One of the world’s biggest philanthropic initiatives to address climate change is set-up to fail catastrophically, according to a strategy document setting out the initiative’s five-year plan.
The strategy document, published by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in January, represents the third renewal of the Climate Works initiative originally founded in 2008. The initiative was executed through the Climate Works Foundation in coordination with other big philanthropic foundations, the Packard and McKnight Foundations.
The Hewlett Foundation strategy document, titled Climate Initiative Strategy 2018–2023, reflects on the strategic thinking behind the process that led to the announcement last December that the foundation would commit $600 million to address climate change over the next five years — a 20 percent increase from previous funding.
The fifth largest foundation in the United States, the Hewlett Foundation is one of the most influential US funders on climate and energy, traditionally setting the agenda for other major foundations in these areas. Each year, climate philanthropy spends between $600 million and $1.2 billion a year.
But the Hewlett strategy document is completely out of whack with the latest science on the speed and scale of actions required to avert dangerous climate change.
It adopts a reckless approach – minimising emission reductions, calling for investment in dubious unproven negative emissions technologies, while ignoring emerging evidence of more promising technologies, and obscuring the urgency of transformative economic change.
Guaranteeing catastrophe: tepid emissions targets
Despite claiming to want to “reach farther and push harder”, the document puts forward a fundamentally flawed assessment of climate science to justify what it calls a longer time horizon approach to mitigation through a “2050 lens”:
“Climate models help us to understand that to keep the rise in global average temperatures to ‘well below’ 2C as called for by the Paris Agreement, we must cut global GHG emissions by 60% or more by 2050 — something that cannot realistically happen without cutting emissions in developed countries by more than 80 percent over the same period.”
Two degrees Celsius is widely recognised by scientists as the upper limit for global average temperatures, beyond which the climate enters a dangerous phase. Scientists increasingly agree, however, that a truly safe climate requires keeping temperatures below 1.5C.
Even within 2C, we set in motion changes that will lock-in ecological destruction: 90–98 percent of coral reefs at risk of damage, 6–16% drops in crop yields, 40–50cm of sea level rise, increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events including more heatwaves and storms, 9–17% decline in freshwater availability in the Mediterranean. Beyond that, we begin to see accelerating damage to the Arctic and Antarctic icecaps, the Amazon rainforest, the ocean thermohaline circulation system that regulates global climate, massive prolonged droughts, and unprecedented acceleration of extreme weather — rapidly leading to an increasingly uninhabitable planet.
According to the UN’s 2017 Emissions Gap Report, however, far deeper and more extensive emissions cuts are required twenty years earlier.
The report concludes that there is a vast “gap” between emission reductions pledged by governments under the Paris agreement (known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs), and actual emissions reductions “necessary to achieve these agreed targets at lowest cost.”
The ‘NDC’s according to the UN Environment Synthesis report are a recipe for disaster, covering “approximately only one third of the emissions reductions needed to be on a least-cost pathway for the goal of staying well below 2C. The gap between the reductions needed and the national pledges made in Paris is alarmingly high.”
The UN report puts forward the following sober conclusion:
“… it is clear that if the emissions gap is not closed by 2030, it is extremely unlikely that the goal of holding global warming to well below 2C can still be reached.”
Even if countries fulfil their pledges under the Paris agreement, by 2030 the available scope for further carbon emissions (known as the ‘carbon budget’) to keep global average temperatures around 1.5C “will already be well depleted by 2030.”
The cuts that didn’t make the cut
In other words, the Hewlett Foundation’s strategic goal to work toward cutting global carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2050 will likely guarantee a devastating 2C temperature rise.
The true scale of the cuts needed to avoid dangerous climate change have been documented in a number of recent studies.
A 2017 paper in Science lead authored by Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, concluded that global carbon emissions would have to be cut in half by 2020, then cut in half again by 2030, and then cut in half again each decade out to 2050.
This entails that emissions should be slashed by about 75 percent by 2030, and by nearly 95 percent by 2050 to stay within a safe climate.
A Nature Geoscience study similarly found that “limiting warming to 1.5C is not yet a geophysical impossibility, but is likely to require delivery on strengthened pledges for 2030 followed by challengingly deep and rapid mitigation.”
