Climate change donation recommendations

post by Sanjay, alexrjl · 2020-07-16T21:17:57.720Z · score: 36 (11 votes) · EA · GW · 5 comments

Contents

  Summary of SoGive opinions
  Clean Air Task Force (CATF)
  What do they do?
  What makes them look unusually cost-effective?
  Where can I find more detailed analysis?
  What does SoGive think?
  Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF)
  What do they do?
  What makes them look unusually cost effective?
  Where can I find more detailed analysis?
  What does SoGive think?
  Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CfRN)
  What do they do?
  What makes them look unusually cost-effective?
  Where can I find more detailed analysis?
  What does SoGive think?
  Eden Reforestation Projects
  What do they do?
  What makes them look unusually cost-effective?
  Where can I find more detailed analysis?
  What does SoGive think?
  Cool Earth
  What do they do?
  What makes them look unusually cost-effective?
  Where can I find more detailed analysis?
  What does SoGive think?
  Burn Cookstoves
  What do they do?
  What makes them look unusually cost-effective?
  Where can I find out more?
  What does SoGive think?
  Appendix 1 - Comparing tree-planting to emissions reduction.
  Appendix 2 - Effective charities which have a positive climate impact, though this is secondary to their main goal.
  The Good Food Institute (GFI)
  What do they do?
  What makes them look unusually cost-effective?
  Where can I find out more?
  What do they have to do with the climate?
  Centre For the Study of Existential Risk  (CSER)
  What do they do?
  What makes them look unusually cost-effective?
  Where can I find out more?
  What do they have to do with the climate?
  Future of Life Institute  (FLI)
  What do they do?
  What makes them look unusually cost-effective?
  Where can I find out more?
  What do they have to do with the climate?
  Dispensers for Safe Water (DSW)
  What do they do?
  What makes them look unusually cost-effective?
  Where can I find out more?
  What do they have to do with the climate?
None
5 comments

This article summarises information about charities which have been investigated or recommended by impact-focused evaluators. We also include some SoGive analysis as well. It has been cross-posted from the SoGive blog. It was co-authored by SoGive analysts Sanjay and alexrjl.

It aims to answer the question “How should I donate if I care about climate change?”

This article contains the following:


Summary of SoGive opinions

SoGive is an organisation which provides services to donors to help them to achieve high impact donations.

* Shortly before publication of this review, we received new information about CfRN which may cause us to revise our opinion of their impact positively. This review does not reflect those updates.

** Shortly before publication of this review, Giving Green, who recommended Burn, published two more offset recommendations. We did not have time to review those before publishing this review. The two recommendations were Tradewater, which tackles the issue of Ozone-depleting substances, and Climeworks, which works to pull CO2 directly from the air and sequester it below ground.

It is important to stress that the ratings in the above table are tentative ratings. The reason why the table includes the further information needed (and not, say, a brief rationale for our tentative opinion) is to highlight the fact that these ratings are tentative. Tentative ratings are more prone to change than firm ratings.

How to interpret ratings

This is also described here: https://thinkingaboutcharity.blogspot.com/2020/07/what-does-sogive-mean-by-gold-silver.html


Clean Air Task Force (CATF)

What do they do?

CATF is a US-based NGO which conducts research and advocacy. Having originally been founded to reduce coal-power related air pollution via policy campaigning, its work is now much broader. CATF’s current foci include next-generation nuclear technology, zero carbon liquid fuels, and the reduction of super pollutant emissions.

What makes them look unusually cost-effective?

CATF has an exceptional track record, and has played key roles in several successful campaigns. Currently, the focus is on clean-air technologies that CATF feels are both important and neglected, an approach which we believe is likely to lead to strong impact. Founders’ Pledge, an organisation which conducts original research as well as recruiting and advising large donors, identified CATF as one of the two most promising charities in the climate change sphere, and we (SoGive) have also been impressed in our conversations with CATF’s leadership about their future plans. Founder’s Pledge estimated the cost-effectiveness of CATF’s future projects at $0.29 ($5.50 - $0.03) per tonne of CO2e emissions averted.

Where can I find more detailed analysis?

FP report

SoGive’s update on CATF [EA · GW]

Founders Pledge cost-effectiveness model for CATF

What does SoGive think?

Tentative rating: We assign a tentative rating of Gold under the SoGive rating methodology. (What this means is described further here).

