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Philanthropy and climate change: A conversation with Impatience Earth

Philanthropy and climate change: A conversation with Impatience Earth

A profile photo of Yasmin Ahammed of Impatience Earth

Impatience Earth is a pro-bono climate philanthropy consultancy that educates, challenges and inspires wealth holders to take bolder funding decisions to address the climate emergency.

We interviewed Yasmin Ahammad, the Co-Managing Director of Impatience Earth to gather her insights on climate philanthropy and understand what influences donors when they are considering which projects to fund. 

Here’s what Yasmin had to say… 

1. What motivates philanthropists and foundations to fund projects that tackle climate change? 

The public’s awareness of the climate crisis has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks to the tireless efforts of climate activists and the growing coverage of alarming IPCC research findings. As heat waves scorch entire cities and floods devastate communities, the reality of climate change hits closer to home more than ever before. Urgency has become the driving force for philanthropic donors to invest in the fight against climate change, and their support is crucial to creating the change and momentum we need.

At Impatience Earth, donors typically approach us with a keen understanding that the climate crisis is the most pressing issue of our time. They recognize that the impact of climate change will undo many of the gains made in other areas such as health, education, conservation, social justice, and human rights. These individuals, foundations, and companies feel a collective responsibility to act while there is still time to avoid the worst climate scenarios. They may support climate change as a new strand of their grant-making or incorporate it as a lens through which they view their existing projects.

“We have seen a particular interest in mangrove and other blue carbon projects like seagrass and saltmarshes, because it is easy to understand the numerous co-benefits of investing in such nature-based solutions.”

Why philanthropy and what inspires philanthropists right now?

Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to act because it can provide the seed capital for bold and innovative movements, ideas, and initiatives to experiment, scale, and thrive. Unlike government or corporate institutions, philanthropy can afford to take risks and fund projects flexibly and nimbly, filling critical gaps in support.

We have seen a particular interest in mangrove and other blue carbon projects like seagrass and saltmarshes, because it is easy to understand the numerous co-benefits of investing in such nature-based solutions. Donors focused on reducing carbon emissions are attracted by the carbon sequestration potential of mangroves and seagrasses, while those who are passionate about biodiversity are motivated to protect and restore coastal ecosystems for the benefit of marine species. Donors with a focus on building community resilience find mangroves appealing as a natural barrier to disastrous storm surges and coastal erosion, and as a source of livelihood opportunities through eco-tourism, healthy fisheries and potential access to carbon markets. 

“We have seen a particular interest in mangrove and other blue carbon projects like seagrass and saltmarshes, because it is easy to understand the numerous co-benefits of investing in such nature-based solutions. Climate justice, land rights, youth, and women’s rights are popular cross cutting concerns, while policy, capacity building and conservation are key approaches.” 

Aside from blue carbon approaches, we see a lot of appetite amongst our clients to learn about other carbon sinks such as peatlands and forests, followed by agriculture and food systems as a whole. Climate justice, land rights, youth, and women’s rights are popular cross cutting concerns, while policy, capacity building and conservation are key approaches.      

2. What influences philanthropists’ / foundations’ decision making when assessing quality of projects in terms of how they gauge climate impact, but also co-benefits?

Each donor is different in how they assess which organisations or projects to fund, and how stringently they set the criteria. But generally speaking, they share a few common questions that help them assess the quality of a project:

How well does it align with our philanthropic mission and values? 

If climate justice is a core value of the donor, for instance, they will assess the project based on whether it advances climate justice by putting more power and resources into the hands of those most affected by the climate crisis. Similarly, if they care deeply about biodiversity, they will want to make sure that the project is led by experts who can advise on planting the right trees in the right way to benefit the local ecosystem.

What is the impact of the intervention?

Donors will consider the project’s potential to create positive environmental and social outcomes, depending on their core concerns, whether that be reduction in carbon emissions, or the extent to which communities have ownership and gain benefit from the project. Some donors like hard metrics to demonstrate the impact of the project, such as total carbon sequestered over time, number of trees planted, number of jobs created, or the percentage change in community attitudes towards mangrove restoration. While these example metrics are useful, we try to educate donors that impact measures are best defined by the project leads and communities themselves, so that they are monitoring and reporting what is most useful and important to them. 