This means that in the name of “climate mitigation”, the Hewlett strategy — which is highly influential in climate philanthropy circles — actually guarantees disaster.
Halving the threat? Or obscuring its impact?
The Hewlett strategy document puts forward a number of other flawed assessments.
Early on, the document claims a major victory in having reduced the extent of business-as-usual global warming:
“When climate philanthropy began about a decade ago, the world was on track for warming of 6–8°C by the end of the century, but the combined efforts of civil society and government have cut that trajectory by half.”
But this self-congratulatory conclusion can only come from a misleading and selective reading of the scientific literature.
A 2016 analysis by Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan found that even if fully implemented, the Paris Agreement carbon emission reduction pledges would lead to 3.5C of expected warming in 2100, with a range of uncertainty from 2.1 to 4.7C — well over the 2C danger zone. This was corroborated by a report from London’s Carbon Tracker, which put the likely warming under the Paris Agreement pledges at 3.2C.
But here’s the rub: that’s the level of warming we would see if governments meet the goals they signed up to under the Paris Agreement.
This is a big ‘if.’
In August 2017, a comment in Nature by a team of climate policy scholars observed ominously that:
“All major industrialized countries are failing to meet the pledges they made to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.”
This is partly because the Paris Agreement itself is replete with “vague and unaccountable pledges… Most pledges are almost silent on the range of policies being used, making it difficult to discern which are actually effective.”
In other words, while the execution of the Paris Agreement pledges might restrain extreme warming to the still catastrophic average temperature range of around 3–4C, governments are not in fact on track to execute those pledges.
This means that the Hewlett Foundation’s belief that our current trajectory is heading to half of the 6–8C extreme warming range is baseless.
Half the extreme warming is where we are headed if the Paris Agreement is implemented; but all evidence confirms that governments are currently failing to implement even these “vague and unaccountable pledges.”
So where might we be headed?
A business-as-usual trajectory indicates that the planet continues to head, potentially, for an extreme warming scenario. Last August, I reported for VICE on a little known risk analysis by the British global investment firm Schroders.
The firm’s Climate Progress Dashboard, aimed at helping investors make more informed decisions, warned based on IEA data that the current rate of oil and gas production puts us on course to hit a global average temperature rise of 7.8C by 2100, if nothing changes.
This is of course at the top end of climate model forecasts. Schroders tempered this conclusion by noting that if existing emissions reduction pledges kick in, it would lead to around a 3–4C rise — but right now those pledges are not, in fact, being followed through.
The plausibility of Schroder’s worst-case scenario on a business-as-usual trajectory is backed up by a number of peer-reviewed studies which point to a much higher ‘climate sensitivity’ than is recognised by the IPCC. Often, these sorts of studies bring to light new research on the impacts of amplifying feedbacks in the climate system, where degrees of warming lead to further earth system changes that induce further warming.
One in Science Advances from last July concluded that climate sensitivity could be as high as 6C, meaning that is how high global average temperatures could rise with a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere. Another earlier study by Yale University put the figure similarly at between 5 and 5.3C.
While there is not an unequivocal consensus on such values, the Hewlett Foundation’s conviction that climate philanthropy has already averted the most catastrophic climate scenario is little more than a consoling illusion.
BECCS: The magic fairy wand of climate mitigation
Having pinned itself to a defunct model of the scale of needed carbon emissions reductions to avert dangerous climate change, the Hewlett Foundation goes on to suggest that another focus of climate action should be negative emissions technologies:
“Solving the problem will likely also require large investments in ‘negative emissions’ — chiefly carbon capture and storage, soil carbon sequestration, and afforestation, but possibly also direct air capture or geoengineering.”
The document also promises to invest in a technology portfolio encompassing “carbon removal and advanced zero-emission technologies including nuclear power,” despite the 2017 World Nuclear Industry Status Report’s finding that new renewables are now “cheaper than operating and maintenance costs of existing nuclear power plants.”
While endorsing the most tepid efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the Hewlett Foundation is forced to assume that the only way to compensate for rising emissions is by ‘negative emissions’ technologies to draw-down carbon out of the air.
There is another way
The first problem is that the strategy does not acknowledge the scientific evidence for mitigation pathways which minimise the need for such negative emissions technologies.
