Is civil society being left behind on climate change?

The Funder Commitment on Climate Change is now just over a year old. Funders are signing up – but is civil society as a whole not keeping up with other sectors on climate change?

Not just an environmental issue

The Funder Commitment Funder Commitment on Climate Change recognises that climate change poses a risk to the missions of foundations – not just those that are focused on environmental issues; and that all funders can play their part in helping get emissions down and in adapting to the changes in the climate that are already locked in.

As the introduction to the Commitment says, climate change is:

  • a health issue
  • an equality issue
  • an educational issue
  • an economic issue
  • a cultural issue
  • a scientific issue
  • a security issue
  • a local community issue
  • as well as an environmental issue.

There are now 50 signatories to the Commitment, ranging from big funders like Comic Relief to community foundations working in particular locations like the Sussex Community Foundation in the south east of England.

The Commitment helps provide a framework for foundations to think about climate change with six pledges to:

  1. Educate and Learn
  2. Commit Resources
  3. Integrate
  4. Steward Investments for a Post-Carbon Future
  5. Decarbonise Operations
  6. Report on Progress


The public commitment also helps funders to ensure all the organisation – from trustees to investment managers to staff – are working towards addressing climate change.

Supporting signatories to the Funder Commitment

ACF took over hosting the Commitment this summer and we have a programme to support signatories and others to help implement the pledges, with funding from Esmée Fairbairn until May 2021 and then integrated into our overall work after that.

We’ve started organising meetings to discuss particular challenges –

We’re also going to be updating and producing supporting materials in the new year.

Overall, our approach is for the Commitment to be a way in for funders to start thinking about climate change or to develop their work a bit further from sharing experiences with other funders. We don’t want to put barriers in people’s way with the Commitment so, for instance, for the sixth pledge on reporting we’re just going to be asking people to report back on what they have done against the pledges, rather than policing what each funder has done (though still making sure that the Commitment doesn’t become about greenwashing).

Net zero and civil society

The switch of the UK’s target from 80% emissions cuts by 2050 to net zero has helped by making clear that all sectors and all organisations are part of the solution to climate change. There is no buck passing when the UK has to balance out all emissions and carbon capture at zero by 2050.

Combined with rising public concern in 2019, net zero has helped create the conditions where individual organisations and businesses are making their own commitments. From local councils declaring climate emergencies to multi-nationals setting out their own trajectory, there is momentum for change.

But the voluntary sector risks being left behind. There aren’t many voices on climate beyond those more focused on the environment or international development. There are exceptions like Citizens Advice from its work on energy and youth organisations, reflecting the concern and leadership on this issue from young people.

The absence of an overall voice from civil society matters for a number of reasons

  1. Change is coming – it is surely better to be ahead of the change and planning for it rather than just responding when tougher and tougher regulations come in. There are big changes coming – no gas boilers, no internal combustion engines, sorting our energy efficiency in older buildings and adapting them to deal with more extreme weather, changes in diet, changes in travel.
  2. Climate change policy so far has mainly been by stealth – but to achieve cuts that are now needed, it will impinge on people’s lives much more. CCC report says that 41% of cuts needed can come without behaviour change. 43% require a mix of technology and societal/behaviour change and 16% will come largely from behaviour change. Working with communities – whether of place or of identity or interest – voluntary organisations should be well placed to help those communities understand the changes that are coming and support them. The Climate Assembly put together by Westminster select committees and the Scotland Climate Assembly this autumn are good example of ways to do this, and the UK version was supported by a number of foundations.
  3. Civil society should also be at the forefront of ensuring that the changes are fair – both in terms of who pays, where support from governments is focused and how the benefits can be shared. Linked to that, voluntary organisations can challenge vested interests – whether within governments or from business – who may try to slow progress or push costs onto those less able to protect themselves.
  4. Funders and civil society can also have a role in accelerating progress in some areas. I don’t think that funders’ effectiveness in meeting the challenge of climate change is simply measured in just how much they are spending overall – some of the biggest wins on climate can come where international cooperation, government regulation and business opportunities can come together (for instance on electricity generation). But there are some areas where funders clearly can play a role – whether internationally for countries where progress is slower or more difficult or in the UK in specific sectors where progress is slow or the economics are much harder, like land management or decarbonisation in rural areas.
  5. And finally, adapting to the climate change already locked in will also be a major challenge, both for communities in the UK and even more so in other countries where the impacts are more severe. The voice and agency of voluntary organisations should inform how policy and practice should be delivered.


The Climate Change Committee reports on the sixth carbon budget last week show that there is the know-how for a path to net zero, and that the major changes need to come in the next decade and a half. National and local governments and business are beginning to get how their ways of doing things need to change. Civil society now needs to be heard in this debate.

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