What is the sustainability of the project?

Philanthropists will consider whether all the conditions are in place to ensure that the mangroves will be thriving and delivering their benefits long after they have stopped funding the project. This includes having the right tree species and planting methods, community buy-in through education and alternative livelihood opportunities, and a clear plan for ongoing funding, whether through donations or income.

What is the track record of the organisation?

Donors will look closely at the organisation or individuals leading the project to assess their expertise and capacity to successfully implement the project. They might do this by reviewing impact reports, holding short interviews with the project leads, or reaching out to other funders for references. 

3. Following on from the above: what information can practitioners make available, and in what format, to better showcase their projects and help this decision-making? 

In the process of making a decision, clear communication materials are essential. Donors usually start by checking out a website before they even consider asking for a proposal. That is why it’s a good idea to include compelling materials that showcase the impact of your work. 

Telling captivating stories and providing clear impact metrics are crucial to demonstrating the project’s effectiveness and track record. It’s also important to include financial information, such as the organisation’s annual budget, so that donors can determine whether their usual grant size is too much for the organisation to handle or whether they are better set to make a small contribution to a larger pool of resources. It’s also important to highlight the individuals who are behind the project, their skills and backgrounds, and to make their contact information publicly available so that donors know who they can reach out to with any questions. 

If and when invited for a proposal, then pay close attention to the guidelines, especially on the maximum pages they would like. I’ve learned that philanthropists and small foundations typically have very little time to make a number of complex decisions, so the easier you can make this process by being succinct and clear, the better. 


4. Moving away from philanthropists and to Impatience Earth – who are you, and what services do you provide?

“We see ourselves as climate knowledge and relationship brokers – helping donors access the incredible array of climate expertise of practitioners, activists, and academics to help make sense of the climate emergency in a way that resonates with them.”

We are a small team of advisors with backgrounds in climate change, biodiversity, international development, social justice, philanthropy and entrepreneurship. We are incredibly passionate about what we do, and how we see our work contributing towards a much more equitable world for everybody. We set out in 2020 to increase the amount of philanthropic capital being directed to climate change, but we also want to see funding going to actors who have been traditionally overlooked and underfunded, and to help shift philanthropy towards a more trust-based approach and in support of climate justice. 

We see ourselves as climate knowledge and relationship brokers – helping donors access the incredible array of climate expertise of practitioners, activists, and academics to help make sense of the climate emergency in a way that resonates with them, and then move forward on acting on climate with confidence by helping them develop strategies, and connecting them to co-funders and potential grantees. 

The learning journey is a central component of our work, which is a bespoke series of intimate sessions with experts where they can dive deep into a subject area and ask lots of questions. We’ve found that learning is critical; clients who want to skip the learning and go straight to recommendations on who to fund don’t seem to end up committing to climate in the long-term. 

5. What are the most common questions that you are asked? Have any common themes emerged that you think need to be better answered/communicated by practitioners?

The most common question we hear is “where can we best make an impact?”

In the climate emergency, there is no straightforward answer to this question, because it is a complex global systemic crisis. Unfortunately this is where a lot of potential donors to climate change get stuck, because it seems so overwhelming, when in fact there are so many ideas, initiatives and approaches in need of funding that will collectively deliver the change we need. 

We help each client craft an answer to this question that makes most sense to them through learning and reflection. There are a number of factors that will influence the answer, such as what values are core to the foundation, where they are drawn to funding geographically, where they think change comes from (e.g. top-town, bottom-up, or both), and which sectors and approaches resonate most with what they have supported so far and want to focus on in future. 

For practitioners seeking funding, it is important, unsurprisingly, to help funders clearly understand how their grants will make a difference. This stems from you understanding the broader change you are working towards in the climate context and beyond, whether it’s building long term community resilience, strengthening local biodiversity or building the movement for climate justice. While it’s important to outline the how (activities) and the why (the problem statement) to demonstrate your capabilities in planning a project, it is the outcomes that will inspire donors to invest in you and help them realise their own impact. 

You can find out more about Impatience Earth and their work on their website.