One such new paper in Nature Climate Change finds that BECCS is not needed to limit global warming to 1.5C.
It uses an integrated assessment model to explore how alternative pathways can be used “to significantly reduce the need for CDR [carbon dioxide removal], but not fully eliminate it.”
Among these alternative pathways is “a rapid transformation of the energy and land-use systems” involving more rapid renewable electrification, major lifestyle changes in the reduction of meat and egg consumption from pastoral and poultry farming, expanded reforestation, efforts to limit global population growth through faster reduction of fertility rates (by provision of educational attainment especially to younger adult women), and scaling up existing technologies to minimise non-CO2 emissions from the fossil fuel industry, chemical industry and in agriculture.
An excellent summary of the paper is available at Carbon Brief, which notes that BECCS is really an artefact of climate models rather than an integral necessity.
BECCS: the fairyland technology that doesn’t yet exist
The second problem is that most of the negative emissions technologies (NETs) endorsed by the Hewlett strategy are either infeasible, unproven, inadequate or highly speculative.
A new paper in Carbon & Climate Law Review on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) points out that the science of BECCS — which works by combusting biomass for energy and capturing the released carbon for storage underground — is largely unproven and untested.
BECCS features as a central saving technology in conventional climate mitigation scenarios adopted by governments, despite the fact that:
“… only one large-scale demonstration plant currently exists and even CCS [carbon capture and storage] itself has not been shown to be technically viable despite two decades of research. Other negative emissions technologies ‘have not moved beyond theoretical studies or small-scale demonstrations’. This raises the justified ‘moral hazard’ concern that future reliance on as yet-undemonstrated technologies leading to postponing emissions reductions and becoming locked in to a high-temperature pathway.”
The paper further points out evidence of major side-effects of BECCS. To reach the 1.5C target, BECCS would have “severe impacts on ecosystems and food production”, and even the 2C target would lead BECCS to significantly impact “land, energy, water, nutrients, albedo, or cost.” The large use of land and competition with food production would “lead to pressure on food prices strongly correlated with carbon prices” and have detrimental impacts on biodiversity, leading to “terrestrial species losses equivalent to a 2.8C temperature increase.”
BECCS: a potential net energy disaster
Another new paper in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Environment, Energy and Science journal examines BECCS from a ‘net energy’ standpoint to measure how much energy BECCS would require compared to what it produces.
It finds that there is a contradiction between BECCS’ capacity to produce energy at scale, and its capacity to remove carbon dioxide. The greater its CO2 removal potential, the less power it can generate — and the greater its power generation, the less CO2 it can remove:
“… improving BECCS power generation efficiency could drastically reduce BECCS energy losses, but would also increase the amount of BECCS installed capacity required to meet an annual carbon removal target, and thus the financial cost associated with meeting that target.There is therefore a clear trade-off between BECCS annual carbon removal potential and power generation.”
If “more energy is used to operate BECCS than what is returned to society” — as several studies suggest — this “could compromise energy security, as well as increasing the use of higher EROI technologies, such as fossil fuels, to sustain BECCS in the energy mix. Unintended consequences of this could include an increase in CO2 emissions, with a potential offset of the carbon dioxide removal service provided by BECCS.”
While the study attempts to identify mechanisms by which the biomass supply chain for BECCS can be more efficient, cheap and less energy intensive, the practical feasibility of those mechanisms is unclear and “the scope for unintended consequences is vast.”
BECCS: policymakers don’t really care about it
To top things off, another new study in Energy Research & Social Science by Swedish scientists assesses the “sociopolitical conditions of deployment” of BECCS based on a survey of policymakers at UN climate change conferences.
The study notes “the low priority assigned to investments in BECCS, the anticipated high political and social constraints on deployment, and a gap between its low perceived domestic potential to contribute to mitigation and a slightly higher perceived global potential.”
In simpler terms, despite all the lip-service, policymakers do not take BECCS very seriously and are not actively looking to implement it either.
None of this is remotely acknowledged by the Hewlett Foundation’s strategy document.
