How philanthropy can unlock action on climate and nature this decade

Global philanthropy is not putting its muscle behind addressing the dual climate and nature crises, but it holds the key to unlocking the pace and scale required for action on climate and nature in this decisive decade.

While overall giving in the philanthropic sector has grown significantly and an increasing number of philanthropic institutions are making climate commitments, more can be done to ensure just and equitable transitions for Asia. Image: Roman Nguyen / Unsplash

It was the American scientist Eunice Newton Foote who in 1856 first documented in a short scientific paper the extraordinary power of carbon dioxide to absorb heat – the driving force of global warming. She made her discovery on the eve of the Industrial Revolution arriving on American shores. She and her peers would not have predicted how these technological advancements to our manufacturing processes would lead to copious amounts of carbon dioxide being expelled into the atmosphere, thereby warming the planet.

Interestingly, many of the traits of modern, organised philanthropy can also be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. In that period, a number of industrialists amassed great fortunes and set up philanthropic enterprises (John D. Rockefeller was in high school when Foote made her discovery), which pioneered a systematic approach to the work of improving social conditions, the main focus of philanthropy in those days.

Undeniably, the Industrial Revolution has brought prosperity and a rise in living standards to many across this planet – but it has also led to increased pollution, a decline in natural habitats and a warming planet due to the steep rise of greenhouse gas emissions. Coming full circle, it might be philanthropy that holds the key to unlocking the pace and scale required for action on climate and nature in this decisive decade.

However, a recent report by ClimateWorks Foundation reveals that, despite the pioneering efforts of philanthropic leaders in the climate and nature space, global philanthropy at large is not putting its muscle behind addressing the dual climate and nature crises. While overall giving in the sector has grown significantly and an increasing number of philanthropic institutions are making climate commitments, especially in the past few years, the share of total global philanthropy dedicated to climate mitigation remains under 2 per cent annually. Of the approximately US$810 billion of total philanthropic giving in 2021, only about US$7.5-12.5 billion was earmarked for climate mitigation. Giving for climate adaptation, just and equitable transitions, or for nature protection or restoration, is even less.

These figures are striking, and the inevitable conclusion is stark: The state of giving to climate and nature is nowhere near commensurate to the seriousness of the crises faced by our Earth systems, and the many species relying on them.

Six unique characteristics of philanthropic capital can change our course

However, philanthropy might be the unsuspecting actor who can play a transformational role in catalysing action and accelerating impact to reduce human emissions and reverse nature loss. The capital philanthropy can deploy can be truly catalytic thanks to six unique characteristics:

  • Nimble: moves capital quickly to where it is most needed
  • Risk-tolerant: de-risks and leverages new, additional capital
  • Flexible: adapts to different types of funding needs
  • Patient: waits for better, more impactful outcomes
  • Equitable: focuses on the marginalised and vulnerable
  • Systemic: takes systems-level approaches to solutions

There is a significant gap between stated climate and nature ambitions and pledges, and the capital made available to reach those objectives. Transitioning the planet to an equitable climate- and nature-positive future by 2050 will require total funding of $100+ trillion over the next three decades to engender systemic shifts, from how we grow our food to how we power our lives and transport goods to how we build our cities and communities. Most of this financing will need to come from businesses and governments.

However, if philanthropy and a broader spectrum of global giving actors, including family offices, corporate philanthropies and ultra-high net worth individuals (UHNWIs), were to raise their giving, and deploy these resources in a manner that, for example, de-risks investments or helps to develop the policy frameworks that factor in the risks of not doing so, then we could begin to mobilise the trillions of public and private investment needed, giving us a decisive edge in turning the tide in preventing the looming climate and nature breakdowns.

Seeds of change

Fortunately, we can learn from and stand on the shoulders of pioneers in this field. There are already excellent initiatives, including:

The recently launched Philanthropy Asia Alliance, pioneered by Temasek Trust, has pledged an initial $200 million and seeks to become a trusted platform in the region for philanthropy to work across climate and nature.