Carbon terminology

Carbon terminology

The carbon world is full of jargon, acronyms, terms used interchangeably or even differently depending on who is using them! Here are some terms with their definitions as we use them.

Adaptation: Actions that contribution to the adaptation to climate change and its impacts. These an be social, environmental or economic in nature.

Additionality: Additionality is the principle that the carbon benefit that the project claims to deliver is additional to what would have occurred without the project interventions. For example, a project that claims to protect an already well-protected forest that is not subject to deforestation or degradation cannot claim to be additional. However, if it can be demonstrated that a forest is being degraded, and a project’s interventions will slow or halt this degradation, it is additional. This can be irrespective of legal protection or existing protected areas: often, protected areas are simply ‘paper parks’ with no real protection. A project that includes an existing area that is protected legally but not in reality can claim to be additional.  

Blue carbon: The carbon that is stored in the world’s oceans, coasts and wetlands. Three ecosystems are considered to be the core ‘blue carbon’ habitats: mangrove forests, seagrass meadows and saltmarshes. These ecosystems trap large volumes of carbon-rich organic matter not only in the plants themselves, but the soils beneath them. Because the soils are waterlogged, this carbon is locked away over much longer timescales than on land, where microorganisms can live in the soil and break down the organic matter for food, releasing the carbon. Soils that are waterlogged do not contain as many of these microorganisms, and so the carbon is stored for centuries to millennia in blue carbon ecosystems.

Carbon benefit: The carbon that a project claims to have sequestered (absorbed) or prevented in emissions. For example, a project that plants trees can claim the carbon that is sequestered by those trees as its ‘carbon benefit’.

Carbon credit: The unit in which carbon offsets are traded. One carbon credit is equivalent to one tonne of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e). These are generated by projects accredited to one of several carbon standards that approve the project’s methodology for calculating its carbon benefit (this can be achieved through planting trees, for example). They are bought by individuals and organisations to compensate for carbon that they have emitted.

Carbon footprint: The carbon emissions released as a result of the actions or an individual, organisation or any entity.

Carbon neutral: Carbon neutral is a claim made by company, event, product, or any other entity whose emissions can be claimed to have been eliminated or offset entirely, so that no net carbon is emitted as a result of its existence. There are many strategies by which ‘carbon neutrality’ can be claimed: all emissions could have been eliminated (ideal, but rarely feasible), all could have been offset (an environmentally and ethically weak strategy if there is any scope for emissions reductions), or a combination of the two (most frequently adopted, and often the most feasible pathway).

Carbon offset: A reduction in emissions, or sequestration (absorption) or atmospheric emissions, that is made to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. This is most frequently achieved by buying offsets from accredited projects, but it can also be achieved by implementing your own interventions such as planting a forest on your own land (this is sometimes referred to as ‘insetting’).

Carbon standard: A certification scheme involving rues, requirements and recommendations that a project must follow and abide by in order to achieve and maintain certification. A number of carbon standards exist, including the Plan Vivo Standard, VCS and The Gold Standard. Carbon standards vary in their requirements; for example, some are best suited to large-scale projects while others facilitate small-scale, community-based projects. However, all exist in order to maintain accountability, transparency and best practice among carbon trading projects.

Carbon storage: The storing of carbon – in biological terms, this is stored as organic matter such as the woody biomass of trees or in peat formed over thousands of years as plants die).

Climate crisis (also climate change, climate breakdown, climate emergency, climate chaos): Anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions have led to rapidly increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere that are having a catastrophic effect on the warming of the climate. This was earlier known as “global warming”, although it is recognised that (a) temperatures are not rising uniformly across the world and (b) in some areas, the most noticeable and damaging effects of the climate crisis are not just in temperature but in changing seasons, rainfall and storms. The climate crisis (also breakdown, emergency, chaos) terminology came into use around 2018 in recognition that “climate change” did not adequately convey the severe threat that is posed to the world by a warming climate.

CO2 : Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. While some is needed for plants to photosynthesise, human activities have been emitting so much CO2 into the atmosphere that it is driving a change in the climate and with it, the climate crisis.

