China’s NGOs not spending enough to tackle climate change

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In August, China Environmental Protection Foundation (CEPF) joined hands with FAW-Volkswagen to launch the 3rd “Automotive Environmental Protection Innovation Leadership Plan”, funding projects that tackle key technology and engineering bottlenecks in the new energy vehicle industry, in order to support the automotive industry to achieve its carbon neutral goals.

Since 2020, the Automotive Environmental Innovation Leadership Plan offered 4.5 million yuan ($626,174) to 14 selected projects every year, covering fields such as green energy, batteries and charging, hydrogen fuel cells and electric driving systems. It’s the only charity funded program in China aiming at the innovation of automotive environmental protection, according to CEPF’s 2021 annual report.

Founded in 1993, CEPF is China’s first national public foundation engaged in environmental protection.

Of the 74 charity programs (a total of 111.5 million yuan spent) funded by CEPF throughout 2021, the Leadership Program was one of few that had a direct connection to climate change or China’s carbon emission goals.

Another CEPF funded program that mentioned climate change in its program description was the “P&G China Pioneer Program”, which from 2020 to 2021 supported college students from 58 universities across China to pay more attention to climate change and learn more about global nature-based solutions.

Two other CEPF programs in 2021 put climate related efforts in their name or description without actually doing much. The “Protect Photovoltaic Power Generation Construction” program funded the Yangtze River source ecological protection project to recruit volunteers to carry out biodiversity surveys, protect local wildlife and recycle garbage. The “Zero Carbon Cake” program that was designed as a forestry carbon sink pilot program in Jiangxi Province was suspended.

A global issue

Despite the urgent pleas from global charity leaders to consider how climate change will impact the issues and communities on which foundations and NGOs work, foundation efforts worldwide to address climate change — including grantmaking dollars, investment practices and perceptions of overall effectiveness — remain limited, according to a recent report by The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP).

Total charitable giving by foundations and individuals focused on climate change mitigation represents less than 2 percent of total global giving and is not growing fast enough, according to the ClimateWorks Foundation.

Climate mitigation, the efforts to reduce and stabilize emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, is one of the two possible approaches to respond to climate change. The other approach is climate adaptation, helping people to adjust to the current and future effects of climate change.

Compared with major categories like health, education and public safety, climate and adjacent fields receive a much lower proportion of overall grant funding, a McKinsey report also found.

China is no exception

Similarly, “China’s current charitable funding still mainly focuses on education aid, medical care, disaster relief as well as poverty alleviation and development,” said Wen Bo, former China director of CDP Worldwide.

Charity funding for climate change is small because its funding targets are generally vague, Wen explained. “China still faces many more concrete environmental problems than climate change, for example, people pay more attention to how air or water pollution might impact their lives. Also, some disaster relief charity projects are actually climate related.”

Even within climate foundations, according to the CEP report for example, over 70 percent of the climate foundation leaders in the US said their climate funding is less than 20 percent of their total grant dollars for the current fiscal year.

Globally, preventing the catastrophic consequences of climate change is generally regarded as the responsibility of government, so for charitable funds, they tend to focus on how to use their limited funds to urge governments and international institutions to pay more attention to climate issues, but then the effectiveness of their advocacy efforts is often hard to measure, Wen said.

Foundations in China do not have a long history. China’s first national-level charity foundation, China Children and Teenagers’ Fund, was founded in 1981. In 2004, the country published the Regulations on the Management of Foundations to standardize the organization and activities of foundations.

“The sector is about 40 years old, but with a teenage body and a brain of a seven or eight year old,” Lv Quanbin, secretary-general of the China Foundation Forum summarized in an interview last year. To some extent, it has resulted in the rapid development of social organizations in China, but the laws and policies have not kept up, and the public know very little about what the foundations are doing and how they operate.

Recent efforts

Despite the forced ripening of the development of China’s foundations, they try to fill in the gaps within themselves.

Responding to the growing urgency of climate issues, China founded its first national public foundation aiming to reduce emissions and address climate change — China Green Carbon Foundation (CGCF) in 2010. A relatively small foundation, CGCF spent roughly 44.5 million yuan last year on 64 charitable projects, according to its 2021 annual report. Most of the planned projects were tree-planting and biodiversity protection projects in various parts of China. However, some of the projects got suspended or didn’t carry out any planned activities.

More recent efforts to emphasize environmental issues in China’s charity sector include the launch of the China Environmental Grantmakers Alliance (CEGA) platform in 2018, the first of its kind, enabling Chinese environmental grantmakers to exchange ideas and collaborate.

Jointly initiated and founded by 10 foundations including CEPF, CGCF, the Alibaba Foundation, SEE Foundation and more, CEGA helps to address the lack of basic information about environmental grantmaking in China.

“CEGA’s current projects generally lack consideration of climate change factors,” according to CEGA’s 2021 Research Report on the Funding Strategies for Climate Change Adaptation, which also proposed a few suggestions for the alliance to improve its project designs, such as “enhance scientific understanding of climate change impacts” and “optimize the planning and layout of China’s protected areas to give full play to the climate regulation function of the ecosystem”.

The report also implies that at this stage, CEGA funded climate projects focus more on climate adaptation than climate mitigation — with no foreseeable shift anytime soon.

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