Inside Philanthropy: Having a Hard Time Keeping Up with All the Recent Climate Pledges? Here’s a List
Inside Philanthropy – November 11, 2021
By Michael Kavate
COP26, the global climate change summit in Glasgow this month, feels like a metaphor for the challenge humanity faces.
There is no sign of any sweeping new agreement among the world’s powers—the most egregious emitters—just as there is no silver bullet that can dispatch the climate crisis in a single blow. But there are a number of promising—if inadequate—commitments to the cause. It’s a real good news/bad news situation.
The United States and China pledged to work together on reducing emissions, but some details remain vague. Forty-plus countries agreed to stop using coal, though some of the world’s largest consumers did not. More than 100 leaders committed to ending deforestation by 2030, but a similar 2014 pledge did not make much impact. A voluntary pledge to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030 would reduce warming, though many hope for even deeper cuts.
Alongside these developments came a bunch of climate pledges from billionaires and foundations, including some putting private dollars behind the government promises. The philanthropic pledges came fast and furious during the two-week event, which is currently drawing to a close. And they follow several big-dollar commitments during the weeks and months prior, including a series of announcements timed to the U.N. General Assembly. To try to make sense of what this flurry of promises might mean for climate philanthropy, I’ve gathered a list of some of the most notable pledges from the past few months.
Like the government pledges, these are both significant and insufficient. The number of donors and the dollar amounts are notable only compared to our long history of inaction, not the actual need. Foundation giving toward climate totaled $1.9 billion in 2020, according to ClimateWorks Foundation. Private funding is only part of the solution, but that figure feels awfully low when billionaires gained more than $2 trillion in wealth during the pandemic. It is less, for example, than the discount Jeff Bezos was prepared to give NASA to lure away a lunar contract from Elon Musk, his competitor for the richest person on the planet.
With the usual gripes out of the way, here’s a list of all the recent, notable philanthropic climate pledges on our radar.
The former New York City mayor’s giving vehicle Bloomberg Philanthropies made an array of solo commitments, while also joining both the methane pledge and the Protecting Our Planet Challenge. By the standards of this list, those individual grants were relatively small, such as a $25 million commitment to develop methane-sensing satellites and other technology.
But several efforts focused on mobilizing the larger financial world. For instance, the 79-year-old’s philanthropy partnered with Goldman Sachs in September to commit $25 million to a Climate Innovation Fund that hopes to leverage up to a half-billion dollars in clean energy investments in India, Vietnam and beyond. A partnership with the International Solar Alliance announced in mid-October aims to activate twice that sum—$1 trillion—in solar financing across 80 countries.
Climate Funders Justice Pledge
This one is a bit different than the rest in that it’s more of a call to action than an upfront commitment, but well worth highlighting, especially considering a new top 40 climate funder, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, joined the nearly year-old effort this month. Run by the Donors of Color Network, this pledge requires signatories to report how much they grant to BIPOC-led, justice-focused organizations and to increase such giving to 30% of their U.S.-based climate funding within two years. Eight top funders have now signed on to at least the transparency portion. Three smaller philanthropic organizations—Kataly Foundation, Laughing Gull Foundation and Women Donors Network—recently signed on as well, bringing the total number of signatories to 26.
While this pledge is about committing an ongoing percentage rather than a fixed dollar amount, its success could potentially shift as much money as some of the commitments listed here. But so far, the most common choice among top funders is inaction. Sixteen are still in conversation with the network about signing the pledge. Another three never responded, according to organizers. Six have refused to join, with some noting most of their climate grantmaking is outside the United States.
Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet
The Rockefeller Foundation, Ikea Foundation and Bezos Earth Fund each committed $500 million to a $10.5 billion fund that will help emerging economies move from fossil fuels to clean energy. Projects the alliance will support include developing mini-electricity grids, shuttering old coal-fired power plants, and setting up utility-scale solar panel arrays and other renewable sources.
With the foundations providing the risk capital, the fund has already attracted backing from international development banks, and it hopes to bring institutional investors on board to leverage as much as $100 billion in investment. That much and a lot more is needed. Rich nations pledged in 2009 to provide $100 billion annually to developing countries to transition to renewables, but have broken that pledge. Many say trillions in aid are actually needed.
Mark and Lynne Benioff
The co-founder and CEO of Salesforce and his wife Lynne announced in late October they will put $200 million toward planting trees and backing ecological entrepreneurs to combat the climate crisis. Half the sum will go to the Benioff TIME Tree fund—the Benioffs own Time magazine—building on their earlier support for 1t.org, a global effort to plant 1 trillion trees by 2030. The other half will come in investments from TIME Ventures, the couple’s investment fund. Announced in late October, the pledges did not include a timeline.
Salesforce, which announced earlier this year it had achieved net-zero emissions, will grant an additional $100 million over the next decade to organizations working on climate justice and ecosystem restoration. The couple, worth an estimated $11.4 billion, have given $68 million in climate-related grants over the past five years, so this is a big step up.
Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
In their first-ever act of climate philanthropy (that we know of), Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan in mid-October announced $33 million in climate funding. Nearly $23 million went to organizations working on carbon dioxide removal, or methods of removing past emissions from the atmosphere. Another $10 million went to a group of fellows organized by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy working on decarbonization of heavy industries.
While a small amount relative to others on this list, it is notable for two reasons. First, the couple has pledged to give away virtually all of their wealth during their lifetimes, so the grants could mark the arrival of a major new climate funder. Second, it adds the couple to a growing list of backers of carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Some form of CDR is vital to almost all IPCC projections for maintaining a livable climate, yet detractors are concerned that corporations in particular are relying too heavily on this unproven technology to achieve carbon reduction goals.
Mike and Annie Cannon-Brookes
The co-founder and co-CEO of software giant Atlassian and his wife Annie pledged in October to invest roughly $740 million in green technology and grant approximately $371 million to organizations working on the climate crisis by 2030. The pledges, which totaled $1.5 billion in Australian dollars, come as the $111 billion company moved its pledge to reach net-zero emissions forward 10 years to 2040. Cannon-Brookes, whose estimated $26.6 billion fortune ranks the 41-year-old among Australia’s richest people, said he hopes the move will push other corporate leaders to follow suit.
The Gates Foundation
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $315 million over the next three years in a bid to help the roughly 500 million small-scale farmers and livestock managers in low-income countries who are being hit hard by climate change. The money will go to CGIAR, a global network of agricultural research partnerships, which has raised more than a half-billion dollars in additional funding from governments and groups like the European Commission and USAID.
One focus will be sub-Saharan Africa, which has contributed only 4% of global greenhouse gases and where most of the population works in agriculture. The commitment continues a long-running—and controversial—line of funding from the world’s largest grantmaker. Support is direly needed to help farmers adapt to the expected droughts and heat waves of a changed climate. Yet critics charge that the efforts favor industrial agriculture approaches and corporations, while making farmers dependent on the hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides favored by the program, as well as the external financing needed to obtain them.
Methane reduction pledge
An alliance of more than 20 funders, marshaled in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, have promised $328 million over three years to support the 75-plus countries that signed the Global Methane Pledge. Participants are working to reduce their methane emissions by at least 30% by the end of the decade.
Why methane? Over a 20-year period, the super-pollutant is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide and accounts for roughly 30% of all global warming since pre-industrial times. In a promising sign, the current pot of funding marks a more than $100 million increase over the amount pledged when the alliance was announced in mid-October.
The Amazon founder committed $2 billion from his previously announced $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund to support landscape restoration and an overhaul of how we grow and consume food. Half the funds will support revitalizing barren and degraded lands, with an initial focus on Africa and the United States. The remainder will target a smorgasbord of food-related goals—increasing crop yields, reducing agricultural emissions and encouraging plant-based diets.
This latest pledge, which will be spent by 2030, brings the fund’s commitments to roughly $4.6 billion. But much remains to be revealed, particularly about this latest sum. The announcement shared only one partner. Nor is it clear if money will go through intermediaries or directly to organizations in the target regions. Perhaps that should come as no surprise for an outfit for which basic facts, like its legal structure, remain a mystery.
Indigenous peoples and local communities
This month, five nations and 17 funders pledged $1.7 billion in financing over five years to protect and expand Indigenous land rights in tropical forests. Studies have repeatedly shown that Indigenous land management reduces deforestation at a low cost, yet those communities receive a minor fraction of related funding.
With the Ford Foundation in the lead, the group included climate philanthropy heavyweights like the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Oak Foundation and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Another portion of funding came from the Protecting Our Planet Challenge funders, who committed 20% of their pledge, or $1 billion over a decade, to the cause.
Laurene Powell Jobs
The founder and president of the Emerson Collective announced in September she would give $3.5 billion over the coming decade to tackle the climate crisis. Her philanthropic LLC has funded such work in the past, but this commitment earmarks a significant share of the estimated $17 billion fortune she inherited from her late husband, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Details are limited, but funding will center “underserved communities who are most impacted by climate change.” The funding will flow through a separate grantmaking entity, the Waverley Street Foundation, which could mean it will be more transparent than the famously opaque Emerson Collective.
Protecting Our Planet Challenge
Nine organizations have pledged to spend $5 billion over the next 10 years to support the global effort to conserve 30% of the world’s land and waters by 2030. It is said to be the largest private funding commitment for biodiversity to date. Partners hope to expand existing protected areas and support Indigenous communities’ management of their traditional territories.
Philanthropies signing the pledge include the U.K.-based Arcadia and the U.S.-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Wyss Foundation and Rob and Melani Walton Foundation, as well as the Bezos Earth Fund and Bloomberg Philanthropies.