Greenhouse Gas: Gases including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that, when present in the atmosphere, contribute to a warming of the earth’s surface and atmosphere. Without them, the average temperature on Earth would be -20; however, the high concentrations caused by anthropogenic (human) emissions, Earth is warming alarmingly and devastatingly fast.

Leakage: Leakage is the unintended displacement of harmful activities from the project area to another area, resulting in no net benefit from the project. For example, in forestry, excluding the cutting of timber without measures to compensate for lost firewood may mean that people simply go elsewhere to cut wood. Projects must take action to ensure that this does not take place – for example, our projects maintain sustainable woodlots to provide timber for local people.

Legacy carbon: Historic carbon emissions, emitted before current carbon accounting periods such as the current year. See Microsoft’s commitment to compensate for all of the carbon that the company has ever emitted!

Mangroves: Forests that grow in waterlogged, saline environments such as coasts and estuaries. They consist of 80 species worldwide that have adapted towithstand high levels of salinity. Mangroves grow in tropical to sub-tropical regions worldwide, and are globally threatened by coastal development, pollution, aquaculture and cutting for timber.

Mitigation: Actions that reduce the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, either by reducing them at their source (such as transitioning from oil and gas to renewable energy) or creating or enhancing sinks of carbon, such as through reforestation or protecting threatened wetlands.

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs): Commitments made by nations that will demonstrate how they will met their mitigation and adaptation goals under the Paris Agreement. NDCs are revised and submitted every 5 years (the latest round were submitted in 2020).

Net Zero: Very similar to (and often used interchangeably with) carbon neutrality, but includes all greenhouse gases (GHGs) including methane, nitrous oxide and hydroflourocarbons.

Paris Agreement: The landmark agreement, signed by 190 nations, that legally binds nations into plans for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the financing of these activities.

Permanence: Permanence is the principle that a project can be assumed to maintain its carbon benefit over ‘permanent’ (generally accepted as 100+ years) timescales.While this is impossible to guarantee in the present day, a number of means can be used to assess permanence including how well the ecosystem naturally stores carbon, and what work will be undertaken by the project to address drivers of degradation as well as actively excluding them during the project lifespan.

Project Design Document (PDD): A comprehensive document detailing how a project will operate. In carbon trading, these documents are approved and held by the relevant carbon standard.

Risk buffer: A proportion of credits that are deducted from a project’s calculated total carbon benefit to precautionarily account for ‘non-permanence’, or the risk that that carbon might be lost earlier than is expected. This could occur because of reasons outside of a project’s control such as storm damage, drought or wildfires. A risk buffer is therefore a conservative and precautionary means of minimising the risk of selling carbon that will then be re-released into the atmosphere.

Seagrass: Seagrasses are the only flowering plants (orangiosperms) that live in saline (salty) environments. They grow in intertidal to sub-tidal regions in temperate, sub-tropical and tropical regions worldwide. Seagrasses grow in meadows that are vulnerable to destruction by physical impacts from boats, anchors and fishing gear, pollution and coastal development.

Sequestration: The absorption of carbon from the atmosphere. This can be achieved through biological processes (i.e., natural carbon sinks such as forests) or geologic (i.e., Carbon Capture and Storage).

Soil carbon: The carbon that is stored in soil, most notably below forests and other vegetation that traps organic matter among their roots. Although soils are much less charismatic than the forests themselves, the carbon that is stored within the soils of blue carbon ecosystems can be many times higher, and be locked away for much longer, than is stored in the plants themselves.

tCO2e (tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent): Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of several greenhouse gases. It is the most prevalent greenhouse gas, but it not the most potent. Methane, for example, has a warming impact on the atmosphere that is 84 times as strong as CO2 in a 20-year timeframe; however, it breaks down much quicker than CO2, so over a 100-year timeframe it has an impact of around 28 times that of CO2. To account for these differences between the greenhouse gases, carbon credit units are standardised into tCO2e, or ‘tonnes of CO2 equivalent’. For example, over 100 years, a tonne of methane would be converted to 28 tCO2e.