SoGive has reviewed the Founder’s Pledge report and broadly agrees with its conclusions and cost-effectiveness estimates of CATF. We would encourage readers wanting a few more details to read this: Climate Change Executive Summary or the full report. Effective leadership and management are always important, and are particularly so for charities which engage in activities like lobbying and research, where the best path forward is often uncertain. SoGive, having interacted directly with CATF’s management as well as having seen their track record, has thus far had a positive impression of their ability. However, donors should note that a significant part of CATF’s current work is on nuclear technologies. Nuclear power carries with it a proliferation risk [1,2]. CATF’s nuclear work is currently concentrated only in regions which already possess both nuclear power and weapons technology (the USA, Europe, China), though this is not guaranteed to remain the case in future. The question of quantitatively comparing the climate change and nuclear proliferation effects of nuclear power, especially from the perspective of its effects on Global Catastrophic Risks, is an area in which we would very much like to see more research. Secondarily, more research on the risks around nuclear waste would also help, particularly in the context of radiological weapons.

Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF)

What do they do?

ITIF is a think-tank focusing on issues at the intersection of technological innovation and public policy, one of which is clean energy. An organisation called Let’s Fund has been producing a series of write-ups of high risk high reward donation opportunities, one of which is donating to ITIF’s clean energy R&D work.

What makes them look unusually cost effective?

Compared to, for example, lobbying efforts to reduce the emissions of any one country, clean energy R&D has the potential to have a global impact on emissions rather than just impacting them in one country. It is also possible for countries to unilaterally increase R&D funding without large amounts of international cooperation, making it more politically tractable than other measures with a global impact, for example carbon taxation. The Cost Effectiveness Analysis (CEA) produced by Let’s Fund estimated that, in their “realistic” scenario, $1 spent funding ITIF would result in an additional $28 of Clean energy R&D research spending. Their pessimistic and optimistic scenarios estimated $0.40 and $375 respectively.

Where can I find more detailed analysis?

Let's Fund report

What does SoGive think?

Tentative rating: We assign a tentative rating of Gold under the SoGive rating methodology. (What this means is described further here).

There are several strong, convincing elements to the Let’s Fund analysis. In particular, we are convinced that China and India are likely to be substantial future emitters of greenhouse gases, and that creating clean energy IP that constitutes a global public good available to all is critical. An area which we believe to have been under-explored in the analysis is whether R&D funded by one government (especially the US) would result in IP that is genuinely a global public good, or whether the government would impose constraints such as patents to keep the benefits of the new technology limited to that country. We note that concerns about the IP leaking from the US to China were an important element of the recent US-China trade war. Geopolitical tensions aside, this gives us some reason to believe that IP may be leaky. Another area which we believe to have been under-explored is the timing. Funding clean energy research is likely to have a lead time of some decades. While the arguments in favour of the ITIF recommendation are strong, a comparison with an intervention with a more immediate impact (such as avoiding deforestation) needs to weigh how much more valuable it is for a tonne of CO2e to be averted today (or in the near future) compared to it happening some decades in the future. We finally note that ITIF, like CATF, does some of its work on nuclear technology, and therefore that similar caveats may apply.


Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CfRN)

What do they do?

CfRN promotes a system called REDD+, which is a mechanism by which developing countries are financially rewarded for reducing their rates of deforestation and forest degradation. The financial rewards are provided both by developed countries and also by the sale of carbon credits. CfRN’s work specifically has focused on persuading governments or corporates in developed countries to provide some of these financial rewards.

What makes them look unusually cost-effective?

Founders’ Pledge listed CfRN as one of the two most cost-effective charities they had identified in the Climate Change sphere. This was due to a combination of their identification of deforestation as a particularly promising problem to work on, and due to the exceptional leverage they estimated CfRN had achieved in terms of encouraging governments to spend on REDD+. Founders’ Pledge estimated the cost to avert 1T of CO2e at $0.12 ($0.02 to $0.72).

Where can I find more detailed analysis?

FP report

SoGive analysis [EA · GW]

What does SoGive think?

* Shortly before publication of this review, we received new information about CfRN which may cause us to revise our opinion of their impact positively. This review does not reflect those updates.

Tentative rating: We assign a tentative rating of Silver under the SoGive rating methodology. (What this means is described further here).

SoGive has several concerns about the cost-effectiveness of CfRN estimated in the Founders’ Pledge report, detailed in the SoGive analysis linked above, these concerns include:

Having said this, we think there is a reasonable chance that CfRN will turn out to be a high impact charity even after those concerns are factored in.

Eden Reforestation Projects

What do they do?

Eden Projects hire locals in Nepal, Madagascar, Haiti, Indonesia, Mozambique and Kenya to re-plant local forests, many but not all of which are mangroves.

What makes them look unusually cost-effective?

