As mentioned in an earlier blog post, GWWC research is winding up a preliminary investigation into climate change charities. Today, I'll tell you briefly about the search and what we found.

Without time to glance at a large fraction of the range of climate change charities, we chose to immediately focus on organizations which come recommended from others, such as Philanthropedia and Charity Navigator. To check that this was sensible, we also threw a number of 'random' charities into the search. In total, we glanced at around a hundred organisations.

After quick back-of-the-envelope calculations and consideration of some heuristics (Do they focus on a single thing? Do they have an evident interest in cost-effectiveness?), we contacted around thirty organizations. We asked if they had either concrete evidence, or some good reason to suppose that their activities are particularly cost effective. Ten or so responded, most at length.

We spoke more with many of these organisations [1], and investigated their cases in greater depth. One of our interviews will be on the blog soon. We found many complications (some detailed last time). (If you stop an acre of forest being cut in one place, how much will be cut in another place? If you reduce your own emissions, will others in your country just be permitted to emit more later on?). We talked to climate experts, thought, and read. We put together what seemed like the big considerations and counter-considerations for many of the charities into a structured case for their cost effectiveness, several of which you can see below.

The charities

Our most confident recommendation among the climate change charities is currently Cool Earth. We estimate that they can reduce greenhouse emissions by a tonne for around £0.84. For reference, if you buy offsets for a tonne they will cost £5-10. To be competitive with the Against Malaria Foundation on DALYs saved per dollar, an intervention would have to cost around $0.03/tonne on our current estimates[2].

Some of the other charities look clearly less cost effective, however for many it is just hard to make a strong case that they are so cost effective, or we didn't have time to do much of an investigation. Below we will tell you more about several of the interesting charities we looked into.

For many of the charities we provide an estimate of the cost to avert a tonne of greenhouse emissions by donating to them. Some of these estimates are much more considered than others, so it is a bit unfair to compare them directly. In general, the fewer complications have been taken into account, the more optimistic the estimates will be. We also link to structured cases for some of the charities, which outline our reasons for estimating their effectiveness as we do. These are works in progress, intended to be amended as new considerations and counter-arguments come in. If you spot claims you think are false, or arguments you would like to add, you should send them our way.

Cool Earth - £0.84 - Case (pdf)

Cool Earth protects tropical rainforests by helping the people who inhabit them to establish more profitable ventures than selling their trees. This involves working to secure property rights, improving community infrastructure, and connecting the inhabitants of the forests with markets where they can sell their produce at good prices, among other things.

Given the apparently indirect route (via something that looks more like development aid) you might wonder if this can really be an effective way of protecting forests. From another perspective though, if there is a community who already want to preserve the forest but can't afford not to sell it, helping them find an alternative strategy seems potentially high leverage. So far this help seems to be effective: there has been virtually no deforestation in Cool Earth regions, compared with around thirty percent in surrounding areas. We investigated Cool Earth in more depth than most of the other charities, and they were kind enough to answer a lot of questions. We hope to publish an interview with them soon.

The Sierra Club: Beyond Coal >>£0.03

The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal initiative encourages retirement of existing coal power plants, fights proposed new plants, and campaigns for these to be replaced by clean energy. They have had success: many US coal plants have been scheduled for retirement, and new ones are hardly being built. If you attributed all of this to the Sierra Club, the Beyond Coal initiative has the best cost effectiveness numbers of any charity examined in depth, at around £0.03/tonne. However, of course many other things are going on: gas prices have dropped, policy has changed, many other environmental organizations and people have been involved. Naively it seems Beyond Coal will lose more than a factor of thirty in these places, and so probably won't end up much better than Cool Earth. We actually looked into Beyond Coal substantially, but did not resolve big questions to do with estimating the effect of particular charities on large events in the energy industry, and assigning credit when many organizations claim to be involved in an endeavor.

SolarAid <£10 - SolarAidReport Case (pdf)

SolarAid sells small, portable solar lights in rural Africa. These replace widely used kerosene lamps, averting greenhouse emissions, while also relieving people in the developing world from large expenditures on kerosene and health damage caused by indoor smoke, and giving them better access to light after sunset.

Less than £10 for a tonne of greenhouse emissions is still fairly expensive compared to other organizations here, but note that it comes with other benefits. Replacing kerosene with solar frees up large fractions of income once the cost of the solar light is paid off (20% among the poorest group in a survey they conducted, or $70 a year per household), indoor smoke from kerosene causes many health problems, and users claim education benefits from being able to study at night for longer. We haven't calculated the total benefits from these other sources of value, but if these benefits are real it seems plausible that the extra cost is worth it for those interested in improving the developing world.

Vegetarianism promotion ~£5.28

Charities such as the Humane League and Vegan Outreach run campaigns to encourage people to become vegetarian, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions from animal farming (though this is not their main goal). It is often suggested that vegetarianism is a cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions. For instance Ben West at EAA calculates that encouraging others to be vegetarian by cost-effective means can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by equivalent to a tonne of carbon dioxide for £5.28. We didn't investigate this in further detail, because it seemed unlikely to be competitive. The figure used here to convert a person to vegetarianism ($11) seems much more likely to be low than high, yet averting emissions this way looks costly. Promoting vegetarianism may be worthwhile once animal suffering is taken into account, but climate change alone doesn't appear to justify it.

Sandbag £0.009 or £4.50 - Sandbag Report Case (pdf)

Sandbag campaigns to improve the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, and also facilitates the purchase and destruction of permits in the scheme. They were recently involved in negotiations which resulted in the EU Commission proposing to temporarily withdraw 900 million carbon allowances from the scheme, which would prevent the corresponding tonnes of CO2 being emitted. If you give them substantial credit for this turn of events, a back of the envelope calculation suggests they can - at least sometimes - reduce emissions for less than £0.009/tonne. If that fails, they will also help you buy and destroy permits for £4.50 per tonne. We have only had time for a brief glance at Sandbag, so our calculations here are extremely simplistic, but we think Sandbag is worth keeping an eye on.

Read part 1

[1] Several of the organizations who responded looked promising, but unfortunately responded too recently to be considered for this round of results.

[2] This is using an exchange rate of 1600 tonnes of emissions averted to one DALY saved [Broome, Climate Matters], and $2,500 to save a child's life (around 60 DALYs) via AMF [Givewell, Against Malaria Foundation].