Unavoidable carbon: Carbon emissions should be reduced before they are offset. Carbon offsets should not be used as an alternative to offsetting; reducing your emissions by 100t is better than having to compensate for 100t of emissions that could have been avoided. ‘Unavoidable’ emissions are the emissions of a person or organisation after they have made all feasible reductions. What this means will vary from case to case, and financial, social, work and other factors may need to be considered. For example, a flight to visit close family living overseas provides considerable social and psychological benefit. Domestic emissions may be unfeasible to reduce or eliminate because of the high cost of switching to renewable sources, or the environmental impact of replacing existing, working systems.  

Voluntary and compliance carbon markets: The carbon market – that is, all of the carbon trading that exists in the world – is broadly split into the voluntary and compliance markets. The compliance carbon market (dominated by the Clean development Mechanism, or CDM) is used by large, high-emitting industries who are required by law to reduce their carbon emissions, while the voluntary carbon market is used by individuals and businesses who choose to buy offsets. The two markets differ in the projects that they host: the compliance market is dominated by energy projects such as financing renewable energy solutions, whilst the voluntary market is a combination of energy and nature-based solutions such as forestry. Projects on the voluntary carbon market are typically smaller, involve communities in management and governance to a greater extent, and typically command a higher price per tonne of carbon; this reflects higher implementation costs of running small-scale and community-based projects.

Wetlands: Areas of land that are covered by water either seasonally or permanently. This could include vegetated coastal habitats such as mangrove forests, or areas inland such as peat bogs. Wetlands are important stores of carbon and support rich biodiversity.

Zero emissions, or actual zero: The state of a company, event, product, or any other entity whose emissions can be claimed to have been eliminated entirely. This cannot include emissions that have been offset. This is ideal but rare, particularly in public businesses in which a number of factors such as external investments and utilities contracts are involved.

Ethical offsetting in the journey to a zero-carbon world

Ethical offsetting in the journey to a zero-carbon world

The ethics of carbon offsetting have become among the most contentious of any climate action strategy. Critics argue that the option to offset perpetuates unsustainable lifestyles and -facilitates greenwashing, giving carbon buyers a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to tackling their emissions; proponents argue that it can be used responsibly alongside reductions to reach net-zero.

Net zero, carbon neutral and other climate commitments are increasingly being made by businesses and governments. Achieving climate neutrality through emissions reductions alone is the ideal, yet at the same time challenging, if not impossible, without greater headway made towards a low-carbon global economy.  If net-zero targets are to be met, offsetting is, at least in the short term, essential.

Recent market data show that offsetting continues to grow. Voluntary offset sellers have reported sustained interest despite the Coronavirus pandemic, suggesting sustained commitments to sustainability strategies despite financial uncertainty. If the voluntary offset market is here to stay, then ethical standards must upheld not only within the projects themselves and the standard to which they are accredited, but in the way that carbon offsets are used by buyers.

The carbon market has been criticised on policy, scientific and moral grounds; the latter of which is often leveraged at buyers of carbon credits for using offsetting as an excuse to delay systematic change. Yet experiences of carbon credit providers – projects and resellers – in a ‘boutique’ segment of the voluntary carbon market is very different, instead finding that carbon buyers are overwhelmingly genuine in their commitments to sustainability, using offsets as only one part of their journey to net zero and engaging meaningfully with the moral dilemmas of choosing to buy offsets.

A research team from Edinburgh Napier University and ACES, the project coordinators for two Kenyan blue carbon projects, interviewed a range of stakeholders in the voluntary carbon market including carbon buyers, project developers, carbon standards and resellers of carbon credits, to explore how buyers use offsets alongside broader, long-term carbon reduction strategies. It was recognised that the views captured in the research are not necessarily representative of practices in the wider carbon market and the findings were not intended as such; rather, they were presented as an example of good practice in offsetting with lessons to be learned by project developers, carbon sellers and carbon standards.

Sincerity of buyers

The ‘permit to pollute’ criticism that offsetting simply perpetuates unsustainable lifestyles is often framed in the context of superfluous flights taken by people unwilling to change their lifestyle, or businesses that see offsets as a cheap way out of making changes to reduce their emissions. There was no evidence of this hazard among stakeholders interviewed; some even expressed guilt for activities such as driving to choir and said that being able to offset these emissions assuaged at least some of this guilt, particularly when the project that they chose to offset with delivered ‘charitable’ co-benefits such as community development or biodiversity enhancement.

