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What are the "PlayPumps" of Climate Change?

by BrianTan1 min read5th Dec 202021 comments

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Climate changeBuilding effective altruism
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In many Intro to EA talks or giving game workshops, the story of PlayPumps is often cited as an example of why people need to use evidence and data rather than their emotions when it comes to donating to charity. The story of PlayPumps is also the focus of the 1st chapter of Will MacAskill's book Doing Good Better. PlayPumps is then often contrasted to GiveWell's top charities, like the Against Malaria Foundation or GiveDirectly, which are very evidence-based and highly cost-effective. I and many others in EA Philippines have found the PlayPumps as a compelling example of why people need to be more rationale and evidence-based about their giving. 

I would now like to know if there are climate change charities/non-profits who are similar to the story of PlayPumps in one or more ways, such as by being net-negative or harmful, or by gaining a lot of press and funding but then getting bad publicity about their inability to make a large impact. Interventions that are widely popular but also quite neutral or very small in positive impact can be highlighted too. 

Learning about these could be useful for those who want to help advocate for why people should donate to one or more of Founders Pledge's recommended charities, such as the Clean Air Task Force, rather than popular but not-so-impactful (or even harmful) climate change interventions/charities. For example, maybe climate change charities should be the default example rather than global health charities during intro to EA talks or giving game workshops, especially for longtermist community builders. You can read this post of mine for more thoughts on this (especially by reading the comment by Ben Todd). 

Any thoughts or ideas would help - thanks!

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5 Answers

I'd maybe give Solar Roadways as a possible example. I'm not sure, but I might have even donated to their crowdfunding campaign at the time.

Here are some edited quotes from the Wikipedia article, first about popularity:

In 2009, Solar Roadways received a $100,000... grant from the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT)... In 2011, Solar Roadways received a $750,000 SBIR grant from the DOT... In April 2014, the company started a crowdfunding drive at Indiegogo to raise money so they could get the product into production. The campaign raised 2.2 million dollars and became Indiegogo’s most popular campaign ever in terms of the number of backers it attracted... In December 2015, the USDOT announced that it had awarded Solar Roadways a Phase IIB SBIR contract to further their research. In 2016 they were given an additional $750,000.00.

And about results:

The first public installation was... on September 30, 2016. [It] generated... around ¼ kWh per day during their most productive month, August 2018. For comparison, a typical home solar panel produces 1.45 kWh per typical day.

In December 2018, Solar Roadways shut down [that installation] after some problems started to emerge. LEDs in certain colors started to fade unexpectedly, and snow caused problems for the heating elements because of the metal strips which cover the gap between the panels.

And criticism:

Journalist David Biello, writing in Scientific American, noted the difficulties of the project in dealing with material limitations, particularly in its choice of making the surface of the panels from... "a type of glass that does not yet exist."

Sebastian Anthony noted... that the cost to replace all roads in the United States with Solar Roadways panels would come to approximately $56 trillion... The USDOT announcement of Phase IIB funding in December 2015 mentioned that because the solar cells were still manufactured by hand, they were "very costly to produce".

Phil Mason... made a similar argument about cost, adding his doubts about traction on a glass surface... US Department of Transportation engineer Eric Weaver commented on Solar Roadways' safety tests, saying: "We can’t say that it would be safe for roadway vehicular traffic. Further field-traffic evaluation is needed to determine safety and durability performance."

Also from other sources:

After years of development and millions of dollars (including government funding), all of the solar roadways installed today do not produce cost-effective energy production. The roads are expensive and produce far less electricity than what could be produced if the money was used on a solar farm- or by simply placing them by the side of the road.

Reducing plastic bag/straw use in the west.

This does almost exactly 0 good for the environment, but harms people with some physical impairments who needs straws to eat/drink.

I had a feeling this would be an answer - is there an article that is objective/trustworthy about why this is not so impactful (or even harmful)? I didn't know what to read or trust based on a quick Google search.

