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18th Apr 13Managed by Chatham House
Financed by DEFRA
The logic of green giving
Which charities are most deserving? Those working on environmental issues tend to come low on most peoples lists, judging by the paltry amounts they receive; yet, argues Sylvia Rowley, they can make a huge difference to some of the worlds most pressing problems.
What can UK charities do about climate change when China is building two new power stations every week?
How can conservation charities make a difference when fish are being hauled from the oceans so rapidly that 70% of species are in danger of collapse by 2048?
And when an area of Amazon rainforest the size of Belgium has been hacked down in one year, is the problem simply too big for charities to tackle?
Climate change and the destruction of the environment are unprecedented global problems.
In the face of the sheer scale of these challenges, charities may look impotent. But they are not.
By influencing governments and businesses - which ultimately have most power to stem environmental damage - charities are bringing about big changes in the way we treat our planet.
Green Philanthropy, a recent report by New Philanthropy Capital, showed some charities using this approach to produce remarkable results.
Finding out facts
On one level, all that is needed from charities is information.
Many governments and corporations are looking for ways to turn themselves a more flattering shade of green in the public eye. But without sound research, they risk opting for "solutions" that do more harm than good.
The Dutch government, for example, thought it was being environmentally friendly by subsidising imports of palm oil to be used as a biofuel. A 2006 report by the global conservation charity Wetlands International (WI) proved otherwise.
The findings of WIs research are startling. The drainage and burning of peatlands in Indonesia to make way for palm oil crops causes vast amounts of CO2 to be released.
As a result of the degradation of these carbon-storing habitats, Indonesia has become the third largest carbon emitter in the world - only the US and China are worse.
In response to these findings, the government of the Netherlands, where WI has its headquarters, stopped subsidising palm oil early in 2007. The main Dutch utility generating energy from palm oil has also stopped using it.
WI continues to work with governments and the private sector around the world to make biofuel production sustainable and to preserve peatlands, as well as carrying out direct conservation work.
Putting on the pressure
In the case of biofuels, providing information was enough; the involved parties were already keen to be green.
But charities can also influence less enthusiastic institutions by applying more pressure. Global Witness (GW), for example, pushes governments to close their borders to the illegal log trade.
It does this by gathering detailed, first-hand evidence of illegal logging, writing meticulous reports naming and shaming those involved, and lobbying policy-makers for long-term solutions.
The charitys work is well respected by organisations such as the EU, UN and the World Bank.
Most recently, the charitys research and lobbying led the EU to pressure China into closing the Chinese/Burmese border to illegal timber trading.
This has protected more than five million hectares of Burmese forests, preventing the release of further carbon dioxide
For every £5 ($10) invested in GW, two trees have been saved from destruction every year for the foreseeable future. Carbon offset companies, in comparison, will get you only one tree for your fiver.
Influencing big business
With dedication and innovation, relatively small charities can influence massive corporations, or even whole markets.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), for example, is trying to tackle plummeting fish numbers by influencing the global fish market. It has devised a certification scheme for sustainably run fisheries, and is creating a market for sustainably caught fish by persuading retailers to stock them.
In 2006, MSC convinced Walmart, the worlds largest retailer, to stock only wild-caught fish that it has certified as sustainable.
Other retailers such as Carrefour and Aeon, Japans largest supermarket, have also agreed to stock a range of certified fish.
There is evidence that, now large retailers are on board, some unsustainable fisheries are cleaning up their acts in order to meet MSC standards.
A solution to overfishing, such as the one MSC is devising, is desperately needed. If things continue as they are, collapsing fish stocks will deprive up to a billion people of their primary source of protein within 50 years.
By working with governments and businesses, environmental charities can punch above their weight. Relatively small organisations can make an impact on environmental problems on a national or even global scale.
But the work of these charities is only just beginning, and funding is woefully inadequate.
Less than 2% of UK charitable grants are directed to environmental causes, and less than 5% of private donations in the UK go to environment charities.
The next 50 years will be critical in deciding the fate of our planet. Now is the time to give environmental charities your support.
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