The neglected biochar solution
Of the other negative emissions technologies suggested in the document, soil carbon sequestration — which uses regenerative agricultural techniques to draw-down atmospheric carbon into soils, improving their health and agricultural fertility — is certainly a far more proven approach. Yet it is not factored into existing climate mitigation models.
In 2012, Swansea University’s Biochar Research Team in collaboration with the US Department of Energy, Cornell University and the University of New South Wales released a ground-breaking paper in Nature Communications concluding that biochar (a carbonised material produced from heating waste biomass) could offset 7–12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
A more recent study in Global Change Biology notes that soil carbon sequestration has “lower impact on land, water use, nutrients, albedo, energy requirement and cost, so have fewer disadvantages than many NETs.”
Unfortunately, 7–12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions comprise only a fraction of the needed carbon offsets, seemingly vindicating the Hewlett Foundation’s insistence on the mythical BECCS technology which no one has yet created.
Yet the Hewlett strategy document overlooks cutting-edge scientific research on other innovative applications of biochar. New research has looked at biochar’s applications as an alternative building and construction material to create a more sustainable form of concrete. The findings point to massive carbon draw-down potential, on a scale that it is more than double that envisaged for agriculture. According to a study in the Journal of Materials in Civil Engineering in September 2017:
“The use of biochar-containing construction materials to capture and then lock atmospheric carbon dioxide in buildings and structures can potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an additional 25%.”
That puts the total carbon sequestration potential of biochar at up to 37% of carbon emissions.
Overall, the new research confirms that a successful climate mitigation strategy will involve a concerted post-carbon transition involving a comprehensive transformation of our societies and their economies. This has to involve a structural shift in industrial production and consumption for food, materials, construction and other industries at systemic and individual scales.
Underestimating the scope of change
The Hewlett Foundation strategy document does not come anywhere near acknowledging the scale, depth and speed of this transformation, and overlooks some of the best scientific research relevant to its stated strategic imperatives.
Instead, for instance, the document wants to support “current efforts to peak global use of fossil fuels as early as possible” while ensuring that “nearly a third of global emissions reductions must come from managing our lands, our agriculture, and our forests.”
Given that the current rate of fossil fuel production is increasing, not decreasing, the reference to seeking an early “peak” of fossil fuel use is too ambiguous, and fails to specify what the post-peak phase should look like (an undulating plateau, gradual decline, or rapid reduction?). It therefore falls short of calling for what former NASA chief climate scientist James Hansen calls an urgent “fossil fuel phase-out”, involving the rapid reduction and systemic divestment from fossil fuels as a matter of urgency.
Similarly, the document does not specify what sort of “management” of lands, agriculture and forests is required to achieve emissions targets — when there is now a scientific consensus on a specific solution: a fundamental transformation of industrial agriculture involving a concerted shift to regenerative agroecological practices.
As early as 2008, agroecology was endorsed in the final report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a study commissioned by the World Bank and the UN involving over 400 scientists and 30 governments. The report called for a radical transformation of agricultural practices and technology, a conclusion reiterated in multiple reports by several UN agencies.
While the Hewlett strategy document is certainly not all bad, its careful avoidance of such specific solutions is bizarre. Its core approach appears to be based on an inexplicable ignorance and obfuscation of some of the most relevant scientific findings to the strategy.
The Hewlett Foundation did not respond to request for comment.
In short, there is a vast gulf between the Hewlett Foundation’s strategic imperatives for climate philanthropy, and the mounting scientific evidence on the urgent actions requiring that philanthropic support.
The puny contribution of liberal philanthropy
But the Hewlett Foundation is an example of a wider problem in philanthropy. As journalist Marc Gunther wrote in The Chronicle of Philanthropy earlier this year, given the reality of our current trajectory toward a dangerous climate on an increasingly uninhabitable planet, liberal climate philanthropy has so far unequivocally failed.
According to data from the Foundation Center’s MAPS search platform, the percentage of liberal philanthropy devoted to climate change is ridiculously low.
The data, which is not public but behind a paywall, shows that year on year, US climate giving amounts to a tiny fraction — less than one thousandth — of total US philanthropic donations.
In 2014, the climate percentage of total US giving was 0.06 percent.
In 2015 it was again 0.06 per cent.
