5 October 2018

Climate change is an ‘everything’ problem – philanthropists can make it an ‘everyone’ solution

Jules Kortenhorst is the former CEO of the European Climate Foundation, and current CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute

Ten years ago, Europe’s first philanthropic organisation devoted solely to cutting planet-warming emissions sprouted from the soil of my native Netherlands. Its successful growth in the years that followed has helped to define our times.

In February 2008, Europe was yet to adopt the 2020 climate goals that would set a global marker for emissions-cutting policy. I was a younger man, in the days before I discovered Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and, as the European Climate Foundation (ECF) put down roots, it urgently began organising civil society to ensure these targets were effective and robust.

Assembling the coalition of passionate and capable environmental advocates for this cause was one of the greatest privileges in my career.  Friendships, teamwork and shared learning emerged, and have been replicated from one climate campaign to another across Europe and beyond.

The ECF was set up in 2008 as part of the ClimateWorks network of climate change philanthropies around the world. Through its innovative role as a convenor, grant maker and operational foundation, it helped set the terms of debate driving the clean energy revolution.

In transport, our grantees brought consumers into the campaign for CO2 limits on cars. They helped strengthen the 2020 fuel economy standards and exposed the industry’s dishonest—and often illegal—gaming of auto-emissions tests.

ECF’s network partners in the energy efficiency community pushed building renovations and innovative ecodesigns to the top of the political agenda. In doing so, they won iconic policy victories, such as Europe’s great incandescent light switch-off.

Crucially, its roadmap for decarbonising Europe’s electricity network by 2050 laid the groundwork for the EU’s own mid-century pathway. It also provided a powerful example to other regions for integrated planning for a decarbonised power sector.

This work was undertaken heroically but with humility by networks that grew around it, and it was communicated with strategic narratives and storylines—particularly on green growth—that played a key role in achieving consensus at the 2015 Paris climate summit.

But momentous as these achievements have been, we now face the task of dramatically scaling up our efforts if we are to limit global warming to well below 2C.

Ripples from President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement are still being felt—from Australia to Brazil to Europe, where our low carbon transition is increasingly being overshadowed by Brexit and the rise of far-right populism.

There is no more time to waste. Last year, global emissions hit yet another record high, as the planet notched up its third warmest year since modern records began. 17 of the 18 hottest years since the industrial age have now occurred since 2001.

To avoid planetary over-heating, we must peak our emissions by 2021 and rapidly downsize them thereafter, by around 6-7% a year.

This is not necessarily bad economic news. A recent New Climate Economy report showed that bold climate action now will bring a $26 trillion bounty by 2030, with 65 million new jobs created and 700,000 early deaths from air pollution avoided.

But we use it or lose it. Another recent study, by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research (PIK), raised the specter of an unimaginable ‘hothouse’ future if we do not act with due urgency. We are at the outer limits of the time that remains and it is running out before our eyes. The last of the 800 gigatonnes of CO2 we may emit within a 2C framework will be gone by the mid-2030s, on our current path. Any emissions after that will push us up an exponential graph of planetary warming. Due to feedback loops, the ensuing climate chaos could leave the Earth’s polar regions as the only habitable regions within a few generations.

The role that philanthropy has to play in preventing this nightmare cannot be overstated. Neither, as ECF’s experience shows, can the immediate social and economic gains of strategic intervention.

Less than two percent of global philanthropic resources are devoted to climate change—and almost three quarters of these come from just six foundations.

But climate change is sometimes described as an ‘everything’ problem, and to successfully tackle it we will need an ‘everyone’ solution that harnesses the collective talents and resources we need: I am thinking of innovative approaches to research, technology and policy—and those require investment. No foundation or donor should settle on its current year grant-making without considering how the relevance of its long-term endowment or philanthropic strategies would be judged in a 3-5 degree warmer world that has become truly uninhabitable.

The pace as well as the scale of grantmaking must accelerate in line with the emergency we face. ECF’s success owes much to the ambitious goals it sets for fast decisions and grant disbursements and the philanthropic community should learn from this.

Global warming is a challenge unlike any other we have faced. Only a broad-based and unprecedented philanthropic engagement can confront it.

Altruism from the donor community has brought us a long way already but now is the time to double down, consolidate the gains we have made and look to the long road that lies ahead.

We have to go faster on the next leg of our journey, and we will need more resources and capacity to do so. Time is no longer our friend on this path, but we have to proceed. Come walk with us.


Jules Kortenhorst

CEO, Rocky Mountain Institute