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Funding environmental issues, armed with research



Whatever your philanthropic passion is, the chances are it will not be immune to the environmental threats that affect us all, write Florence Miller and Jon Cracknell.

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

Let’s start with the good news: according to recent research from the Environmental Funders Network (EFN), UK trusts and foundations are giving increasing amounts of money to environmental work after three years of declining funding.

In 2012, in fact, the combined value of UK philanthropic grants to environmental issues reached its highest point in the last 10 years. That figure, though (and yes, this is the alarming news) was £112m. That’s enough to buy just one of the two Van Gogh sunflower paintings currently exhibited at the National Gallery – should you wish to view that painting through your scuba mask after the sea levels rise.

We jest. EFN aims, through research and events, to make the case that environmental issues should be the concern of all donors. Whether your passion lies in the arts, education, human rights, health, or development, the issues you care most about will be affected by threats to the environment – be they air quality affecting children’s ability to learn, climate change putting developing communities at risk or soil erosion threatening food supplies. So-called environmental issues are, at their heart, human issues that affect us all.

To help donors to environmental causes better understand the landscape in which they are operating, EFN undertakes Where the Green Grants Went research biennially, tracking not just the total amounts of philanthropic funding going to environmental issues but identifying funding gaps in terms of issues and geographies. This year’s report, which analyses nearly 6,000 environmental grants from UK foundations and the National Lottery, also looks at the distribution of public sector grants for environmental initiatives.

Photo: leenapics via

In addition to this detailed analysis of the ‘supply side’ of the environmental grants market, EFN recently published Passionate Collaboration?, which examined the ‘demand side’ of the market by surveying the chief executives of leading UK environmental organisations about a range of issues, including how they allocate their resources, the approaches and skill-sets they feel need more attention, and the challenges and opportunities they see for the sector.

One hundred and forty chief executives of environmental organisations responded to that survey, and Passionate Collaboration? highlights in particular the significance and value of philanthropic grants for environmental organisations when compared with other forms of income.

These reports represent groundbreaking and, we believe, unique research that can arm donors with more information than has ever been available about the state of a particular sector. They provide new insights into the environmental movement, highlighting funding gaps, sector priorities and opportunities for both environmental organisations and their funders.

Findings included the fact that the share of philanthropic grants directed towards systemic drivers of environmental harm, such as over-consumption, or trade and finance policies, is vanishingly small, constituting just 2% of total funding across the two years studied in the report. International comparisons and previous EFN reports show that these issues consistently attract the least funding from foundations around the world, despite foundations being better placed than other grantmakers to support work of this kind.

Indeed, the lottery and public sector programmes within the UK are even less likely to fund work tackling the systemic drivers of environmental harm: across all lottery programmes that fund the environment, just 0.8% of funding was directed towards consumption and waste issues, and not a single grant was made on trade and finance issues.

There is a gulf between the scale of investment that is needed and the ability of grantmakers like the lottery and public sector to meet that need, creating a clear role for private philanthropists to lead the way on innovative solutions to these systemic issues.

Photo: Darren Deans via

Turning to climate change, across the last decade the share of UK environmental philanthropy grants directed towards that cross-cutting issue has steadily increased, reaching 25% in 2012, up from just 9% in 2007. Yet despite this growth, over the two years examined by Where the Green Grants Went 6, philanthropic funding for climate mitigation amounted to just £44.8m – enough to buy one leg of footballer Gareth Bale following his world record-breaking transfer to Real Madrid.

Passionate Collaboration? shows that systemic environmental problems are also a low priority for many environmental organisations. Only £5.7m or 0.6% of the total annual spend by the groups responding to the survey goes towards air, noise and water pollution, even though the evidence suggests these forms of pollution cost Britain more than £10 billion a year in healthcare costs and together generate more complaints than any other environmental issue.

The survey results also dispel the myth that environment groups are full of radicals. For better or for worse, only 1.2% of the surveyed organisations’ expenditure is spent on activism towards government or corporations, and less than 3% of their expenditure is directed towards getting people to behave differently.

Foundation grants accounted for just 10% of the total income of the 140 environmental organisations surveyed in Passionate Collaboration?, but those organisation’s leaders highlighted the irreplaceable roles that grants from trusts, foundations and individual donors play in supporting the field.

Chief executives told us that they really value the unrestricted funding (i.e. funding to cover their operational costs as well as their programmes) and ‘patient’ capital to their organisations that grants provide. In addition, they appreciate their smaller administrative burdens relative to other sources of funding and the freedom with which they provide organisations to challenge the status quo.

Experienced grantmakers interviewed for Where the Green Grants Went also highlighted the importance of philanthropic capital, arguing that donors like themselves are arguably much better placed than any other types of funders to take risks and to support new and unproven ideas, being answerable to no one but themselves.

Chief executives from environmental organisations echoed the need to break out of tried and tested approaches, but expressed the challenge of doing this when trapped on a ‘hamster wheel’ of day-to-day fundraising and management. Funders could help provide space for reflection and joint conversation to address this challenge.

We hope that donors will find both Where the Green Grants Went and Passionate Collaboration? useful resources as they develop grantmaking strategies. Whatever causes you care about most deeply, a healthy environment underpins them all.

Florence Miller is the co-ordinator of the Environmental Funders Network and Jon Cracknell is a director at Goldsmith Family Philanthropy.

Featured image: Timo Balk via

Further reading:

Ben Goldsmith on fixing the environmental crisis through philanthropy

Figures suggest UK environmental group membership at 4.5m

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

We need to put ethics at the core financial heart of charities

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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