We are excited to introduce Giving Green to the EA community! We are a new initiative incubated at IDinsight that aims to guide donations towards evidence-backed climate change projects. Our “product” is an actionable, scientific, and transparent set of recommendations that will help people and organizations find donation options that measurably reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases. Although we've been operating in Beta mode for around a year, today we launched our new website along with our recommendations for the 2020 Giving Season. Please see the website for more info, along with our two introductory blogs.
We have recently completed the Charity Entrepreneurship program, which helps launch high-impact EA-aligned charities and wanted to introduce ourselves to the EA community, as we’d love to receive feedback, ideas, and connections! We thought we’d start by describing Giving Green and then talk about how we are distinct from other efforts in this space (including the excellent work done by orgs like Founder’s Pledge).
Most projects within the climate change space are not backed by rigorous evidence. This makes it challenging for evidence-minded people like Effective Altruists to know where to put their money when trying to fight climate change. Even among the evidence-focused climate researchers, most provide high-level guidance on which sectors or potential policies would be effective, as opposed to actionable instructions on where to donate to combat climate change.
Giving Green attempts to fill this gap. We use rigorous research to develop evidence-backed and actionable guidance for donors in the climate space, constantly updating and improving our research. Our goal is to improve the impact of climate donations by providing the field with more evidence and by actively pushing donors to make better donation decisions. While climate change can be a contentious (and well liked) issue within the EA community, we are planning to avoid the debate on “is climate change an existential risk?” or “is climate change a cost-effective topic area?” and instead focus our efforts on making the billions of dollars flowing into climate change more effective.
Giving Green was inspired by GiveWell (full disclosure: IDinsight has partnered with GiveWell on numerous projects). While we want to be as rigorous as possible, we understand that making recommendations in climate change will require a very different approach than what GiveWell has taken, as it is not possible to identify high-impact climate change initiatives with the same level of rigor that GiveWell or IDinsight would bring to our other projects (e.g. RCTs). We have made several strategic decisions that we hope will make this project both impactful and logistically possible:
- We are balancing rigor and practicality. We will frequently review our research to ensure that it meets our high standards while also taking into account the complex realities of the climate change space.
- We will meet climate donors “where they are,” meaning that we won’t just focus on large-scale policy or technology change (which are arguably the most cost-effective) but will also attempt to influence the donations happening with specific sub-sectors such as carbon offsets.
- We are starting with a narrow focus but hope to be able to expand that focus in years to come to reach as much of the climate-oriented community as possible (e.g. private sector investments, US state-level policy, policy in other countries, etc.)
As we continue to build out our research, we will continue to refine our strategic priorities to ensure that we are always working on the highest impact workstreams.
2020 Research Priorities
In our first year of operation, we are focusing on two sub-sectors that have a large amount of funding:
- Carbon Offsets – purchasing high quality offsets in the carbon market should reduce atmospheric GHG with a high degree of certainty.
- United States Policy Change – influencing US policy will be an important lever for reducing atmospheric GHG, albeit a challenging and uncertain one. We are focusing on the US because that’s where our team has the most experience working. Including elections, we estimate billions of dollars will be spend trying to influence this lever.
We describe both sub-sectors below.
Carbon offsets are a mechanism to contribute to certified projects in an attempt to “undo” climate damage done by individuals or businesses. We find this framing unhelpful, and instead argue that individuals and organizations should view offsets simply as a philanthropic contribution to a pro-climate project with an evidence-based approach to reducing emissions, rather than a way to eliminate their contribution to climate change. However, we still think there is value to providing recommendations withing this space. In 2019 the voluntary carbon offset market transacted $330 million, and it looks poised for massive growth. This market is driven by companies looking to achieve carbon-neutrality, and big names have made carbon-neutral proclamations recently. Companies include Apple, Amazon, BP, Delta, and more. (See this tracker for a near-comprehensive list.)
Although there are many carbon offset certification bodies, there remains considerable uncertainty over whether they are actually accomplishing their goals. For instance, an EU-commissioned assessment of the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which is used to certify offsets under the Kyoto protocol, concluded that “CDM still has fundamental flaws in terms of overall environmental integrity.” It noted that 85% of the projects analyzed have a “low likelihood that emission reductions are additional and are not over-estimated.”
Giving Green is analyzing offsets available in the voluntary market, choosing and recommending those that have a high certainty of actually causing reduced emissions. To accomplish this, we have developed a framework that is much more stringent than that used by the offset certifiers, requiring concrete evidence of “additionality,” as well as proof that emissions are reduced permanently. An offset is “additional” if its purchase directly leads to reduced emissions that would not have otherwise happened.