ImpactMatters, a meta charity which evaluates the most cost-effective organisations within particular cause areas, found Eden projects to be by far the most cost-effective tree planting organisation when measured in terms of carbon sequestered per dollar. In addition to this, one of many sources of uncertainty around the effectiveness of tree planting is that different types and locations of forest differ in their effects. SoGive’s own (as yet unfinished) research into tree planting has tentatively suggested that in general tropical forests should be preferred to temperate forests, because of concerns around changes in albedo [3] among other things, and that mangroves seem to be a particularly good option[4,5], Eden meets both of these criteria. ImpactMatters’s assessment of the cost per tonne of CO2e sequestered is $0.36.

Where can I find more detailed analysis?

What does SoGive think?

Tentative rating: We assign a tentative rating of Silver under the SoGive rating methodology. (What this means is described further here).

SoGive is reasonably confident that, for a donor who specifically wants to plant trees with their donations, Eden Reforestation Projects are an unusually good option. Of the tree-planting interventions evaluated by ImpactMatters, they are clearly the best, and having spoken to ImpactMatters, we think that the methodology used in producing their estimate covered a number of the factors which we considered relevant. We want to note, however, that our positive view of this organisation does not necessarily extend to tree planting in general, which can vary hugely in impact even before costs are taken into account. Furthermore, as discussed in the appendix, comparing carbon sequestration by planting trees to other forms of carbon capture or emissions reduction is not straightforward, so the impressive cost per tonne figure quoted above should not be directly compared to the estimates for the other charities in this report. We further note that Eden Reforestation Projects do not appear to highly value the cost-effectiveness of their work when deciding on which trees to plant and areas to work in, so there is no guarantee that their future work will be as cost-effective as their work to date appears to have been.


Cool Earth

What do they do?

Cool Earth works with communities of people living in rainforest regions to develop sustainable agreements. The specific nature of the agreements varies from community to community but the purpose is to improve their lives to the point where they can opt to resist pressure from logging companies to sell their land.

What makes them look unusually cost-effective?

Giving What We Can identified Cool Earth as the most cost effective charity working on emissions reduction via direct action. We understand this to be the first high profile attempt to find the highest-impact climate change charity, using quantitative models to reflect bang for buck considerations. This recommendation made it into Will MacAskill’s 2015 book “Doing Good Better”, which is very popular and frequently recommended as an introduction to Effective Altruism. The original model produced by GWWC estimated that the cost per tonne of averted CO2e emissions was between $1.34 and $0.85.

Where can I find more detailed analysis?

GWWC analysis

SoGive’s analysis [EA · GW]

What does SoGive think?

Tentative rating: We would need more information to ascribe Cool Earth a rating under the SoGive rating methodology. (SoGive ratings are described further here).

When SoGive reviewed Cool Earth, we found reasons to doubt GWWC’s original cost-effectiveness analysis. In particular, we were concerned that logging was being displaced rather than prevented, and that the prevention effect might fade once a community’s relationship with Cool Earth ended. In light of our analysis we concluded that Cool Earth was likely less impactful than had been believed by many in the GWWC and Effective Altruism community, and that the impact likely varied by project/geography. Given the uncertainties around which projects will be funded with the next pound (i.e. the marginal impact of another donation) it was not possible for us to form a strong opinion on the impactfulness of Cool Earth. 


Burn Cookstoves

What do they do?

Burn sells high efficiency charcoal and wood burning cookstoves, which reduce emissions by reducing fuel use compared to traditional cooking stoves. While they sell carbon credits, there is no direct link between buying such credits and removing emissions from the atmosphere; instead, they use “additional revenue provided by the emissions market [to] conduct additional marketing and R+D”[7].

What makes them look unusually cost-effective?

A report by Giving Green (an initiative of IDinsight) on cookstoves notes that the results of RCTs looking at the effects of cookstoves on fuel usage are somewhat mixed, however it cites a recent positive paper by Berkouwer and Dean [8] which looked specifically at one of the stoves sold by Burn. As well as the results of the RCT, it is noteworthy that the stoves made by Burn require relatively little behaviour change, as they are designed to be cooked with in an extremely similar fashion to stoves traditionally used in the area. Efficient cookstoves also have direct benefits to their users., 

Where can I find out more?

What does SoGive think?

Tentative rating: We assign a tentative rating of Bronze under the SoGive rating methodology. (What this means is described further here).

