Governments did not agree enough at this year’s UN climate summit, COP26, to keep climate change within safety limits. But they did just about enough to keep the possibility alive. Progress came in three interconnecting areas: fulfilling promises, increasing ambition and accelerating a clean transition. In all them, philanthropy has opportunities to make sure ideas get turned into action during the next crucial few years.
Having promised in 2009 to deliver at least $100bn per year by 2020 to help the poorest nations decarbonise and protect against climate impacts, the rich world failed. The total stands about $10-20bn below that target.
The money is not only crucial to help the poorest nations transition to a low-carbon future – it is a symbol of trust between nations, a concretisation of the philosophy that all nations really are in this together.
But the reality remains that the financial resources are not on the table to help them decarbonise as quickly as they want and as quickly as the world needs.
The poorest nations were better pleased with progress on support for adaptation and for loss and damage. But the reality remains that the financial resources are not on the table to help them decarbonise as quickly as they want and as quickly as the world needs.
Virtually every government had either published new emission-cutting targets before the summit opened, or made clear that it had no intention of doing so. Not much advance was expected during the summit itself.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the most dramatic declaration, pledging that India would set course for net zero emissions by 2070. But that was as good as it got: and many large emitters, from Australia through China and Russia to Saudi Arabia, do not have targets on the table consistent with keeping global warming to 1.5°C.
Governments, sometimes joined by businesses and sub-national authorities, launched a variety of ‘real-economy’ decarbonisation initiatives in multiple sectors. Coalitions to advance clean transport, exit coal power, end fossil fuel subsidies and reverse deforestation were all launched, while the US led a coalition of nations pledging to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030.
Some of these initiatives are not as robust as claimed – for example, a few countries said to pledging a coal phase-out turned out not to be using coal anyway – but nevertheless, these announcements made an engaging real-economy counterpoint to the formal negotiations.
Doing the math
Did all of these agreements, announcements and initiatives meaningfully move the dial on climate change?
The world is not now on track to 1.8°C of global warming.
In contrast to some misleading news reports emerging during the summit, the world is not now on track to 1.8°C of global warming. Several analyses indicate that 1.8°C would be the average level of warming expected if governments deliver absolutely every promise they have made. But promises are not policies… and on the basis of policies that governments have in place, we are likely heading for 2.7°C, way above the Paris Agreement targets.
To varying degrees, philanthropy supported all of the developments mentioned here. Philanthropic funding has produced reports on (for example) the merits of phasing out coal and advancing electric cars. It supports the diplomacy of the poorest nations and builds their technical capacity. It has helped win political battles in many (especially Western) nations, persuading their governments to be more progressive in the international arena.
The big target for the next few years is delivery.
The big target for the next few years is delivery. For example, the EU and US pledged earlier this year to drastically cut emissions during this decade and reach net zero emissions by mid-century. However… delivering the EU’s 55% target for 2030 entails about a five-fold acceleration in the bloc’s rate of decarbonisation. The legislative package designed to deliver it may not be in law until 2024; and not all EU member states are enthusiastic. President Biden is encountering all kinds of obstacles including legal challenges and a less-than-supportive Congress.
The gains from the EU and US delivering on their pledges would be significant: lower emissions from two of the world’s biggest sources, a quickened shifting of global markets from fossil to clean, and pressure on laggard nations. The consequences of failure would be a mirror image.
European and other nations will succeed or fail primarily because of political will. Cutting emissions quickly is feasible, society backs it and there is no economic downside. But that does not mean it will happen; the forces of opposition, from inertia to corruption, are strong.
Focus on delivery
I would argue that philanthropists should see their central role for the next five years as ensuring that governments deliver their decarbonisation pledges. Each nation has its own set of challenges and opportunities. That means the strategy, the activities and the organisations supported need to be different in each.
The way to approach it is this: in nation X, what is needed to speed real decarbonisation? Political campaigning, narrative development or technical reports? Demonstrators in the streets, shareholder activism or empowerment of groups such as farmers or builders? What are the opportunities? What is the winning story?
There is a common goal across all nations: but not a common blueprint.
There is a common goal across all nations: but not a common blueprint. Business can have a central role: by advancing decarbonisation and advocating for it, business leaders show governments there is nothing to fear and much to gain. Effectively they give ministers licence to enact measures that the public demonstrably wants. Philanthropy can play an important role in providing the evidence that business leaders need, highlighting the commercial advantages of decarbonising, and giving businesses the confidence to press forward.
Some people and communities could lose out from a transition to a clean energy economy: and if they do, they will fight against it. Philanthropy can also play a role in helping map out a transition route that is fair and inclusive. But the transition itself has to be compatible with the 1.5°C target – that has to be the central criterion. Again, local knowledge and a locally developed strategy are key.
Due diligence on funding
These few years are critical. The 1.5°C global warming target hangs by a thread: three or four more years of policy failures and flatlining emissions, and it will be out of reach.
If I have one more proposal for climate philanthropy, it is this: invest in organisations and strategies that deliver, not those that look good.
Invest in organisations and strategies that deliver, not those that look good.
The landscape is dominated by relatively few big organisations that are increasingly professional-looking. That does not mean they are the most effective. Small, focussed organisations with local knowledge and a coherent theory of change are, I would argue, more likely to deliver the myriad small but important steps needed.
Do your due diligence, and as far as you can, home in on a single question: how much change has that organisation or individual delivered for every dollar invested? Or, if it is a new entity, how coherent is the theory of change? Not which important people it gets to meet, or how glossy its reports are: but what will it actually do to quicken decarbonisation?
Real change is delivered in capital cities, not COPs. If philanthropy directs its resources to maximum effect in enough capitals and spends every dollar with a clear purpose, we might just pull this off.
Richard Black is founder and Senior Associate at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, an Honorary Research Fellow at Imperial College London, and a former BBC environment correspondent.