Vipavlenkoff/shutterstock
Vipavlenkoff/shutterstock

Five years ago, Larry Kramer heard the White House was looking for some help from philanthropy.

A team there was hoping foundations could put together at least $30 million to help implement the Kigali Amendment, the landmark international agreement signed that year on ending the use of hydrofluorocarbons. So Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, hopped on the phone. Two weeks later, he had helped raise $53 million.

Last month, the White House called Kramer with a new request.

A team of many of the same people, now working in the Biden administration, wanted to put together a similar fund to support a major new agreement, the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030.

“I was like, well, it’s worth a try,” Kramer told me. Hewlett had limited experience on methane, but on his second phone call, Kramer found that the High Tide Foundation was already working with a few other funders dedicated to reducing such emissions to create a methane hub for philanthropy. He suggested merging the two efforts.

The result is a first-of-its-kind alliance of more than 20 philanthropies, including several of the world’s biggest green funders. They have committed more than $223 million in new funding over the next three years to reduce methane emissions around the world. And unlike the Kigali fund, which took roughly six months to finalize, this came together in barely a month. The partners are listed at the end of this article—and include many that are new to supporting methane reductions.

“It’s the best example that I can think of in my 10 years in philanthropy of a bunch of funders with different processes and priorities and ways of doing this coming together really quickly to agree on a way to address a major problem,” Kramer said. “It’s actually almost miraculous.”

The aim is to move the needle on one of the biggest drivers of planetary warming. Methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. At least 25% of warming today is caused by methane produced by human activity, such as emissions from the oil and gas industry, according to the International Energy Forum. Methane also breaks down rapidly, with an average lifetime of about a decade, while carbon dioxide can remain for hundreds or thousands of years. Curbing methane emissions would therefore provide a more immediate cooling effect as the world transitions from fossil fuels.

“Reducing methane is the single fastest action we can take to keep a 1.5-degree-Celsius future within reach,” said U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry in the press release announcing the alliance.

What the alliance will support

Unlike hydrofluorocarbons, the use of which is largely limited to air conditioners and refrigerators, methane emissions come from a wide range of sources. The three leading human-driven sources are the oil and gas industry, livestock and landfills. Thus, curbing methane use will take a much wider range of philanthropic investments than the campaign to eliminate the use of hydrofluorocarbons.

Those interventions might include supporting the drafting of standards to prevent methane leakage from natural gas extraction or regulations to limit the burning of agricultural waste, Kramer said. The group may also back efforts to measure and monitor methane emissions around the globe, an area that has seen new investment recently.

Advocacy will also be necessary to build support for the Global Methane Pledge. “Government is going to take the pledge, but they will face severe opposition from industry,” Kramer said.

It’s worth noting here that Kramer, who said Hewlett has lost much of its climate expertise due to “half my team going to the Biden administration,” stressed that he does not talk policy with any of his former colleagues. More than two dozen former foundation staffers have been appointed to the Biden administration, including at least three from Hewlett, with many of the appointees working on energy and the environment. But Kramer said contacts about the fund came from other staffers in the administration.

Philanthropic underinvestment

A few of the alliance partners have long funded work to reduce methane emissions. Kramer highlighted High Tide as a leading methane reduction funder, along with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and Sequoia Climate Fund. Others have also had roles. Dating back to 2014, the MacArthur Foundation has given multi-million-dollar grants to Earthworks and the Environmental Defense Fund for such projects. Curbing methane leaks is also a key plank of the Pisces Foundation’s climate and energy strategy.

But for the most part, funding has been limited, including from many of the alliance partners. ClimateWorks Foundation’s grants database shows that until last year, foundations have spent about $20 million a year on methane reductions, according to Kramer. “Which is nothing,” he said. “Over the last 10 years of philanthropy, it’s gotten very little attention.”

Hewlett, which was the world’s largest climate funder until the creation of the Bezos Earth Fund, spent only about $10 million on methane reductions over the past five years, a tiny share of its nearly $160 million annual environmental programs budget. Though related grants date to at least 2008, relatively little of that spending was explicitly focused on the greenhouse gas. “We’ve never had a methane strategy,” Kramer told me.

