BRACE is a charity in Hong Kong that’s putting climate action at the centre of all its efforts. BRACE Deputy Executive Director joined AVPN and the IPCCC to talk about what that looks like.
As Alliance magazine’s June 2021 issue looked at climate philanthropy and COP26, we partnered with the International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change on an interview series to ask a number of organisations around the world: what is philanthropy’s role in addressing climate change at this critical moment?
Has your organisation made any commitment to climate action or joined a climate pledge? If so, what?
The guiding principle of BRACE is that if we do not address the climate & extinctions crisis now, all other issues become irrelevant. As such, 100 per cent of our giving is focused on climate action.
What encouraged your organisation to start its climate journey?
For over two decades our founder and team have been working to protect natural ecosystems from human destruction. As we stand at the precipice of ecological collapse – we have now fully dedicated all our resources towards action to address the climate and extinction crises. Our current focus is on greenhouse gas emission reduction and nature-based sequestration projects that have scalable impacts in a timeframe that matches the urgency of the global emergency.
Can you share an example of the changes that your organisation has made in its embrace of climate work?
Climate impact has and continues to centre our giving, however in recent years, how we assess solutions has shifted towards initiatives that demonstrate immediacy and scale to reduce warming, to that end our grant project funding is now dedicated towards the mitigation of super climate pollutants – one of the most effective strategies to rapidly reduce the rate of warming and significantly limit climate change.
One hundred per cent of our giving is dedicated to climate impact. However, the majority of the initiatives that we support also holistically integrate a social lens.
There is scientific consensus that the climate mitigation priority for this decade is to reduce super climate pollutant emissions. Indeed, the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, a UN panel of top climate scientists, reiterated the importance of addressing these gases alongside CO2. What sets these super pollutants apart is the intensely magnified warming effects they have when compared to CO2. For example, halogenated gases emitted by cooling or refrigeration processes have warming effects thousands of times that of CO2, or methane which is a major agricultural emission from cattle rearing or paddy rice cultivation has a warming potential that is 80 times that of CO2 (over a 20-year period). By prioritising the mitigation of these super pollutants, we will have an outsized impact and a chance to limit the worst impacts of climate change. Aside from the potent warming effect, these gases also stay in the atmosphere for relatively shorter periods. This means that by reducing their emissions we can have quick wins in terms of warming. By aggressively reducing these climate super-pollutants now, we can rapidly bend the global warming curve and provide time for the net-zero transition.
As such, BRACE is focused on funding initiatives that directly address the mitigation of these super-pollutants. To have a critical climate impact in this decisive decade we must address super-pollutant emissions in our philanthropy and beyond.
In this key decade for climate action, many are recognising the intersection of climate with other areas of work. How are you integrating a climate lens into your other focus areas?
One hundred per cent of our giving is dedicated to climate impact. However, the majority of the initiatives that we support also holistically integrate a social lens. This applies particularly with our work with smallholder farmers and behaviour change, it is imperative that any climate solutions must also motivate their adopters – we understand that behaviour change related to the climate cannot occur if the action does not align with individual economic drivers.
To illustrate, we are working with various organisations in Vietnam, Indonesia and China to support the transition of smallholder rice farmers towards climate-friendly cultivation techniques. Paddy rice is a staple crop for much of the world’s population. It is also a key source of methane, responsible for about 40 million tonnes, or 10 per cent of global emissions, each year. On a macro level, it is pertinent that rice-growing practices transition and close the negative feedback loops between rice farmers and the unpredictable, extreme weather patterns. However, for the individual farmer, we understand that they have other priorities beyond climate impact including livelihood concerns. To that end, the agricultural techniques that our grantees promote must be economically and behaviourally convincing for farmers. They should increase increasing yield and income thus delivering greater returns to labour, land and capital. Only by also satisfying these conditions are we able to minimize methane as well as other super-pollutant emissions from agriculture. Our philanthropic strategies are underpinned by a holistic and pragmatic approach, initiatives must mitigate super-pollutant emissions, with an understanding that in the Asian context development and climate goals are deeply intertwined.
What kind of impact have you seen your climate focus having already? If you have a story, please share it.
We have seen positive environmental impacts across our initiatives, such increase in biodiversity and soil carbon in native reforestation projects in Thailand or the regrowth of kelp forests in what were previous urchin barrens in Japan.