While we think cookstoves, and fuel efficiency more broadly, are deserving of further research, we are not yet convinced that this opportunity is likely to have comparable cost-effectiveness to those listed above. In particular, the RCT that Giving Green cites as being the primary reason for their recommendation of Burn does not directly investigate long-term adoption, it instead focuses on the effects of microcredit and information about benefits on users’ willingness to pay for a stove. While the RCT does briefly discuss long-term adoption, the evidence in this section is a pilot study of 154 people, not the 1000 families which are the primary focus of the paper. Secondly, even taking the RCT as strong evidence of the effectiveness of the stoves, there is little direct link between donating money to Burn and them selling more stoves; the likely use of additional funds would be for R&D, and BURN is a company and not a charity so there is less legal recourse to ensure that the funds are used for doing good. Giving Green’s endorsement of Burn, despite these concerns, can be interpreted as a statement of their overall skepticism about other interventions, including tree planting, which they do not view positively[9].

Appendix 1 - Comparing tree-planting to emissions reduction.

Absorbing carbon by planting trees is different from permanent emissions reduction or sequestration, so $/TCO2e (absorbed by tree planting) cannot be directly compared to $/TCO2e (averted emissions). Without consideration of this difference, the cost effectiveness of Eden Reforestation Projects looks similar to CATF, however, due to the below, the true cost effectiveness is likely substantially lower.

Some of the effects which make direct comparison between tree planting and averting emissions inappropriate are as follows:

SoGive contacted a few people with relevant academic experience, and asked them to estimate the point at which they would be indifferent between averting a tonne of emissions and absorbing n tonnes of CO2e by tree planting in comparable conditions to Eden. Estimates of n ranged from 2 to more than 10, although everyone surveyed stressed that they were highly uncertain and that the estimates could vary hugely based on the exact nature of the planting involved. The inclusion of these estimates, given the level of uncertainty involved, is something we were unsure about, however we feel that they do provide support to our claim above that there should be some discount when comparing $/TCO2e, despite not yet giving a good indication as to the size of that discount. In terms of time-discounting alone, which does exclude several of the considerations discussed above, it is noteworthy that at least one major decision maker, the Australian Government, assigns a very high value to relatively short term storage; it awards a carbon credit with 80% of the value of a 100 year carbon credit if carbon is stored for only 25 years [10]. 

Appendix 2 - Effective charities which have a positive climate impact, though this is secondary to their main goal.

While the organisations in this section do not fight climate change as their primary mission, they nonetheless do have a positive impact on the climate. Furthermore, we feel that each of the charities below is outstanding in its primary cause area, and consequently that they may be of interest to donors whose primary interest is aligned with these charities, but who are also concerned about climate change. These organisations have not been evaluated based on their climate impact alone, and consequently they do not receive evaluations here.

The Good Food Institute (GFI)

What do they do?

GFI is an animal-focused charity which has been an Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) top charity for several years. It works to promote and develop alternatives to animal-based food.

What makes them look unusually cost-effective?

Cost-competitive and tasty alternatives to animal-based food products have the potential to massively reduce the consumption of those products. ACE’s review of GFI praises their leadership, which as noted above is particularly important for charities focusing at least in part on advocacy and research.

Where can I find out more?

ACE’s review of GFI.

GFI’s 2019 annual review

What do they have to do with the climate?

The production of meat, and dairy, has a significant impact on the climate [11]. GFI’s potential to prevent animal suffering by replacing significant amounts of animal farming altogether, rather than by improving the welfare of the animals involved in the process, sets it apart (from a climate perspective) from the other charities on ACE’s list of top charities. 

Centre For the Study of Existential Risk  (CSER)

What do they do?

CSER is a research centre at the University of Cambridge, focusing on the study and mitigation of existential risks to humanity.

What makes them look unusually cost-effective?

There are several prominent arguments for why reducing the risk of human extinction may be the most important problem facing humanity. Especially, though not solely, when viewed through a total utilitarian framework, the very large size of humanity’s potential future makes even very small chances of meaningfully affecting it very large in expectation.

Where can I find out more?

CSER’s research agenda

What do they have to do with the climate?

One of CSER’s four current areas of research is in climate change related extinction risks, both as a direct result of extreme climate change, and because of a civilisational collapse involving climate change.

Future of Life Institute  (FLI)

What do they do?

FLI is a research institute based on Boston, whose research and outreach focuses on reducing existential risks to humanity.

What makes them look unusually cost-effective?

There are several prominent arguments for why reducing the risk of human extinction may be the most important problem facing humanity[12,13,14]. Especially, though not solely[15], when viewed through a total utilitarian framework, the very large size of humanity’s potential future makes even very small chances of meaningfully affecting it very large in expectation.

