Jeff Bezos speaks at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.
While financial institutions have agreed to make $130 trillion net-zero, the public donations of billionaires and their foundations announced at COP26 amount to around $2.5 billion.
The biggest donation ($2 billion) came from Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund, announced just after he addressed the climate conference in Glasgow last week.
Other billionaire donations soon followed: Bill Gates’s Gates Foundation pledged $315 million to the CGIAR global agriculture research partnership. The Ford Foundation committed $100 million to help indigenous groups fight for land rights, and smaller donations came from the Good Energies, Hewlett, Oak, and Packard foundations.
While non-profit groups have welcomed the donations, many believe that it is too little too late. Of all charitable donations, just 2% goes towards climate change issues, according to research by the ClimateWorks Foundation last month. The vast majority of philanthropic funding goes into education and healthcare, in that order.
Such funding is short sighted, says Ben Goldsmith, founder of the Environmental Funders Network (EFN). “Almost any philanthropic goal you might consider is rendered futile in a situation when the national environment becomes degraded.
“It would make sense for philanthropists to look seriously at this issue if only in the interests of protecting their work on other issues.”
The potential for philanthropy in combating climate change is huge, says Goldsmith, whose brother, Zac, is the U.K.’s minister for the International Environment and Climate.
There is around $1.5 trillion in all philanthropic assets and endowments around the world. But last year just $10 billion of that was spent on curbing climate change.
Ben Goldsmith and Jemima Jones at the Elephant Family’s Royal Rickshaw Auction.
There are many reasons why donors have been slow to react to the climate change emergency. For many it is simply too abstract, says Goldsmith: “If you talk to the average person about the disappearing of the Amazon or collapsing fish stocks on the high seas or the extinction crises, it feels so abstract from their lives that I think they switch off and choose instead to think of issues closer to home.”
There is a lack of obvious projects to fund. Donors readily put their funds into vast charitable organizations, such as Oxfam, or educational institutions, such as Harvard, because they trust big organizations to deliver returns. But there are few equivalents working on climate change.
Charitable foundations have also been unwilling to fund climate causes. Many were set up by benefactors who lived long before climate change was even heard of. “They have statutes that limit their ability to fund the environment,” says Cath Dovey, co-founder of The Beacon Collaborative, which has launched an initiative to encourage donors to do more.
COP26 Pushes Wealthy To Do More In Climate Struggle
The “Individual Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change” was launched on the side-lines of COP26 by The Beacon Collaborative.
Donors can up if they agree to donate their funds according to “six pillars” that outline how they should act.
“How do we encourage donors who aren’t currently giving to climate causes? There simply wasn’t any resource. How do you know what to give to, what good looks like?” says Dovey.
Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, returns to the COP26 summit on Wednesday (10 November).
The scheme builds on similar models by the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) for U.K. foundations and WINGS.
“Everything started in the U.K. with the ACF and then it was replicated in other European countries and then WINGS took it global. So we’re really seeing it as a global movement,” says Benjamin Bellegy, executive director of WINGS (Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support), which has 400 signatures to its International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change.
One of those signatures is the IKEA Foundation. “I think it is important to our own philanthropic legitimacy,” says Liz McKeon, its portfolio lead for climate action. “Society looks to us to walk the talk.”
With heightened campaigning at COP26, the number of donors and foundations signing up to these climate pledges is growing. ACF aims to have 100 signatories before the end of the year, and The Individual Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change wants 200.
“This commitment is growing fast,” McKeon told the #PhilanthropyForClimate conference on Tuesday (9 November). “When we signed there were around 210 foundations. I wish there will be 1,000 by the end of 2021.”