We also have had tens of thousands of farmers in Asia join training to commit to climate-friendly agricultural practices. From our work, we have been able to witness not only the change of agricultural behaviours towards lower emission practices but also the internalization of the processes by farmers, which helps to safeguard long-term positive change. Our approach can best be illustrated by a real-life story, we work with farmers in Indonesia to abate the burning of crop residue, a practice that increases black carbon particulates in the air, another super pollutant that has 900 times warming potential (over a 20-year period) when compared with CO2. Our grantees provide training in regenerative techniques that provide alternate practices to burning and that place value on crop residue. One rice farmer and village leader in West Java trialled our techniques on his land, after just one crop season, he documented lowered labour and fertiliser costs, a 17 per cent increase in yield when compared to his neighbours, additional crop harvests from crop rotations and increased resilience to drought. Having experienced and witnessed this in his fields, he is now committed to stopping the burning of crop residue and indeed disseminating our climate-friendly and burn-free techniques across the village. We believe that these successes can scale and provide win-win solutions for farmers and the climate.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered so far in your climate work?
Our climate impact is currently constraint by our relatively limited resources. Our strategy has been proven and is rigorously backed and measured science, with additional resources we could scale and multiply our climate impact.
Do you think philanthropic foundations should be held to account for their climate commitments, such as with an independent climate action tracker? Why or why not?
At BRACE we have leveraged academic research and development of satellite data as a metric to measure the impact of burn-free agricultural initiatives we support. The advent of technology such as satellite data, machine learning and AI has given us new tools for further transparency and accountability as well as assessing our impact.
The climate crisis is the defining challenge of our time and intersects with almost every issue – from educating girls, to indigenous rights, our oceans, poverty alleviation, health and more.
On a project level, we have also provided funding towards the development an impact measurement tool that uses artificial intelligence to carry out forward-looking simulations and statistical estimations for climate impact projections related to novel technologies. We believe these tools can help to speed up the adoption of new technologies and behaviours, provide metrics for policy advocacy as well as integrate carbon credits into the design of philanthropic and impact investment-led climate strategies.
Do you have any advice to share with other foundations embarking on their own climate journey?
The climate crisis is the defining challenge of our time and intersects with almost every issue – from educating girls, to indigenous rights, our oceans, poverty alleviation, health and more. As climate action intersects with societal, economic and environmental benefits, climate additionality can be built in organically to enhance current programmes and outcomes. This has been illustrated with the stories shared earlier, our farmer projects can also be seen as poverty alleviation efforts.
To curb climate change, we need behaviour change. We have therefore backed away from supporting awareness-raising or advocacy work that has no behavioural targets and shifted our focus to supporting solutions that directly deliver a measurable climate impact. Research has shown time and again that awareness, including climate awareness often doesn’t translate into behaviour change.
As funders, we should also be careful not to assume that just because a project has certain climate sounding elements it will necessarily have the desired climate mitigation impact. For example, not all projects that promote renewable energy will lower worldwide carbon emissions. A study by Chakravarty and Tavoni (2013) on energy poverty alleviation shows that even if this is done by using renewable energy and gas (i.e. a low emissions scenario), the overall impact will still be an increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 44GtCO2 or 0.02°C in global temperatures. So those working on energy poverty alleviation, beware if you also want to reduce GHG!
It’s not just enough to have sound climate solutions. They need to be adopted at scale to have the desired climate impact. To this end, we also now have our grantees committing to adding behavioural science into their programmes to ensure that they psychologically appeal to their target audiences. This means applying scientifically validated behavioural principles to all aspects of the work including how to design the solutions to ensure that they are practicable, how to present them to encourage their adoption, what promotional messages to use, who to engage as the projects’ messengers, and how to conduct training if any. At BRACE we funded the development of an evidence-based behaviour change framework (known as the CARING model) by a team of globally renowned behavioural scientists. The programme is designed to mobilise climate – and eco-friendly behaviours. We apply the model to the projects that we support. We also offer training programmes to organisations working in conservation, sustainability, and climate. We welcome any organisations who are interested in embedding this lens into their programmes to reach out, together we can strengthen and multiply our impact.