Climate philanthropy in India is still very niche – and we need to change that!

October 19, 2021
Niharika Jindal

In early 2020, the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and that has understandably dominated all discourse since. Conversations around climate action also reoriented towards COVID-related issues. In our work over the last few months, we have heard about the urgency of responding to areas of convergence in philanthropy, climate action and COVID response, by supporting a green recovery and just transition, or by building on the unexpected opportunities such as the promise of clear blue skies due to lockdown led reduced pollution.

Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic share a lot of similarities and a few critical differences. Both are crises that cause preventable deaths, create unbearable stress on healthcare systems, disproportionately affect marginalized and vulnerable communities of our society and have devastating impacts at a global scale. However, the consequences of climate change could be potentially far more devastating than COVID-19, and this is where the differences come in. Climate change is expected to impact the entirety of the biosphere, and is liable to be responsible for everything from acidification of the oceans and deforestation, to large scale extinction of species and increasing aridity. But unlike the pandemic, there is no vaccine for climate change. It is highly complex and the solutions and mitigation measures towards it need to be in greater magnitude than we’ve seen before.

So, what can we learn from the pandemic response and apply to the climate change action? Swift and collaborative action.

In the last 16 months, we have seen swift policies by governments, changes in lifestyles by citizens, vaccine developments in less than a year and rapid response from philanthropy. When we compare this to climate change, the pace of action has not kept up with the severity of the challenge. Philanthropy is is no different.

Philanthropy, civil society and climate action

Climate action and ambition in India has rapidly evolved over the last two decades. India’s policy stance changed from focusing on the responsibility of developed economies in the early 2000s to taking a leadership position around climate ambition, especially post the 2015 Paris convention. Today, India is one of the first countries in the world to have a cooling action plan as well as targets for 30 percent electric vehicles and 450 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030.

In line with India’s policy stance, until the early 2000s perhaps less than five Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in India actually worked towards climate action – with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) being the prominent ones. The establishment of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change (PMCCC) in 2008 created a larger role for other actors including CSOs to engage with the government around climate issues*. Philanthropy recognized the importance of India’s role in achieving future climate goals and the opportunity to support Indian government commitments. As a result, the 2009-10 period saw new civil society organizations emerge including Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) and Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation (SSEF), and existing organizations such as Center for Study of Science, Technology & Policy (CSTEP), Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and Prayas take up more climate related issues. The Indian government’s ratification of the 2015 Paris Agreement provided the right opportunity for these CSOs to expand and grow their work.

Since 2015, philanthropy and civil society have focused on complementing government priorities and the current ecosystem of 40-50 climate CSOs has strengthened. The work done by these organizations has supported major policy wins in areas such as renewables, mobility, air quality, energy efficiency, etc., including the launch of the India Cooling Action Plan, National Clean Air Program, BS VI transport emission norms and the International Solar Alliance among others.

Despite this progress, the last 5 years have seen limited emergence of new climate CSOs.

Why has the climate CSO ecosystem not yet grown?

Although the current set of 40-50 strong climate CSOs reflects a positive development from the past, it is very small for a country with the size and complexity of India. Take a deeper look at this evolution and we find that most of this growth has been backed by international philanthropy. Domestic giving has largely stayed away.

Compare this with the thousands of crores of philanthropic capital that goes every year towards supporting CSOs working in areas of health, education and most recently, COVID relief. The support is instrumental in addressing the root causes of issues through building a healthy civil society, promoting innovation, complementing the work of the government, and providing rapid response in times of need. Given the positive impact of domestic philanthropy on critical social development areas, why has funding towards climate change, in particular domestic giving, been so diminutive in nature?

Firstly, there is a perception that climate action is at cross purposes with the government. This is despite the fact that the majority of the CSOs working towards climate action work with the government – by providing research and policy support to national, state and local governments, or enabling implementation of government schemes. This perception is one of the major deterrents for funders to come forward and support CSOs working on climate action.

Secondly, funders still prefer programs with direct and measurable results. Those working in the development space have been experiencing this for years – it is easier to get funds to send a child to school than for a program on the Right to Education Act. COVID, being very tangible, has seen immediate support. In comparison, climate change feels abstract. Funding something like climate action takes a lot more perspective, understanding, tenacity and patience – a path not too many have been willing to take.

Thirdly, there is the challenge of understanding ground realities. India is a large and diverse country. There is significant variation in regional context ranging from demographics and language to access to energy. Currently, the overwhelming majority of climate CSOs in India work with the Union government and its agencies, are based in New Delhi, and focus on policy research and technical assistance. Those funders keen on supporting CSOs to work in underserved geographies, or to other interventions beyond policy often do not know where and/or how to start.

What could be done going forward?

During the course of our work over the last few years, a strategy that we have seen work well for climate funders has been to support areas where climate action has a strong convergence with India’s development needs and government priorities (such as renewables, cooling etc.). Funders have also highlighted the importance of collaboration and knowledge sharing, especially to encourage newer funders, including domestic philanthropy and CSR, to join the field. Other examples of grantmaking strategies that have proved to be effective include incubating new organizations in underserved geographies such as tier II cities and sub sectors such as railways; and encouraging existing on-ground CSOs to start climate focused programs.

There is no denying the need and urgency to grow and expand the climate CSO ecosystem to hundreds of organizations, especially at the state and sub-state level. Philanthropic capital has played a catalytic role in the evolution of climate action in India and will continue to spearhead it in future. The key question that philanthropy needs to address as it charts out its path for the next few years is “How to create – bigger funding opportunities, bigger and stronger CSO actions, bigger collaborations, and biggest climate impact?”



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