Climate philanthropy is at a critical inflection point in the challenge to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Achieving this goal will require a peak in carbon emissions by 2020, a steady and steep decline through 2050, and close to net-zero emissions after mid-century. In order to do this, we need to have a much better understanding of what the world will look like between now and 2050. With this in mind, ClimateWorks Foundation has begun to look through what we’re calling a 2050 lens, to help shape the priorities of global climate philanthropy.

Exploring Alternative Futures

To expand our understanding of the factors impacting climate philanthropy’s work from now to 2050, ClimateWorks has embarked on a process to explore the various economic, social, and political factors not easily captured by traditional climate models as well as to examine the impact of these factors on climate philanthropy’s existing strategies and investment portfolios. Through this process, we identified a range of potentially important trends that will have profound effects on the future state of the climate and climate change mitigation efforts. They include:

  • An increasingly multipolar and protectionist world order
  • Rising income inequality, with lack of civic engagement a key driver
  • Advanced robotics technology and artificial intelligence (with effects on jobs) as well as advances in how we store and share data (with potential effects on participatory democracy)
  • Increasing threats to critical energy, transportation, and data-storage infrastructure from cyberattacks or climate system disruption.

Exploring Strategies to Tackle Basic Emissions Drivers

In the face of these challenges, climate philanthropy must consider fundamental drivers of projected emissions growth beyond core focus areas like energy and land use.

Some experts have begun to do so and have suggested that emissions reduction solutions may come from unlikely places. A recent study published in Nature Climate Change shows that most models overlook the climate benefits of sustainable lifestyles. The study suggests that we could dramatically reduce carbon emissions and achieve a wide variety of additional sustainability goals while also decreasing the scale of carbon removal required in the latter half of the century.

These new scenarios developed by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) explore how a greater focus on lifestyle change, along with increased use of renewable energy and a significant decrease in methane emissions, can reduce the need for negative-emissions strategies and allow the world to reach other UN sustainability goals, such as those related to natural resources, the global food supply, and health. Other modeling scenarios suggest that we will simply be unable to achieve pathways consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the more ambitious of the Paris Agreement temperature goals, if the problem of social inequality is not addressed.

To reach necessary levels of decarbonization by 2050, climate philanthropy will need to better understand the value of these alternative carbon mitigation strategies, and will need to integrate them into our investment portfolios.

Connecting Climate Strategies with Major Emerging Trends

In the next decade, climate philanthropy must connect climate mitigation strategies with social and political developments and trends to facilitate a just transition to a low-carbon economy.

We need to pay special attention to the effects of decarbonization on vulnerable workers and communities, including on women and girls. Philanthropic strategies must address shifts in sources of economic opportunity and the implications of rising income inequality as well as find ways to ensure that people in emerging economies have the right to prosper while limiting future global greenhouse gas emissions. These strategies must consider how the deployment of anticipated technologies like automation and artificial intelligence can be targeted to benefit, rather than harm, people and the planet.

Connecting Climate Change Mitigation Goals with Benefits across Multiple Sectors

Climate philanthropy must embed the multiple multi-sectoral social and economic benefits of climate change mitigation more deeply in our strategies and communications.

For example, some of these beyond-climate benefits will reinforce the widespread, clean energy-driven electrification needed to achieve deep decarbonization by 2050. In addition to emissions savings, an increase in end-use electrification will stabilize the grid and make demand much more flexible, easing the transition to a completely renewable system. It will also save consumers money and make affordable energy available to more people as well as offer significant health benefits through cleaner air and water as fossil fuel energy declines.

Like reducing grid-related emissions, reducing emissions from food and agriculture will have many benefits, including better health from diets less focused on red meat as well as healthier forests, which are indispensable for clean air, clean water, and carbon reduction. These benefits hinge on doing a much better job of protecting, managing, and restoring lands—both forested and agricultural—while addressing the challenge of food waste and beef consumption.

Further Questions for Climate Philanthropy

Evaluating near-term philanthropic priorities to meet 2050 climate goals raises several key questions:

  • How should climate philanthropists evaluate and determine the scale and scope of operating in areas outside of energy and land use?
  • How can philanthropic strategies focused on consumer behavior patterns best complement and amplify strategies focused on policy advocacy?
  • How might income inequality, both within and between countries, constrain future climate action?
  • How can we better connect climate mitigation outcomes with the other benefits they provide, particularly as they relate to the Sustainable Development Goals?

We welcome the engagement of our partners as we continue to explore how emerging economic, social, and political trends will shape our 2050 climate strategies.