No Single Solution Can Save Us From the Climate Crisis

There never was going to be one solution in the first place.

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From Climeworks’ giant carbon sucking machine (that also happens to be way too small) to the fact that electric cars are still very much cars, we’ve become used to much-vaunted climate "solutions" that, on closer inspection, are not quite as game-changing as they appear. Yet we are also coming to realize there never was going to be one solution in the first place.

With a crisis as complex, multifaceted, and intractable as the one we are facing, the idea of a single solution—or even a relatively broad set of technological fixes—is an unlikely scenario once you really start to think about it. 

This creates a tricky conundrum for folks in the climate space. On the one hand, we need to recognize that no single thing was ever going to save us. And we need to accept that solutions—even partial and imperfect ones—may be important in moving us in the right direction. That’s why, for example, I’ve been reluctant to join others in the wholesale rejection of concepts like net-zero—suggesting instead that we scrutinize the details, and learn to differentiate between credible and not-so-credible plans. And it’s why, when some pour cold water on soil-based solutions like regenerative agriculture, I prefer to talk about ways to measure their contributions—rather than rejecting them entirely.  

On the other hand, (there is always another hand) we must avoid the trap of allowing imperfect or incremental solutions to curb our demands for more ambitious change. When Shell Oil starts talking about its net-zero ambitions, for example, we should all be painfully aware this is a tactic of delay and denial. It’s easy to promise radical change if that change is many decades away—especially if the timeframe allows for the timely retirement of current executives and the cashing out of major investors. 

Part of the trick lies in learning to sit with nuance—and moving beyond the idea that we need to judge every single program or action or invention as entirely good, or entirely bad for that matter. Podcaster and journalist Amy Westervelt made this point to me when discussing electric vehicle charging investments by oil companies a little while back: 

“Any progress is good, but that doesn't mean every little thing should be applauded. It can be good without being praised or overstated, especially when these steps are being taken decades later than they ought to have been. More charging stations is great, but that doesn't mean that Shell shouldn't be pushed to divest further from fossil fuels, or held accountable for delaying climate action to suit its bottom line.”

So whether it’s electric planes or biochar, seaweed farming, or lower methane cattle, remember that it’s possible for technology or practice to be both a step in the right direction and not enough to get us where we need to be. And rather than jumping all in to praise it, or rejecting it outright, we might be better off asking ourselves a few simple questions: 

  • How big a contribution can it make? 
  • How fast can it scale to the point where it’s really moving the needle? 
  • How much will it cost, and how else might we be spending those resources? 
  • Who stands to benefit from large-scale adoption? 

The answers to those questions won’t always be cut and dried. They will, however, provide some insight into exactly how much we should be relying on any single idea or concept in our shift toward a low-carbon society. If in doubt, Project Drawdown provides a fantastic overview and some cold hard numbers for a lot of the most touted solutions to the crisis. Even a cursory read of that sight will tell you that there is no single solution, no magic bullet, but that there are a lot of things that can move us in the right direction. 

We just need to prioritize. Then we need to get moving.