Real capital would be building that up.

Building natural capital and human health and wellbeing should be integral to any assessment of market value.