Businesses need guidance

Our research found that carbon buyers took step to carry out their own due diligence on projects beyond accepting their certification at face-value. This included having conversations with offset sellers and even visiting projects personally. They did not, in general, appear to be looking for a certificate of offsetting as a CSR ‘badge’ or to tick a box – they were motivated to find high-quality offsets from projects that aligned with their interests and values. However, this due diligence took time, resources and a capability that cannot be expected of all buyers, particularly as the voluntary carbon market is fragmented between standards and projects with independently run, and variable, websites and communications. There is therefore a role for both sellers and third-party organisations to give buyers the clear and transparent information and guidance that they need to make informed decisions. An early example of this is the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting, which gives guidance on offsetting principles, and an upcoming platform by WWF to assess and evaluate carbon standards.

Onus on sellers

Finally, our research concluded that there is an onus on sellers of carbon offsets to ensure ethical practices are adhered to. Sellers can work with buyers to educate them on best practice in carbon reductions and net-zero strategies and to ensure that the offsets sold are being applied in an ethical manner and communicated accurately to reflect their role in the organisation’s net zero strategy.

Our research suggests that contrary to narratives presented by critics of offsetting, ‘ethical offsetting’ is practiced in at least parts of the voluntary carbon market and the principles from these examples can be applied throughout the market to ensure best practice. Our full research paper can be read here (written in 2021; unpublished).

Scaling community-led conservation to national climate action

Scaling community-led conservation to national climate action

Our Mikoko Pamoja and Vanga Blue Forest projects have delivered climate, biodiversity and community benefits to two coastal communities on the Kenyan coast. They have demonstrated at a small, ’boutique’ scale how climate action can not only tackle the threat of the climate emergency, but how it can do so whilst delivering benefits to local people, engaging local people in environmental governance and demonstrating how local livelihoods can be secured whilst managing the use of natural resources.

Whilst these projects deliver community benefits locally and make a contribution to fighting the climate crisis, much larger-scale action is needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5-2°C in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

This is where Nationally-Determined Contributions, or NDCs, come in. They are commitments made every 5 years by nations who are signatory to the Paris Agreement to contribute to the global effort to limit temperature rise. In the case of blue carbon ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass and saltmarsh, these can include commitments to protect and restore these carbon-rich habitats to prevent the loss of, and encourage further sequestration of, atmospheric carbon.

But when we scale blue carbon conservation like this, how do we ensure that community livelihoods are not overlooked in favour of carbon benefit? It is easy to make commitments on paper to halt the loss of these ecosystems, but how can we implement this in a way that involves local people and takes account of their needs, particularly when coastal communities rely on natural resources like timber for income and sustenance?

Our team have been part of an international research team investigating these questions and making recommendations for Kenya, and other nations, to commit to and implement socially-just blue carbon conservation and restoration.

As part of this work, we worked alongside the team developing Kenya’s 2020 NDC submission to ensure that blue carbon ecosystems were not only included in the submission, but included in a way which puts the needs of coastal communities at the heart of their management. More detail about how we achieved this can be found here. Now that Kenya’s 2020 NDC submission is finalised, we have produced a policy brief for Kenyan coastal and marine stakeholders with an interest in blue carbon management, summarising the blue carbon element of the NDC submission and what this will mean for government agencies, public bodies, NGOs and other stakeholders. This policy brief can be downloaded here.

National-level conservation and restoration of blue carbon ecosystems will not come without challenges. However by learning from projects such as Mikoko Pamoja, Vanga Blue Forest and other community-led initiatives, and by working together across government, community groups, research institutions and NGOs to understand and promote best practice, we can move towards a more sustainable future in which the needs of people are secured alongside ambitious climate action.

It Takes a Village: ACES and University of Malaya webinar on community-led blue carbon conservation

We’re often asked how the Mikoko Pamoja and Vanga Blue Forest projects were set up, and what the key is to their success. We were therefore delighted this month to partner with the University of Malaya in Malaysia to lead a webinar on the value of blue carbon to communities and the global climate, and how community groups can protect mangrove and other blue carbon ecosystems for the benefit of the climate, the environment and local people.