Last October, the world’s leading climate scientists issued a final warning: we are running out of time to prevent disastrous global warming. A year on, their message has made its mark in the UK and across the world. This has been the year of the school strikes, of Extinction Rebellion, and of Earth Strike, the first coordinated global workers’ strike to protest international climate inaction.
In the philanthropic sector, too, climate change is an issue rising on the agenda. This year’s Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) conference, the biggest annual UK trust and foundation sector event, will be climate-themed, calling on attendees to consider their ‘role in limiting the environmental, economic and social effects of climate change and [their] power to support local, national and global solutions’.
The conference will see the launch of the Funder Commitment on Climate Change, which calls on signatories to develop their in-house climate expertise, directly fund climate initiatives, integrate climate considerations into all of their grant-making, decarbonise their operations, and proactively steward their investments in line with the transition to a post-carbon future.
And, this week, we are launching a report on the co-benefits of funding climate-related work for organisations whose core purpose is not tackling the climate crisis. From funding home insulation programmes that combat fuel poverty while lowering greenhouse gas emissions, to supporting platforms for under-represented youth voices in climate negotiations – there are many ways for every foundation, regardless of their mission, to contribute to the transition to a fair, prosperous and inclusive low-carbon economy.
For the philanthropic sector, a focus on climate change is long overdue. In 2016, the most recent year for which such data is publicly available, the ACF Giving Trends report found that only 3 per cent of UK grant spending went to environmental issues. The low priority attributed to climate and environmental issues by the philanthropic sector stands in contrast with the views of the general public, who consistently rank climate change as an issue of top importance.
Realigning the sector’s grant-making priorities with the most pressing challenge of our time would be an important step forward. Yet, the biggest opportunity foundations have to throw their weight behind the climate movement is not through their grants, but through their investments.
In 2017/2018, the top 300 charitable foundations in the UK collectively spent £2.9 billion in grants – but in the same year, their combined assets reached a new record high of £67 billion. The benefits of green grant-making cannot outweigh the costs of a destructive, high-carbon investment portfolio.
Regardless of your specific charitable mission, it is critical for all foundations to recognise that high-carbon economic growth is no longer an inherently desirable outcome. If we fail to individually and collectively take the steps required to decarbonise the world economy over the next decade, it is highly likely that the public benefit of an increased endowment, made off the back of high-carbon investments, will be vastly outweighed by the negative impacts of environmental collapse. As charitable bodies, foundations have a duty to provide public benefit – and, in light of the climate crisis, this must mean a duty to decarbonise investments.
For foundations just beginning to think about their role in the climate movement, it can be hard to know where to start. The good news is, whatever your size, geography and mission, you have an important role in supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy. The Funders Commitment presents an excellent opportunity for foundations to team up and learn from each other’s progress in greening their grants and decarbonising their investments – yet, at present, only 14 foundations have signed up to the commitment. This number should be much higher.
Pavlina Draganova is Climate Change Researcher at Ten Years’ Time