Page last updated at 08:53 GMT, Monday, 24 December 2007

The logic of green giving

Sylvia Rowley
Sylvia Rowley

Which charities are most deserving? Those working on environmental issues tend to come low on most people's lists, judging by the paltry amounts they receive; yet, argues Sylvia Rowley, they can make a huge difference to some of the world's most pressing problems.

Burned rainforest. Image: BBC
Charities have helped governments respond better to deforestation
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.

The work of these charities is only just beginning, and funding is woefully inadequate
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.

Protestor. Image: AP
Proper research is needed in areas such as biofuels
The findings of WI's 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.

By working with governments and businesses, environmental charities can punch above their weight
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 charity's work is well respected by organisations such as the EU, UN and the World Bank.

Most recently, the charity's 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.

Fisherman using a hand-line to catch mackerel (Image: MSC)
MSC certification is helping to make fisheries more sustainable
In 2006, MSC convinced Walmart, the world's largest retailer, to stock only wild-caught fish that it has certified as sustainable.

Other retailers such as Carrefour and Aeon, Japan's 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.

Sylvia Rowley is research analyst at New Philanthropy Capital, a charity that advises donors on how to use their money for the greatest effect on peoples' lives

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Sylvia Rowley? Can environmental charities make a real difference? How would you prioritise spending money on them compared to charities working in other fields?

It is quite amazing how much small charities and other organisations can achieve, simply by researching the facts and bringing them to public attention. They do a hugely important job, for without them we would be in the hands of vested interests - commercial and party-political.
Mike Franklin, Romsey, UK

For many years now I have been giving regularly to non humanitarian charities. I do not see the point in giving money to an overpopulated greedy species so I NEVER give them a penny. Instead I will help fund the causes that undo the damage humans do.
Chris Thomas, United Kingdom

This is an interesting phenomenon. The work of environmental organizations is probably even more important in the long run than traditional humanitarian causes. But the perception has been that environmental causes are not "life-and-death." It's becoming more clear today that sustainability is a life-and-death issue and we are much closer to the edge than most previously thought. But old habits die hard. There is no controversy around donating to a church or the local food bank. But those who profit from plundering the environment work pretty hard to marginalize environmental organizations. They're obviously losing ground, but way too slowly. b>Dave Gardner, Colorado Springs, CO USA

Conflict causes much environmental damage. Money invested in military action could also be used for environmental protection and constructive development providing long term benefits, socially, economically, religiously.
Marcel Lambrechts, Saint Gély du Fesc, France

Environmental awareness among public will help to save this planet from further destruction. Grass route organisation with full time and part time volunteers working along with general public. Explaining the need to use ecological friendly materials in daily life. avoid using dangerous harmful materials damaging environment. Limiting daily water use, electric consumption, Fuel use and wastage of food will help future a lot. Because of such propaganda many people are given up smoking now around the world. A wide spread concerted effort among public will also induce to adopt an environmental friendly living.
Sinnathamby.Sundaralingam, Toronto, Canada

There are flaws in all systems, but what is most important is finding ways to create motivations towards positive change. Innovations (that reduce cost and increase effectiveness, plans to must public, governmental, and private support, information, and most importantly a public and personal dedication that comes with awareness of these and all issues) help create the desire for change, and that is the best way to live.
James Zito, Millersville, USA

A major factor not to be ignored is people's lack of faith both in the charities' organisations and in the cause itself. Many people are not convinced that the money they want to donate will ultimately reach the "cause" (people or lands in need) and they fear that it (the money) will end up "elsewhere". There is a great need of some kind of "security" or "transparency" in the procedures that will eventually draw wider and stronger public attention and support to these charities and finally make them a good pressure mechanism for a better environment altogether.
Christina Kalligianni, Athens, Greece

Of course environmental charities deserve more support! Ignoring them and 'merely' donating to traditional charities is typical of humanity's self-destructive behaviour: forgetting the simple fact 'No planet = No people' And in response to the last comment: How can these charities alienate people when they are merely basing themselves on sound, scientific, independent research? Personally I consider it rather immoral for people who should know better to turn a blind eye to the set of environmental problems which seem to keep pace with our Holy of Holies, being economic growth. To solve these problems we all need to work together and yes, there will need to be lifestyle changes. But this needn't be a bad thing! I just finished reading a rather interesting book about our inability to become happy by 'buying things' and how 'borders (to consumption)' can actually increase our happiness. The book bases itself on other research which points out that when a country has reached a certain degree of prosperity, additional economic growth STOPS CONTRIBUTING TO PEOPLE'S HAPPINESS!! And if buying more things doesn't make us happier, then why bother to create more and more economic growth? Far better to use a more sustainable and added-value based indicator of progress such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW). So in the end solving our global environmental problems is actually a win-win situation: it will make our environment and ourselves healthy again AND will give a good boost to our happiness when we discover the truth in 'less is more'.
William Chew, Kortenberg, Belgium

I agree and after reading this article donated to EIA and Earth Justice but if truth be told I feel in my heart like they should be investigating me and bringing me before the law for my carbon footprint. Giving to charity doesn't absolve me of responsibility for my contribution to global warming but I know for a fact that what I say can go a long way when I go to meetings both locally and even here on the internet. The most powerful use of my time and energy at the moment is to try and get true champions for the environment, peace and all that good stuff into positions of power in government and industry. Imagine the power of thought if people got on board on these issues together.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado USA

Totally agree. Particularly now that market forces have such a powerful influence on government policy it's essential to have funding for organizations concerned with the "greater good". WWF, Greenpeace and US nonprofits like Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and the Adirondack Council are my favorite investments!
Kate, Wellesley, Ma USA

Sylvia is absolutely spot on as far as I am concerned. These charities are not in this to make money like some carbon offsetting companies and they should be supported. Lets hope that people read this and decide to give their money to these companies instead of carbon offsetting, then the real work can begin.
Jamie Smith, Aberdeen, Scotland

Makes sense to me. Bit like teach a man to fish..... There are some very important findings that will make me reconsider my charitable donations from now on.
Hugo, Portsmouth

One of the problems facing such charities is their lack of democratic legitimacy, too often representing only the misanthropic views of fanatics in control of the organisation and resulting in a shortfall of public support. Greenpeace and WWF immediately come to mind. Ultimately, national governments are best placed to help bring about change, but Sylvia's aspirations will not be met by invoking the help and assistance of either the EU or the UN. Both are anachronisms; deeply flawed, undemocratic and institutionally corrupt, neither is capable of providing the leadership, credibility or original thinking that is needed. Difficult, isn't it?
Jon Anderson, Farnham

There is no doubt that a loud, persistent challenge to the status quo does make change happen. The challenge for those of us who do not believe we are in the middle of an environmental armageddon is that in reality these charities are actually clouding the truth with the usually pretty hard line environmental agendas. They are therefore alienating the majority of people who in principle are interested in improving the way in which we use our planetary assets anyway, but have neither the desire nor the motivation to wear the hairshirt of environmentalism
Tim Sandford, Glasgow, UK

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