Climate Change: How charities can help

7 Feb 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 7 Feb 2020

Climate change is not just the greatest threat we collectively face. It is an existential threat. Combating it is a task for all of us: every government, every organisation, and every individual. 


So how can the  voluntary sector rise to the challenge?

There are two main areas to examine: what each charity can do to reduce its carbon footprint; and, in the case of larger organisations, with substantial reserves, how they manage their investments.

These issues cannot be fudged, or ducked for the very same reason that the public and private sectors are having to grapple with them. As public concern mounts about the climate emergency no organisation, however virtuous in other respects, can afford to be profligate with natural resources.

Charities tend to be very effective at lobbying – telling others how to up their game. But every now and then it does no harm for those of us within the sector to ask our organisations searching questions about our own performance.

Here are a few to start with:

  • Does your charity have an environmental policy?
  • What is its current carbon footprint?
  • What measures does it have in place to eliminate unnecessary travel, energy use and waste?
  • Do its suppliers follow environmentally sound practices?

Some will have answers to this, most notably in the environmental sector. Most don’t.

Yet if they were to take action it would be a major contribution to the collective effort to reduce our carbon footprint. According to NICVA’s State of the Sector the voluntary sector employs 54,000 people supported by 241,000 volunteers across more than 6,000 organisations in Northern Ireland.  These are sufficient numbers to make a considerable difference.

Back in 2012, a time when concern over climate change was mounting, but before it reached its current levels, the Carbon Trust got together with the Guardian Newspaper to survey how the three sectors were gearing up to reduce carbon emissions.

It found 58% of public sector agencies planned to make "tangible investments" in carbon reduction during that year. The percentage dropped to less than a half for businesses (46.4%) and a third for the voluntary sector (33%).

And of charity employees only 26% said their organisation had clear carbon reduction targets a figure which dropped to 18% when they were asked if their employers incentivised them to reduce their own carbon footprints.

Then, as now, austerity was having a devastating impact on the Third Sector, so for many charities the main priority was survival.

Since then awareness has grown and most of us understand the imperative for change. 

So what can charities do?

A good place to start is Fit for the Future – a UK wide network of 102 organisation, mainly voluntary and public sector whose members get together to share best environmental practice and produce simple guides to help others produce their own environmental strategies. There is advice on how to get buy-in from staff and some fascinating case studies.

There’s also plenty to get the accountants drooling as well – with statistics on how much some of the organisations have saved as a result of reducing their carbon emissions. For example the National Trust has saved enough on its gas bills to provide 7,105 miles of coastal trails, one small council in England, the equivalent to provide 63 charging points for employees’ electric cars and Manchester Museum enough to pay for the conservation of eight Egyptian mummies. Saving energy saves money which means more for charitable purposes.

In terms of what an environmental policy looks like, you can’t do much better than  the WWF, the leading conservation society.

It not only has a robust environmental policy but produces annual reports on progress against its targets.

The WWF promotes sustainable commuting by providing cycling facilities, loans for rail and bus season tickets and a platform for finding people to car share with. It refuses to have free car parking at any of its sites.

Because it is an international charity flights are inevitable. However it has a strict carbon budget and only essential flights are permitted. Requests are challenged and teleconferencing is used whenever practicable.

It has reduced the use of paper to a minimum and only uses renewable energy which it is continuously driving down. Even catering at events is targeted, with only sustainable healthy food served.

 The WWF has recently moved to a state of the art environmentally efficient sound building with solar panels and uses grey water to flush its toilets. This kind of investment is way beyond the budget of most charities in Northern Ireland but you don’t need a fancy building to make a difference.

Installing energy efficient lights would be a good start as would switching off all devices at weekends, instead of leaving them on standby.

In Northern Ireland NICVA is also keen to walk the talk. It is currently carrying out a baseline review on its energy use, food consumption, transportation, recycling in order to develop its own environmental policies. It will use its findings to help and encourage the sector to make progress.

One initiative it will shortly pilot will be to become a drop-off centre for those notoriously hard to cycle products, crisp packets.

An issue for local charities is not an unwillingness to act, so much as a lack of information as to how to go about it. Hopefully NICVA’s initiative will help in that respect.

Action is also required on where larger charities choose to invest their reserves.

Last year the National Trust was enmeshed in controversy when The Guardian newspaper revealed that it had more than £30m of investments in oil, gas and mining companies, including BP and Shell, held indirectly via a portfolio fund. Some of these companies are involved in fracking which the Trust opposes.

In July of last year the National Trust announced that it was to divest all its investments in fossil fuels over a three year period.

This was a straightforward case: the Trust is dedicated to “nursing the environment back to health” and such investments do not look consistent with its charitable purpose.

Another organisation enmeshed in controversy over its investments is the Church of England, whose £8.3 billion portfolio which earned a 17.1% return on investment in 2017 – making it the most successful fund in the world.

In the past it has invested in Wonga, the Murdoch empire and arms companies. Two years ago it was  criticised for having large investments in Amazon at the very time that the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was upbraiding that company for not paying sufficient tax.

This is very much a live issue for the church which does have an ethical investment policy and takes a stand on issues like climate change, diversity and executive pay. The Church of England’s portfolio perfectly illustrates the uneasy relationship between God and Mammon.

Under charity law it is absolutely in order for organisations to divest from companies whose activities undermine their charitable purpose. It would be ludicrous for example for a health charity to be expected to invest in the tobacco industry. And equally for environmental charities to invest in fossil fuels.

But what about charities in general. The Northern Ireland Charity Commission says it does not have guidance on the issue of responsible investments by charities at present. But its equivalent for England and Wales does.

Here is its advice: “Can a charity decide to make ethical investments? The short answer Yes. Trustees of any charity can decide to invest ethically, even if the investment might provide a lower rate of return than an alternative investment. Ethical investment means investing in a way that reflects a charity’s values and ethos and does not run counter to its aims.

"However, a charity’s trustees must be able to justify why it is in the charity’s best interests to invest in this way. The law permits the following reasons: a particular investment conflicts with the aims of the charity;  the charity might lose supporters or beneficiaries if it does not invest ethically; there is no significant financial detriment."

In March last year a coalition of charities in England which include the RSPB and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust asked the Charity Tribunal to go a step further. They want to make it a legal duty for charity trustees to ensure their investments support their charitable aims and their duty to provide public benefit. As part of this they are asking for specific guidance on whether charities should be allowed to invest in companies that contribute to climate change at all.

The Charity Commission in Northern Ireland is monitoring the situation in England. It said: “We are keeping a close eye on the conversations in England at the moment around this issue. We also look forward to seeing the results of the Charity Commission for England and Wales’ current consultation into how charities approach investing in line with their duties and charitable purposes.”




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