By Ed Dean, Ashden, 9th December 2021
The COP26 climate talks brought hope and frustration – but also reminded us of the unique role philanthropy can play in creating a fair and sustainable world.
Despite the hard work and good intentions of many of the delegates (fossil fuel lobbyists aside), the agreement reached in Glasgow falls very short of launching the rapid transition needed to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming.
However, it’s too easy to blame countries like India and South Africa for pulling back on the phase out of fossil fuels. Most of the carbon currently in the atmosphere has been emitted by the US and Europe.
If we want other nations to show more ambition, then wealthy governments must provide reparation and investment to enable vulnerable countries to meet their challenges on adaptation and economic development in a way that is equitable and builds long term resilience. Yet we continue to kick the can down the road on the $100 billion needed every year this decade to support a just transition for the global south.
But what did Glasgow teach us about the power and potential of philanthropy? More positively, COP26 showed how philanthropy can make a systemic contribution on climate. The Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet was officially launched in Glasgow and has pledged $10 billion in finance to connect one billion people with clean energy. Led by the Rockefeller Foundation, partners and funders also include the Bezos Earth Fund and the IKEA Foundation.
COP26 also saw the announcement of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), through which 450 firms and financial institutions committed $130 trillion in capital needed to achieve net zero over the next three decades.
While it has attracted some strong criticism and the jury is still out on what the GFANZ commitments will mean for the real economy, its lexicon and tools (such as making the annual measurement, disclosure and reduction of emissions mandatory through financial regulation) have been developed thanks to the efforts of philanthropic leaders. Philanthropy has also powered the efforts of the activists and NGOs pushing for divestment away from fossil fuels and exposing the risks carbon assets pose to the global financial system.
The commitment to end deforestation by 2030, one of the few inarguable gains from COP26, would not have happened without the efforts of indigenous communities, activists and civil society. But their voices have been amplified by the investment and support of philanthropy and foundations such as Oak Foundation, the Waterloo Foundation and too many others to mention.
Sadly, there was little space at COP for the frontline innovators delivering proven climate solutions for a fairer world. Patient philanthropic support is crucial for scaling up the initiatives that deliver true climate justice in the most precarious contexts, such as sustainable cooling in Kenya’s refugee camps, or climate-friendly agriculture in Uganda. When serving marginalised people, even the most robust organisations can struggle to attract mainstream investors. But when philanthropy leads, more backing will follow.
COP reminded us that the world’s low-carbon transition will not necessarily centre on equitable solutions. There is a real danger that, in the coming years, the world sleepwalks into adopting solutions that lock in existing power imbalances. Philanthropic support can set us on a different course – by elevating organisations and innovations that benefit the most vulnerable.
The last year has seen major climate pledges from Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs, and others. But I believe philanthropy can make an even bigger contribution to keeping 1.5 degrees alive. Recent research from the UK’s Environmental Funders Network shows that foundation giving to environmental causes (climate being only a sub-set of this) is still only 5.8% of total foundation giving in the UK, and this figure is not much larger in Europe or the US.
So the quantum of climate giving must massively increase in order to match the enormity of the challenge we face. But systemic focus must be more acute too. With COP27 in Egypt less than a year away, philanthropy can help activists turn up the volume on calls for deep-rooted change, increasing the pressure on policy makers.
And through grants and catalytic investment, philanthropy can show governments and financial institutions that climate solutions work – and that a swift, just transition is still within our reach.
Ed Dean is Director of Business Development at Ashden. Ashden’s mission is to accelerate transformative climate solutions and build a more just world. Through its awards and programmes, Ashden promotes and supports climate and energy innovators – including businesses, non-profits and public sector organisations.