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Environmental philanthropy: a gift from you to the future



Environmental causes still represent a small proportion of philanthropic giving – but the natural world’s interconnectedness means that won’t always be the case.

This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Philanthropy 2014. 

People have mixed feelings about philanthropy. Some might see it as a way for wealthy people to serve their own interests, while others praise the efforts and commitment of affluent individuals and organisations in helping tackle global problems. Regardless of your view, the impact and legacy of philanthropic giving is clear for us all to see – in our museums, hospitals, galleries, monuments and national parks.

One area that generally provides donors with less tangible or visible outcomes – but which has benefits for everyone and everything on the planet – is the environment. The latest report by the Environmental Funders Network (EFN) revealed that UK foundation grants and lottery funding for environmental projects totalled £383m between 2010 and 2012 – with 66% coming from just 10 foundations. While this is an increase over previous years, the total still represents less than 4% of all grants by UK charitable trusts.

The green investor and philanthropist Ben Goldsmith, who co-founded the EFN in 2003, told Blue & Green Tomorrow last year, “People assume that the environment will just always be there and will always keep on giving, and therefore they look to focus on the more immediate problems. It’s like they’re putting sticking plasters onto the symptoms of environmental collapse and trying to deal with things at the end of the pipe, rather than going to the beginning of the pipe and trying to solve the cause of some of those problems. That’s the transition that philanthropists need to make.”

Photo: Thad Zajdowicz via

A year on from Goldsmith’s rallying cry, and not enough progress has been made. Mark Kenber, CEO of the climate change organisation the Climate Group, notes that philanthropic giving still struggles to break away from its focus on health, education and poverty.

In a cruel twist of fate, these three important issues are being worsened by climate change: pollution from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transport is killing people globally; heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather cause disruptions to education provisions; and developing world families are being pushed further into economic anguish as farmland becomes useless and food harder to come by.

Kenber says, “[Environmental and conservation work] are areas where the devastating effects of climate change are having the greatest impact on millions of people across the globe, with heatwaves, floods, droughts, wildfires and pollution disrupting education, forcing families from their homes and causing people to fall ill. This will accelerate unless we act now and undermine much of the progress made in areas that receive the bulk of philanthropic support.

“Philanthropic funding and charitable giving to environmental organisations has the potential to revolutionise the fight against climate change, creating an impact that will truly be felt by the global community.

There are many notable examples of trusts, foundations and also individuals that have made a difference by deciding to direct their giving towards environmental initiatives. For example, the Canada-based Oak Foundation offers grants to projects that address the causes of and solutions to climate change and the oceans crisis. The foundation is the primary funder of the TckTckTck network – also known as the Global Call for Climate Action, which puts together more than 450 organisations campaigning for climate action.

Another notable British organisation, the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN), offers grants to the leading environmental protection projects. Its annual awards help fund the world’s top conservationists. Among last year’s winners are biologist Zahirul Islam, who worked to protect sea turtles in Bangladesh, and Daniel Letoiye, whose efforts to preserve species and grasslands in Kenya were praised.

There are also philanthropic foundations in the US leading the way, with the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation deserving of a special mention. George Mitchell, who died last year, was the father of fracking, developing the process to extract shale gas by hydraulically fracturing shale rocks.

At the time, Mitchell knew little about the seriousness of climate change, the economic case for leaving fossil fuels in the ground or the effects of fracking on the environment and the water table. His legacy has therefore been, through his foundation, to find “innovative, sustainable solutions for human and environmental problems”.

The foundation supports water programmes, clean energy projects in Texas and initiatives to make natural gas more sustainable. It says it “supports the emerging regulatory, industry, environmental and academic efforts to reduce the negative environmental and community impacts of shale formation development and hydraulic fracturing while capturing the energy, environmental, and economic benefits of natural gas”.

Photo: Vera and Jean Christophe via Flickr

In the area of climate change, the Climate Group and the European Climate Foundation are major players. The first brings together governments, business leaders and policymakers to build a low-carbon future, while the latter funds – with its €25m annual budget – climate and energy projects that aim at reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the EU.

Some of the individual donors making a difference to the environment include Jeremy Grantham, chair of GMO investment group and founder of the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, and HP founder William Hewlett, who created with his wife the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, committed to tackling social and environmental problems.

Another high-profile personality, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia, created with her husband two organisations to help preserve land in Chile and Argentina. Tompkins bought a piece of land in Monte Leon national park in Patagonia and donated to the Argentinean National Park Administration. The couple have, in total, conserved over 2m acres of land in the two countries – reportedly more than any other private individuals.

Tompkins eloquently sums up the benefits of environmental philanthropy: “More than a gift from me, Monte Leon national park’s designation was a gift to me. Every act of wildlands philanthropy, large or small, demonstrates care for the land, love for wildlife and concern for generations to come. And finally it is something you do for your heart.”

Featured image: Aureliy Movila via

Further reading:

Funding environmental issues, armed with research

Sainsbury family’s £165m charity donations top Sunday Times Giving List

Figures suggest UK environmental group membership at 4.5m

Sainsbury family’s £165m charity donations top Sunday Times Giving List

The Guide to Sustainable Philanthropy 2014


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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