Climate Change Executive Summary

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John Halstead
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Climate Change Executive Summary and Giving Recommendation

This is a summary of our cause area report on Climate Change. The full report can be found here, and the giving recommendations based on this research are The Coalition for Rainforest Nations and Clean Air Task Force

Climate change is an unprecedented problem requiring unprecedented global cooperation. However, global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have failed thus far. This report discusses the science, politics, and economics of climate change, and what philanthropists can do to help improve progress on tackling climate change.

1. The climate challenge and progress so far

The first section provides an overview of the science of climate change, what needs to be done in order to avoid dangerous warming, and progress so far.

One can mark the advent of the Industrial Revolution with James Watt’s patent for the steam engine in 1769. Until that point, for most of human history concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere had hovered around 280 parts per million (ppm). They recently passed 400 ppm for the first time in hundreds of thousands of years. This has been driven by the massive increase in deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. CO2 and other greenhouse gases, such as methane, remain in the atmosphere and trap some of the heat leaving the planet, causing global warming. The metric of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) expresses the warming effect of all greenhouse gases in terms of the warming effect of CO2.

The challenge facing humanity is not to reduce emissions rates to a lower level: if emissions continue at a constant (even low) positive rate, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas concentrations will continue to increase and so will global temperatures. Thus, we need to reach net zero emissions. In other words, unless we start removing CO2 from the atmosphere, eventually there must be no emissions from power plants, industry, cars, ships, aeroplanes, or deforestation. Reaching net zero in the context of rapidly rising energy demand will be extremely challenging. Progress so far has been poor. Emissions have increased almost unchecked since 1950, with recent increases in large part driven by China. The share of low carbon energy has barely increased in the last two decades.

Most low carbon energy is currently provided by hydroelectric power, nuclear power and sustainable biomass. The evidence suggests that all low carbon technologies will be needed to achieve deep decarbonisation, including the aforementioned technologies, as well as non-hydro renewables (such as solar and wind), energy storage, and carbon capture and storage.

2. Selecting interventions

The second section discusses which interventions are likely to provide the greatest impact per dollar donated. Problems that are important and tractable are likely to be more cost-effective to work on. Important problems affect a large portion of the pie of emissions. Tractable problems are easy to make progress on, on the margin. A key determinant of tractability is neglectedness, which depends on the attention a problem receives from philanthropists, governments and the private sector. Importance and neglectedness are relatively easy to quantify, and we score different interventions according to these two criteria. Having scored the interventions, we discuss whether the other factors that bear on tractability, aside from neglectedness, are strong enough to affect the overall ranking of interventions.

We evaluate and compare interventions focusing on six technologies and sectors:

  1. Ensuring optimal deployment of solar and wind.

  2. Ensuring optimal energy efficiency

  3. Ensuring optimal deployment of nuclear power.

  4. Ensuring optimal deployment of carbon capture and storage.

  5. Ensuring optimal investment in low carbon technology innovation.

  6. Ensuring optimal investment in preventing emissions from forestry and land use change.

We also evaluate interventions focusing on policy in four geographic areas: China, the US, India, and the EU. We conclude that carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, low carbon innovation, and forestry are the highest value sectors and technologies to work on. Advocacy for solar and wind and for energy efficiency are likely to be less cost-effective because they are not neglected. India is the highest priority geographic area, though work on the US and China is also likely to impactful.

This ranking of interventions guided our choice of recommended non-profits.

3. Charity recommendations

We have two recommendations for donors interested in climate change: the Coalition for Rainforest Nations and the Clean Air Task Force. Both organisations have an exceptional track record and we are confident that their future work will have a large impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Both organisations are engaged in political advocacy, which is difficult to evaluate but promises high leverage. This report evaluates the past counterfactual impact of each organisation at some length. Our discussion of their past counterfactual impact may be of methodological interest, as well as of substantive interest to the impact-focused philanthropist.