2alexrjl1yhttps://medium.com/@robertwiblin/what-you-think-about-landfill-and-recycling-is-probably-totally-wrong-3a6cf57049ce [https://medium.com/@robertwiblin/what-you-think-about-landfill-and-recycling-is-probably-totally-wrong-3a6cf57049ce] https://www2.mst.dk/udgiv/publications/2018/02/978-87-93614-73-4.pdf [https://www2.mst.dk/udgiv/publications/2018/02/978-87-93614-73-4.pdf]
1BrianTan1yThanks - I'll try to read these soon!

Hi Guys, Dan from Giving Green here. Some good comments on our work and how it relates so far. We're seen a lot of stuff in our research that may fall in the "Play Pumps" category. But if there was one that that really stands out, I think it's carbon offsets for clean water. Check out our write-up here: https://www.givinggreen.earth/post/water-purification-technology

Hey Dan, I think this is a brilliant example. I think this and the Solar Roadways are the best examples listed here.  I This article you cited is pretty good: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/thirty_million_dollars_a_little_bit_of_carbon_and_a_lot_of_hot_air

Maybe a few EAs should test out using this Carbon for Water example or Solar Roadways at a giving game (vs. other Giving Green or Founders Pledge charities) next time!

Hey Brian, Giving Green has done some research, including on offsets, and they found some interventions to be effective and others being not. You can read more here: https://www.givinggreen.earth/carbon-offsets

Some more examples I found in their concept note:

  • "to meet emission reduction targets under the Kyoto agreement, the Swiss government committed to purchasing 2 million tons of certified emissions credits between 2015 and 2020 (estimated at $24 million USD1 ) by financing an NGO distributing water-purifying chlorine dispensers in Africa. Did the $24 million reduce 2 million tons in carbon emissions? Almost certainly not, as the assumption households would boil water in absence of the filters was untrue." (Footnote 1. Note that chlorine dispensers treat water
... (read more)
1alexrjl1yAt least Chlorine dispensers seem robustly good. Like, not for climate, but for human wellbeing generally. In fact, under not-completely-crazy assumptions, they outperform deworming. [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/FAA22RbfgC68fRnRs/if-you-mostly-believe-in-worms-what-should-you-think-about]

Thanks for linking this! I've read through this link: https://www.givinggreen.earth/post/overview-of-the-voluntary-offset-market

It's quite helpful.

That link also links to this article: https://features.propublica.org/brazil-carbon-offsets/inconvenient-truth-carbon-credits-dont-work-deforestation-redd-acre-cambodia/

I've only skimmed through it, and I don't know how objective it is, but I think this article and the Giving Green report could be good references for carbon offset projects/charities that are too boastful and/or are barely impactful or even net-n... (read more)

4HStencil1yThey explain why they offer offset recommendations (even though, like Founders Pledge, they believe CATF is likely more cost-effective) at some length in their launch post: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/xfN7AwkjYBpEbbz6x/re-launching-giving-green-an-ea-run-organization-directing [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/xfN7AwkjYBpEbbz6x/re-launching-giving-green-an-ea-run-organization-directing]
2BrianTan1yThanks for pointing this out - this makes sense! Copied the part here for anyone that wants to find out where that specific part is:

This - especially the "offset you flight CO2 emissions" BS, where they "buy" non-counterfactual emissions reductions.

Replacing plastic containers with glass.

Specifically I will point out the use of cotton bags instead of regular plastic ones - it needs to be used  at least 7100 times for conventional cotton or 20000 times for organic cotton, in order to provide the same environmental performance of the average LDPE carrier bag. As mentioned in a report made by the ministry of enviroment and food in Denmark (link - https://www2.mst.dk/Udgiv/publications/2018/02/978-87-93614-73-4.pdf)

1BrianTan1yYeah this sounds like a good example too. When you say cotton bags, you mean like ecobags right?

This is actively harmful given that glass is heavier and more fragile.

Could you elaborate on this? This one's new to me - a link to read would help!

1alexrjl1yhttps://www.southampton.ac.uk/engineering/news/2020/12/01-glass-bottles-worse-for-environment.page