We consider three important features to determine additionality:
- Causality: Are the projects actually reducing emissions? For projects that require human behavior change, we require impact evaluation evidence that this behavior change is happening.
- Project-level Additionality: And would the projects have happened in the absence of the offsets? Or can we be sure that the more GHGs are removed due to offsets (for instance, by allowing more project activities)?
- Marginal Additionality: Can each additional offset plausibly cause additional decreases in emission?
We also analyze whether the project will remove/avoid emissions permanently, or simply delay them. You can see more of our view on offsets and strategy for recommending them in our overview of the carbon offset market, and our framework for recommending offsets.
We currently have three offset recommendations that can be found on our website. All these recommendations went through a rigorous research process.
US Policy Change
Effectively fighting climate change will also require more complicated system-level changes. Donation options that target policy change are likely to be risky and not amenable to the kind of certainty found with carbon offsets but we believe that they are essential to the long-term reduction in atmospheric GHG. To prioritize our research, we narrowed our focus to US policy because our knows that area best (the US is also the second largest GHG emitter and a leader in setting global policy). We also narrowed our focus on two main sub-sectors within US policy using the Importance, Tractability, and Neglectedness framework: (1) activism and mass mobilization and (2) insider legislative advocacy.
We assess organizations by conducting expert interviews, developing detailed theories of change for our studies organizations, and assessing this theory of change using theoretical literature as well as measured achievements. While there is more uncertainty in these recommendations, we are conducting in-depth analysis on which options will likely have the highest return and feel relatively confident in our recommendations.
You can find our write-up of the ITN exercise here.
- Activism and Mass Mobilization
We define activism and mass mobilization as the activities involved in protests, marches, phone banking, bird-dogging and other activities that put grassroots pressure on policymakers and legislators. We reviewed a host of activism and mass mobilization organizations and have preliminarily settled on the Sunrise Movement Education Fund as the most promising of the organizations that we have reviewed to date. You can view our recommendation here.
You can find our review of the activism and mass mobilization sector here.
- Insider Policy Advocacy
We define insider policy advocacy as the activities involved in lobbying, legislation and regulation drafting, targeted policy research, expert testimony, and other activities that attempt to influence policy creation through insider actions. In this space, we recommend the Clean Air Task Force.
You can find our review of insider legislative advocacy here.
There are a couple of organizations in the EA community that are also working to make recommendations in the climate space, namely Founder’s Pledge and Let’s Fund. How are we different?
We think that the research and recommendations on climate change made by Founder's Pledge and Let’s Fund are excellent, and we plan to integrate them into our work. We’ve talked to both teams and have appreciated all of their collaborative efforts.
While there is some overlap in our missions, there is one main strategic difference between our approach and theirs. Both Founder’s Pledge and Let’s Fund (to the best of our understanding) are looking for the most cost-effective charities to fight climate change. This is a very EA approach, and it appeals to an audience with an EA mindset. But it results in a narrow range of recommendations, which may not change the donating behavior of important non-EA donors that want to have impact within specific sub-fields such as carbon offsets.
Giving Green's goal is to use an EA-style, highly rigorous research methodology to develop recommendations that will make current climate donations much more effective and that will crowd money to effective organizations. For instance, consider the space of carbon offsets. We believe (as do the researchers at Founder's Pledge and Let’s Fund) that carbon offsets are not among the most cost-effective solutions to climate change. However, unlike Founder's Pledge, we conduct research and make recommendations in the offset space because many organizations (specifically businesses looking to make claims of carbon-neutrality) want to buy carbon offsets. We think that providing recommendations in the offset market has a good amount of social value, as purchasers in this space are unlikely to switch over to, for example, policy charities.
We also think there is value in having an organization specifically dedicated to climate change. Over time we hope to build up a team of experts, allowing us to make more and better climate recommendations than more generalist charity recommenders will be able to make.
Please send us your thoughts, ideas, and feedback! We are excited to engage further with the EA Community and look forward to figuring out the best ways to fight climate change alongside all of you.
 Many vaunted pro-climate projects have proven to be ineffective when subjected to scrutiny. For example, 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 USD) 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.
 Signatories of the Paris Accords have committed $100 billion per year in climate financing, major foundations have committed at least $14 billion over the next four years, and companies have made major pledges to go “climate neutral.” For instance, Microsoft has committed to removing all its historical emissions, Delta has committed 1 billion dollars to offset its emissions, and BP announced it would go net zero (including emissions from oil it extracts) by 2050.