The Coalition for Rainforest Nations

The Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CfRN) is an intergovernmental organisation of more than 50 rainforest nations which works to promote environmental sustainability while creating opportunities for economic advancement within tropically forested developing countries. It was founded in 2004 by the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea and the President of Costa Rica. CfRN participating countries collaborate voluntarily in jointly developed initiatives led by the CfRN Secretariat headquartered in New York.

We believe that CfRN has had an extremely large positive impact on climate change by playing a pivotal role in establishing a global agreement on deforestation in UN climate change treaties. Beginning in 2005, CfRN launched and championed a mechanism known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Under REDD+, developing countries are provided with results-based compensation for preventing deforestation and degradation, and for conserving and enhancing carbon stocks.

Thanks in large part to CfRN, REDD+ was enshrined in Article 5 of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Forestry is the only sector with its own article. Having helped to establish REDD+ in global climate agreements, CfRN now focuses on consolidating and implementing REDD+, and on increasing public and private funding for REDD+. According to our cost-effectiveness model, a donation to CfRN will avert a tonne of CO2e for $0.12, with a plausible range of $0.02 - $0.72. Equivalently, a $100 donation to CfRN would avert ~857 tonnes of CO2e with a range of ~138 tonnes to ~4,600 tonnes. These estimates are highly uncertain. For context, the average person in the UK causes the emission of around 10 tonnes of CO2 per year, and it is generally considered to be difficult to avert a tonne of CO2e for less than $2.

Overall, CfRN is a unique donation opportunity because of its status as an intergovernmental organisation and its ability to leverage international forestry policy.

The Clean Air Task Force

The Clean Air Task Force (CATF) is a US-based non-government organisation which works to reduce climate and non-climate pollutants through research and analysis, public advocacy leadership, and partnership with the private sector. It was founded in 1996 with the aim of enacting federal policy reducing the air pollution caused by American coal-fired power plants. This campaign has been highly successful and has been a contributing factor to the retirement of a large portion of the US coal fleet. They have conceived and co-led numerous other successful campaigns, helping to establish CO2 controls on the US power sector; regulations of diesel emissions; regulations of shipping emissions; and regulations of methane emissions from oil and gas production.

CATF’s role in the environmental NGO ecosystem has often been to focus on sources of emissions that are neglected by other environmental NGOs, to conceive and design pragmatic campaigns to target those emissions, and to crowd in support from philanthropists and other larger environmental NGOs. CATF also produces high quality research, which is well regarded among the philanthropists, scientists, policy experts, and government bureaucrats that we have spoken to.

We have evaluated three of CATF’s past projects:

  1. Power Plant Campaign and Clear the Air: non-climate pollutants (1996 – 2006).

  2. The Methane Partners Campaign (2000 – present).

  3. Campaign for tax incentives for carbon capture and storage (2009 – present)

For all of these successful projects, CATF played a catalytic role in campaign conception, and in leading the campaigns. We believe that via their past work since their formation, CATF produced large benefits for human health, and averted a tonne of CO2e for $1.26 with a confidence interval of $0.35- $4.40. Equivalently, for $100, CATF averted 79 tonnes of CO2e (22-283 tonnes).

CATF’s current primary focus is on scaling up the rapid deployment of the low carbon technologies required for deep decarbonisation, with a particular focus on technologies that are important but neglected by environmental NGOs and governments. Given CATF’s focus areas, outstanding track record and organisational strength, we think it is likely that a donation to them would produce benefits on the order of $1 per tonne of CO2e. Equivalently, a $100 donation would avert between 100 tonnes of CO2e.

Overall, CATF is an outstanding organisation, which has shown the ability to achieve outsized impact on a relatively small budget.

John Halstead


John joined Founders Pledge in 2017 from a background in policy think tanks and academia. He has a doctorate in political philosophy from Oxford and taught philosophy at the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford. Following that, he moved to the Global Priorities Project, working as a researcher on global catastrophic risk.