Advisory services, such as the philanthropically-funded Climate Leadership Initiative (CLI), which has helped more than 60 families and philanthropists new to climate to give more than $3 billion to climate solutions in the last few years. Regional examples of support have also developed, including Active Philanthropy in Europe, with its online course on climate philanthropy.

Breakthrough Energy is showing how philanthropy can come together with governments and the private sector to de-risk and tackle the “green premium” of early-stage, low-carbon emitting technologies.

Backed by more than $1 billion in initial funding from the IKEA Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Bezos Earth Fund, the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet is working with entrepreneurs, governments, technology and financing partners to catalyse new pools of capital, innovations, and clean energy projects across Asia, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean. Today, the Alliance includes 19 partners and leverages more than $11 billion in aligned co-investment capacity to reduce carbon emissions, expand energy access, and enable sustainable livelihoods.

Experienced philanthropists have also come together in driving scaled-up impact through initiatives such as the Clean Cooling Coalition, the Drive Electric initiative and the Methane Hub.

Smaller-scale, regional initiatives, such as the Southeast Asia Clean Energy Facility (SEACEF), are also proving successful in leveraging philanthropic dollars to unlock public and private capital for innovative development-stage clean energy projects and are now inspiring a global version of this approach.

In July 2021, the International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change was launched. Developed by a task force of over 40 philanthropic organisations, the initiative encourages all philanthrophic institutions to signal their commitment to act on the climate emergency. Signatories commit to share learnings, resources and experiences with their peers, with support from a network of regional champions around the world, like the European Philanthropy Coalition for Climate led by Philea. Over 600 foundations have already signed onto the commitments.

While all these efforts are critical and importantly can serve as inspiration and as a source for transferrable knowledge, we need to coordinate and collaborate to do more, faster. Despite all our efforts, the emissions gap keeps growing and rates of nature and biodiversity loss remain high.

GAEA for the planet

With that in mind, the World Economic Forum is launching at its Annual Meeting this month a call to action for GAEA (“Giving to Amplify Earth Action”): an initiative to harness public, private and philanthropic partnerships (PPPP) to catalyse equitable climate- and nature-positive solutions. Working with public, private and philanthropic leaders over the course of the next 12 months, GAEA’s process will involve four activities:

  • Convene leaders from each “P” to jointly develop solutions that benefit both planet and people.
  • Target climate and nature solutions where PPPPs are best positioned to play a catalytic role.
  • Pilot, test and refine funding models that can support a subset of prioritized PPPP interventions.
  • Scale and replicate successful approaches to new sectors, regions and actors.

We are encouraged by the leadership we see in the field, and are driven by the conviction that there is, in the words of Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, a tremendous opportunity of leveraging the untapped global philanthropy to be targeted in a catalytic manner for the benefit of climate and nature.

We realise that there are many important causes around the world, so this work is not intended to scale climate and nature giving at the expense of existing good causes supported by philanthropic efforts, which often make life or death differences to people’s lives. That said, as recently noted by the Rockefeller Foundation’s President Rajiv Shah: “A warming planet can undo all the organisation has done for more than 100 years to aid vulnerable communities in the realms of health, energy, food, and equity.” Failing to limit temperature rise to acceptable levels and safeguard Earth’s intricate natural systems will also make it impossible for philanthropies to alleviate causes across those realms in the future. It will undo our past progress and foreclose future success.

The word “philanthropy” derives from the ancient Greek word philanthropia, which means “to love people”. The lives and livelihoods of people – and the fate of so many other species on this planet – depend on us looking after our planet, which in Greek mythology is embodied by Gaia (also spelled Gaea), the goddess of Earth. One can’t be done without the other.

The World Economic Forum stands ready to deploy its convening and curating power to bring philanthropic leaders together with its public and private partners to scale, coordinate, and target giving to high-impact, high-leverage uses in this decisive decade for protecting people and planet.

Neo Gim Huay is managing director at the Centre for Nature and Climate;  Anthony Robert Hobley is Executive Fellow, Strategic Engagement, Centre for Nature and Climate; Rob van Riet is Senior Advisor, Centre for Nature and Climate, Luis Alvarado is Global Strategic Engagement Lead, Centre for Nature and Climate.  

This article is part of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2023.  Read our coverage here.

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