Tackling climate change is a job for the whole voluntary sector not just green groups

This post is by Richard Hebditch, director of external affairs at the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF).

 The latest progress report from the Climate Change Committee makes it crystal clear that all sectors and organisations need to be part of the solution to climate change, and that the UK’s net zero target has helped to create the conditions for growing commitments from business and government.

Seven out of ten businesses have made, or are considering, a commitment to net zero. Three quarters of councils have declared a climate emergency. Virtually all party leaders are committed in principle to net zero.

But, in contrast to the public and private sectors, the voluntary sector risks being left behind. While environment and international development NGOs are at the forefront of the climate movement, the rest of the sector has been slow to respond to the need for action.

All voluntary organisations should help their communities cope with climate change
This matters in a number of ways. First, voluntary organisations risk needing to play catch up as the regulatory changes required start to bite. Buildings, transport, waste and diets will all need to change. Adaptation to climate change will also alter the landscape in which they operate.

Second, climate change will affect the communities that charities and community groups serve. So far, climate policy has not affected people’s lives very much. But the Climate Change Committee says that 43 per cent of future emission cuts will require a mix of technology and societal changes, and 16 per cent will come largely from behaviour change. Voluntary organisations should be well placed to help communities – whether of place, identity or interest – to adjust and support them.

Linked to this, civil society should be at the heart of debates about how the transition can be fair and equitable. The UK Climate Assembly, run by Westminster select committees, and the Scotland Climate Assembly are good examples of how to do this and show the part charities and community groups can play in helping to think through the issues.

There are some positive signs. The International Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change has just been launched, mirroring national commitments in France, Spain and the UK (which my organisation ACF hosts), and soon in Italy. The charity chief executives body ACEVO has also released a set of sustainability leadership principles. And NPC are kicking off new work to explore what it will take for the UK’s social sector to play its role in the transition to net zero by 2030.

Climate change is not a risk in Charity Commission guidance
So what next? There’s a need to help voluntary organisations understand the risks to their missions and their operations from climate change. Climate change is not mentioned as a risk in the ten year old guidance on risk from the Charity Commission. Trustees may not get why climate change matters and be more focused on the short term, particularly after the pandemic. But runaway climate change threatens the stability of the social and economic structures in which charities and community groups operate. And even the process of getting to net zero will involve major changes, posing risks to charities’ operations.

Showcasing those charities which recognise the risks to their mission and operations from climate change will help, and ACF is looking to work with other umbrella bodies on spreading awareness of the risks and providing a framework to discuss climate change with trustees. For our members who are charitable foundations, we’ve also just launched a resource pack with the Environment Funders Network. We also want to do more to overcome the perception that trustees are a block to climate ambitions.

A future public engagement strategy from the government (which the Climate Change Committee’s recent progress report has called for) needs to work with charities and community groups. Part of this is about considering how the costs and benefits of tackling climate change should be shared across society. But it is also important to make the thinking visible, and to understand how climate change will affect different communities if it is not tackled. Although there is wide support for action on climate, it has not yet impacted significantly on the lives of individuals or communities.

Funders have a role to play
Finally, there is a discussion to be had about the role funders can play. It’s estimated that only two per cent of global philanthropy is spent tackling the climate crisis. Across Europe, environmental funding is not focused on those sectors where progress is most needed. And, in the UK, more needs to be done to help charities and community groups start the journey to net zero.

The scale of the threat, and of the solutions needed, means that this is an issue for all parts of civil society. Climate change is a health, equality, educational, economic, cultural, scientific, security and local community issue, not just an environmental issue. Businesses and the government are increasingly taking a lead. There is a special responsibility on charities, who exist for public benefit, to speak up on climate change and rise to this challenge ahead of the Glasgow climate summit later this year.

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