Where can I find out more?

FLI’s climate change overview

Not Cool, a climate podcast

What do they have to do with the climate?

One of FLI’s four current areas of research is in climate change related extinction risk. They recently produced the “Not Cool” podcast series, linked above, which interviewed a series of experts on the effects of, and solutions to, climate change.

Dispensers for Safe Water (DSW)

What do they do?

DSW is a Global Health focused programme run by Evidence Action, and is a Givewell Standout charity. It sets up chlorine tablet dispensers near public water points so that the chlorine can then be used for water sterilization. In the context of climate change, this is relevant because one of the alternative sterilization methods available is boiling the water.

What makes them look unusually cost-effective?

Evidence Action rigorously monitor and evaluate the impact of their interventions, and are a regular recipient of funding from GiveWell. Chlorine tablets are very cheap, and the health burden of poor sanitation is significant.

Where can I find out more?

Evidence Action’s report on the evidence for Dispensers for Safe Water.

Evidence Action’s explanation about carbon credits via DSW.

GiveWell analysis

What do they have to do with the climate?

As one alternative to chlorine-based sterilisation of water is boiling it, Evidence Action has successfully registered as a provider of carbon credits. However, while they sell carbon credits, their reason for doing so is that it allows them to “meet our goals of sustainable on-going service delivery without user fees”. Evidence Action is quite open about the fact that boiling water in order to treat it is rare[16]. As a result, we expect the climate impact of DSW to be very small in practice (though very large in terms of health, and possibly much larger than even GiveWell’s analysis showed[17 [EA · GW]]).

There is also a subtle issue around potential double-counting; if donors decide to donate to DSW, it’s possible that the “carbon impact” of their donation gets sold as a carbon credit, so who gets the “credit” becomes difficult to track. This does not strike us as being particularly worrying, mostly because the revenue Evidence Action receives from carbon credits just gets spent on the programme, meaning there’s very little difference between a sold carbon credit and an equivalent donation. 

5 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by shaybenmoshe · 2020-07-19T11:34:27.758Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for writing that up!

Do you (or anyone else) have any cost-effectiveness analysis of CO2e emissions averted (even if very rough) for the charities in appendix 2?
I am particularly interested in estimates for the Good Food Institute impact on CO2e emissions.

EDIT: for future reference, there is a related post on the forum - The extreme cost-effectiveness of cell-based meat R&D [EA · GW].

comment by alexrjl · 2020-07-19T11:41:27.950Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

We deliberately didn't perform these because their primary goal is not emissions reduction, so we thought it might be misleading to include. If it helps, I can however tell you that I personally do allocate some of my monthly donations to GFI, but expect (95% confidence) that I would not do so if I felt that animals had no moral value.

comment by shaybenmoshe · 2020-07-19T12:40:12.948Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing your perspective. However, I disagree with the conclusion of not performing these evaluations for that reason (though I think that it might make it harder to analyze and give an accurate answer).

For example, if it turns that GFI is 7 times less effective then CATF, that might mean that GFI is an extremely good donation opportunity for someone who wants to support both animal welfare and climate change mitigation. If it turns out that GFI's impact is 1000 times less effective then CATF, then the impact on climate change is negligible in donating to them.

Knowing the answer to this question could impact many people's donation strategy, especially if they are uncertain about what are the most important causes and prefer a diverse portfolio (like me).

comment by Louis_Dixon (bdixon) · 2020-07-19T15:05:03.571Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I sympathise with your interests, but one reason it might not be useful to do this calculation is that the causal chain of GFI to CO2-equiv GHG emissions is quite long, and so there are more points of uncertainty. This means your potential impact range could be many orders of magnitude wrong, and so making a claim of their impact within 1-2 orders of magnitude might be misleading.

I think that splitting donations across causes and areas is a good idea - philanthropy is morally and empirically uncertain (maybe even clueless), so I'd suggest splitting your donations between CATF and GFI. I've been thinking about EA for years and I'm still uncertain about the most important causes, and a diverse portfolio is my solution.

Alternatively, you could contact the GFI people, but I think even if you got their numbers, you'd end up with a chain of impact that is very long and uncertain.

comment by shaybenmoshe · 2020-07-19T18:09:30.072Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with your main argument, but I think that the current situation is that we have no estimate at all, and this is bad. We literally have no idea if GFI averts 1 ton CO2e at $0.01 or at $1000. I believe having some very rough estimates could be very useful, and not that hard to do.

Also, I completely agree that splitting donations is a very good idea, and I personally do it (and in particular donated to both CATF and GFI in the past).