Where did all the green funding go?

| 2nd December 2009
signing a cheque
There's still money to be had for good environmental projects, but it's a fraction of what's being spent in other areas, says Harriet Williams

Every one of us has a role to play in tackling climate change: governments have to enact policies to reduce carbon emissions; consumers have to show willingness to change behaviour; and business has to gear growth towards a low-carbon economy.

But one important player is missing from this cast list – philanthropy, broadly defined as the investment of private wealth to bring about public good.

'Good philanthropy', writes Alex Steffan, author of acclaimed sustainability blog WorldChanging, 'funds innovation that would otherwise never emerge, and supports action where none would otherwise be taken'.

The art of good giving is to bring about positive change, filling in gaps that government and corporate funders can’t or don’t want to reach, and catalysing solutions that would not pop up spontaneously.

As such, philanthropy seems tailor-made for breaking the stalemate that characterises today’s environmental crisis, in which every other actor stalls on the grounds of political unpopularity, personal inconvenience or cost, perpetually waiting for someone else to move first. 

Digging deep

It's true that a number of philanthropists have already seen good reason for investing in action to avert climate change, including foundations associated with the families or founders of companies like Sainsburys, Skype, Admiral Insurance and Tetra Pak.

'It’s a no-brainer, what can I say?,' Peter Kindersley, co-founder of the publisher Dorling Kindersley, says of his support for Friends of the Earth.

The UK has a large, well-endowed philanthropic scene, with charitable giving by trusts and foundations worth over £2 billion a year.
Foundations have helped bring about important policy shifts, investing in campaigns that led to the UK Climate Change Bill, European regulation on cleaner cars, and stalled plans for a new coal-fired power plant at Kingsnorth.

But a new report for the Environmental Funders Network, a grouping of green-minded philanthropies, suggests such examples are the exception, rather than the norm.

The carbon gap

In 2007, only 3 per cent of trust giving went towards environmental causes, and only one tenth of this - £5.9 million – directly targeted carbon emissions. ExxonMobil burnt through nearly double this amount lobbying on US climate policy in the first half of this year.

Even the 97 environmental grantmakers identified in the report only direct 10 per cent of their spending towards climate change mitigation.

More encouraging is the finding that UK trusts which do make environmental grants are upping the ante considerably, and increased their green giving at nearly ten times the rate of inflation between 2005 and 2007.

Interestingly, the US – long cast as a climate laggard – has stolen a march on the UK here. On a per capita basis, US foundation giving to the environment runs at nearly four times that of UK trusts, and US foundations nearly quintupled funding for climate change between 2004 and 2008.

Nonetheless, these amounts are vanishingly small compared to levels of public concern over climate change. As we know, climate is much more than an environmental issue. Human health and development are issues of huge interest to the foundation sector, and rightly so. Yet philanthropic investment in both stands to be jeopardised by rising global temperatures, which will spread disease, create environmental refugees and foster conflict.

Why the green blind spot?

How can we explain the disconnect between trust priorities and environmental realities? The report suggests reasons why grant-makers find it hard to engage.

For one, there is a preference for tangible outcomes – philanthropy has moved on from a time when success was measured in name plaques over museum doors, but there is still a liking for things that can be visited or counted.

Examples would include the purchase of mosquito nets to prevent malaria, or the restoration of habitat for endangered species. Both very worthwhile activities, but both of which could be set adrift if climate change spreads disease to new areas or renders whole ecosystems defunct.

Attributing cause and effect is also at odds with the messy processes of social change. Action on climate change takes place many steps removed from the people or places that philanthropists ultimately wish to protect.

Efforts to redesign policy, business practice or public behaviour along lower carbon lines proceed in unpredictable fits and bursts. If these efforts succeed, it is hard to apportion the credit. For instance, was it public mobilisation, academic research, or fortuitous political timing that finally won the Climate Change Bill? The answer is all of the above.

Risk culture

Good philanthropy is about innovation, creativity and taking risks – reasons why it is a valued income stream among environmental groups, although not usually the largest.

Ironically, the interests ranged against tackling climate change can appear more comfortable with these risks than the forces of light. The rise of right-wing think tanks in the US is an often used example of how conservative foundations have successfully shaped political debate. The American Enterprise Institute and its ilk are certainly not pretty, but they are not shy about seeking change.

This returns us to the response of philanthropy to today’s twin environmental crises of climate change and over-consumption of resources. The foundation sector should aspire to lead, not fund the same roll-call of activities that open the government or corporate purse. Leadership requires an increase in green grant-making and bold strategies for giving it away.

Not an easy role to step into. But it is in developing a vision of a sustainable future, and rallying the social change that helps it come about, that modern philanthropy could take centre stage.

Harriet Williams works for the Environmental Funders Network

Useful links
Where The Green Grants Went report

RBS: where the public money has gone
Treasury accused of writing a 'blank cheque' with taxpayers' money for bank to make environmentally-damaging investments
Call for publicly funded research into GM crops
Technologies to increase agricultural productivity will allow the UK to help feed the world, says Royal Society report
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