Q&A with Jonathan Foley, Executive Director, Project Drawdown

Dr. Jonathan Foley is a world-renowned environmental scientist, sustainability expert, author and public speaker. His work is focused on understanding our changing planet and finding new solutions to sustain the climate, ecosystems and natural resources we all depend on.

Foley’s groundbreaking research and insights have led him to become a trusted advisor to governments, foundations, non-governmental organizations and business leaders around the world. He and his colleagues have made major contributions to our understanding of global ecosystems, food security and the environment, climate change and the sustainability of the world’s resources. 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. In 2014, Thomson Reuters named him a Highly Cited Researcher in ecology and environmental science, placing him among the top 1 percent most cited global scientists.

Read full bio here to learn more about Foley's notable work, accreditations and accolades. 


Q: What drew you to Project Drawdown?

A: Project Drawdown is becoming the world’s leading resource for climate solutions, and blends a mixture of scientific research, broad public communication and engaging organizations around the world. What’s not to love?

As a scientist—and as a problem solver and science communicator—I was immediately intrigued by the early work of the organization, when they published their NY Times best-selling book. I immediately saw the potential to take this work to a bigger stage, and really change the world.

So we are building the next phase of the organization: Drawdown 2.0. To start, we work to find the most viable solutions to climate change and share them with the world. And our ultimate mission is to help move the world to climate stability (or Drawdown, when greenhouse gases stabilize and begin to decline) as quickly, safely and equitably as possible.  

And now we are embarking on building out Drawdown 2.0, where we are building ambitious new platforms to share the very latest information on climate solutions—including the latest research, modeling and analysis tools, educational packages, stories and thought leadership—with the world. It’s very exciting!

Q: Were there any solutions that arose in Phase 1 and 2 of Project Drawdown that surprised you?

Yes! Even though I’ve been working on different aspects of climate change for almost 30 years, I was blown away by the work of the first phases of Project Drawdown, especially the breadth of solutions and what they found.

In particular, I was surprised by the importance of refrigerants in climate change. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—the chemicals used as coolants in air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers and so on—are potent greenhouse gases, and are often forgotten in the discussion of climate change. We need to think about those, too.

Beyond carbon dioxide, Drawdown looks at other gases, like methane (from industry and agriculture), nitrous oxide (from agriculture) and other exotic materials. To stop global warming, we will need to address all of these greenhouse gases, and all the things that emit them—whether in electricity, food and agriculture, industry, transportation or buildings. Drawdown looks at them all, and that’s critical.

I was also impressed by how Drawdown considers the deeper human element of climate solutions, including the critical importance of supporting indigenous communities and young women and girls around the world.  Empowering these groups is a critical foundation for reducing emissions—through their impacts on population growth, better land management and innovations in agriculture—and moving the world toward Drawdown. It’s not just solar panels and windmills.

Q: What has been the most unexpected or exciting reaction to Project Drawdown, and can you think of a specific nonprofit, city, school, government office, etc. that has, after discovering Project Drawdown, taken extraordinary steps to change their operations?

A: We have been deeply impressed by the many communities, organizations, businesses and governments that are using Drawdown as a guide to their climate solutions work. Thousands of different groups are using it, and it’s gratifying to see this.

For example, Intuit (the company that makes TurboTax and other packages) completely reorganized their climate efforts after reading Drawdown’s early book, and shifted direction—focusing on refrigerants in developing countries as a potential greenhouse gas “offset.” Other companies and investment firms are using it, too. We have also seen exciting new efforts in communities across North America and Europe, including Drawdown community projects in Georgia, Toronto, the Netherlands, and even here in Marin County, California.  

Drawdown doesn’t just do theoretical work; our findings are being put into practice around the world.  

Moving forward, we are focusing on how Drawdown can help guide communities, nonprofits, policymakers, companies, investors and philanthropists toward climate solutions.

Q: Is there a solution that you’re personally most interested in? How do you incorporate this solution into your own life?

A: I am particularly interested in the role of land use and our food system in addressing climate change.  They are hugely important, and together they contribute roughly 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  

At the global level, stopping tropical deforestation, helping farmers manage fertilizers and soils better and tightening food supply chains to reduce waste are all important.

At the personal level, we can all help in this space by examining our diets (especially if we eat a lot of red meat and dairy products) and food waste. While diets are hard to change in some cases, we can all do better in addressing food waste—whether at home, at work, at school or in our communities.

In my own life, I have taken big steps to reduce my own emissions—especially in electricity (with high-efficiency appliances and lighting and using renewable electricity only), transportation (I now work from home and use a plug-in hybrid car that I barely drive) and heating and cooling (have made some improvements in my apartment). I’m also working on my diet and food waste, as well as cutting back on flying a great deal. While my personal actions are only a drop in the bucket, they are nonetheless critical—especially as someone who communicates these issues to others every day.

We should all walk the walk, at least in part, as we urge the world to move toward a climate-safe future.  After all, solving climate change will require big changes in policy, business practices, investment and personal behaviors.  

Q: We have a large and growing network of business and individual members that have pledged to give at least 1% of their annual sales (or salaries for individual members) back to our planet. Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for those members as they pursue partnerships with nonprofit partners in our six issue areas: climate, food, land, pollution, water and wildlife?

A: It’s crucial that whatever you support, to endorse organizations that use real science to guide their efforts.  We got into this mess because we ignored science for far too long, and we can’t afford to make that mistake again.

Real world action, guided by good science, is where we need efforts today.

Q: What’s an important lesson you’ve learned since joining Project Drawdown?

A: Our team did something pretty amazing in Drawdown 1.0 and in our NY Times best-selling book: sharing a set of practical solutions that can stop climate change; and it inspired people around the world.

But, as important as this was, it was not enough. Now we are working on Drawdown 2.0, which will help the world implement these solutions.

The lesson we keep on learning: describing solutions is important, but helping the world actually implement them is absolutely necessary now. And that’s what we are going to do in the coming years.

Q: Are you optimistic about our climate’s future?

A: Yes! I am. While climate change is a serious, serious problem—and it’s looking pretty grim at the moment—we actually do have the solutions we need to address it. And they are good for us, stimulating the economy, creating new jobs, improving the quality of air, land and water, and making us healthier, more prosperous and more secure.

So, solving climate change comes down to making a choice: Will we stand up and work together to address this issue, and leave a better world to our children? Or not?

In the end, I think we will. In moments of crisis, humanity can show its better side and pull together to make a better world.  

We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.