Rising attention

There are signs of a shift underway, even beyond the alliance. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ initial grants from his new fund included $100 million to the World Resources Institute, part of which will go toward software that can use satellite data to track emissions impacts of land-use changes, such as planting new forests. Another $100 million grant went to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to help with the launch of MethaneSAT, a satellite that aims to provide public data on methane emissions around the world.

This week, Bloomberg Philanthropies added to the burst of new money, committing $25 million to a similar effort, the Carbon Mapper Accelerator program, working to accelerate the deployment of sensory technology needed to measure methane and carbon dioxide emissions around the globe.

Bloomberg has traditionally focused on ending the use of coal, but has put more emphasis on methane since expanding its Beyond Coal campaign into Beyond Carbon in 2019, said Ailun Yang, who leads international initiatives for Bloomberg’s climate and environment program. That includes providing several seed grants to Planet, one of the Carbon Mapper Accelerator’s partners. Bloomberg Philanthropies is also a member of the new alliance, but has not disclosed how much it is contributing.

Bloomberg and the EDF are working closely together on the accelerator program, with the scientists in constant contact, Yang said. (Bloomberg also funds EDF.) She said the multiple projects ensure philanthropy does not put “all the eggs in one basket.” But she cautioned against a perception that the space is crowded.

“For us to be really able to monitor methane emissions from outer space, we actually need a whole constellation of satellites,” Yang said. “If all of these experiments work, we’d have a maximum of only three, which is not enough. So we need more.”

Besides Bloomberg, several other members of the alliance are also supporting Carbon Mapper, including the High Tide Foundation, the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment and the Zegar Family Foundation.

How does natural gas fit in?

Natural gas—the production of which is a leading cause of methane emissions—has long been a flashpoint in the environmental movement. Some view it as a necessary tool in the energy transition. Others say its use should be curtailed as rapidly as oil, a stance even the often pro-industry International Energy Agency has said is necessary to reach net zero. Philanthropy, too, has been split by that debate, with many funders once supporting fossil fuel.

Mike Bloomberg, for instance, previously embraced natural gas as a “bridge fuel.” Jorgen Thomsen, director of MacArthur’s climate solutions program, has also cited its importance in the past. “When you look at the energy mix and the transformation that is happening right now toward renewables over the next coming decades, it’s very clear that natural gas is a very important part of the energy mix in this country,” he told IP in 2015, shortly after joining the foundation.

This alliance does not mark a new consensus on the topic of natural gas, but rather an agreement that immediate methane reductions are imperative, Kramer told me.

“There are very different views on gas. Some of the funders absolutely are anti-gas. Some of the funders actually probably still do believe in the bridge fuel notion. Some of the funders don’t have particularly strong views one way or the other,” Kramer said. “The idea was that whatever your view on gas, we definitely need to reduce methane emissions.”

Not enough, but a first step

The alliance is still fundraising, with the goal of hitting $300 million over the next three years. That’s down from an initial dream of raising $1 billion over five years. Kramer said the idea is to reach the lower goal and prove the concept over the next three years, even though he believes “that will still not be enough to do all that work that needs to be done.”

But the speed with which the alliance came together gives him some hope, particularly given that it involved not only so many distinct foundations, but also government.

“If we could bottle that and use it in other places, we’ll do amazing things,” he said.

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Alliance Members

  • William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
  • Bloomberg Philanthropies
  • Breakthrough Energy
  • Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF)
  • Erol Foundation
  • Grantham Foundation
  • High Tide Foundation
  • IKEA Foundation
  • MacArthur Foundation
  • McCall MacBain Foundation
  • Montpelier and Hampshire Foundations
  • Oak Foundation
  • The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
  • Pisces Foundation
  • Quadrature Climate Foundation
  • Sea Change Foundation International
  • Sequoia Climate Fund
  • Skoll Foundation
  • Sobrato Philanthropies
  • Zegar Family Foundation

There is also a “small number” of anonymous funders.

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