In 2016, the last year for which data is available, this dipped to 0.04 percent — although the dip might be explained due to data being incomplete.
These are interesting figures given that the Hewlett Foundation’s Larry Kramer last year rightly urged his philanthropic colleagues to ramp up more climate giving, but wrongly estimated the percentage of existing climate giving at 2 percent. The real picture is clearly far worse.
A key problem is that liberal philanthropic foundations are embedded indelibly in the prevailing neoliberal economic orthodoxy of unlimited growth at any cost.
Gunther points out that too many foundation trustees, especially those who sit on investment committees, “come out of Wall Street, private equity funds, hedge funds and venture capital.” As a result, foundation investments often include the very fossil fuel ventures their climate giving strategies claim to be trying to reduce — despite the financial risk of stranded assets demonstrated by many of the projects they fund.
As for the Hewlett Foundation, while promising to “refrain from future investments in private partnerships primarily involved in oil and gas drilling,” its $9 billion endowment, reports Gunther, “almost surely owns companies that mine and burn coal, and extract oil from the tar sands through its investment in index funds, including the S&P500 and Euro Stoxx 50.”
The foundation also owns shares in the Brazilian oil and gas major, Petrobas, and Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies and a leader in coal; owns bonds from Petrobas and Norwegian oil major Statoil; and invests in oil and gas futures. Much of the details of such investments are unknown because the foundation will not transparently answer queries about them.
And this raises a fundamental question. If liberal philanthropy and its billions of dollars in endowments are structurally embedded within an economic model of endless growth, premised on continued fossil fuel extraction, it is not entirely surprising that foundations are often unable to truly contemplate the scale of the civilisational paradigm shift required to address the climate crisis.
This investigation demonstrates that despite the current catastrophic direction of travel, real solutions are available.
But these solutions do not sit easily within the existing paradigm. They point to a radical paradigm shift, a new type of civilisation, and a new type of human for a truly sustainable and prosperous world.
A major problem in the strategic approach of liberal philanthropy is its failure to diagnose both the systemic context driving the climate crisis and the true scale and dynamic of the crisis itself. There is clearly also a general lack of capacity to engage critically and constructively with the scientific literature in order to identify the best emerging science on promising actions and solutions.
And further, a major inhibiting factor appears to be liberal philanthropy’s structural entanglement with the very economic-systemic context that is driving the climate crisis. This creates an inertia and incapability to address that context with the radical, transformative approach required.
The Hewlett Foundation strategy document and the latest available data on climate giving more broadly reveal that liberal philanthropy is mired in an entrenched delusion about the state of the climate fight. Patting itself on the back for past successes that are largely irrelevant, the document focuses almost entirely on a mitigation approach that is either doomed to failure or technologically questionable.
Liberal philanthropy lacks the collective intelligence processes required to actually understand and engage in the world effectively; and the very structures of its own endowments make it complicit, unwittingly or otherwise, in the systemic crises it wants to address.
To overcome this impasse, liberal philanthropy needs to fundamentally engage with the overwhelming fact that, to date, it has failed. Only in confronting and accepting this failure will liberal philanthropy be capable of re-assessing both the systemic and structural causes of this failure, and the systemic and structural actions necessary for success. At the core of this process, liberal philanthropy is called on to evaluate its innermost commitments, and therefore the most fundamental thing of all: what, really, is it in service to?
More than that, the abject failure of liberal philanthropy points to the urgency of a broad-based people’s strategy for climate education and action engaging individuals and groups at multiple scales: local communities, youth groups, businesses, corporates, nonprofits, and beyond. At core, the people who run these networks and organisations are people. They are people who have been largely failed by a media-industrial complex which is also for the most part structurally entangled within the same system. And so they are not being informed of the scale of the challenge, nor of the scope of action required; nor are they therefore given opportunities to explore actions they can take in their own contexts.
The task ahead is for each of us, all of us, to sound the alarm on what’s really going on, where we are headed, and the opportunities available to both avert crisis and create new forms of clean prosperity; and to begin exploring and catalysing those opportunities in our own contexts — our homes, our workplaces, our leisure spaces — right now.
That applies to everyone in liberal philanthropy and beyond.
Acknowledgements: This story was investigated with assistance from two sources on condition of anonymity.