Re-Launching Giving Green: an EA-run organization directing dollars towards impactful work in climate change

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).

Mis­sion

Most pro­jects within the cli­mate change space are not backed by rigor­ous ev­i­dence.[1] 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.[2]

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

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[3], 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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)?

  3. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Similar Or­ga­ni­za­tions

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.


[1] 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[1]) 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Ex­am­ples in­clude UN’s Clean Devel­op­ment Mechanism, Verra, Gold Stan­dard, and the Amer­i­can Car­bon Registry.