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Jeff Prins

18 January 2008
Jeff Prins

DOEN Foundation, Stichting DOEN, is a Netherlands-based philanthropic organisation, which was established by the Dutch Postcode Lottery in 1991. DOEN Foundation works towards the achievement of a liveable world in which everyone has a place. The °Climate Group speaks with Jeff Prins, Programme Manager of DOEN Foundation's Climate & Energy, Nature & Environment Programme about the role of philanthropy and investment in combating climate change...

How long has DOEN Foundation been funding climate change-related projects?

Ever since DOEN Foundation started about 17 years ago there has been a focus on the environment and in 2005 we set up a specific climate change investment programme.

Why did DOEN initially start funding climate change projects?

One primary reason was because the scientific consensus around the existence and impacts of climate change has illustrated it is a real, serious problem. Another reason was because internationally, political backing was growing and governments started to acknowledge that climate change is the most serious environmental problem facing humanity. If you receive these signals and you are serious about funding then you really have to do something. So we started off with small projects, in the Netherlands for example, we invested in car sharing and car pooling projects.

Clearly whilst climate change is an issue that governments should tackle internationally - through agreements and regulations; through putting a price or ceiling on carbon emissions; or through pushing certain technological solutions - other players in society also have a role. It's good for business or NGOs to have consumers or concerned citizens pushing for action as the issue then gets addressed from different sides. We can't wait for governments and politicians to decide on something, we need to take a practical approach and show that through concrete examples and supporting the right organisations, solutions are possible and effective.

What about The °Climate Group caught your interest?

The °Climate Group interested us because of its innovative approach by working in partnership with governments and corporations.

Traditionally, corporations were expressing the need for a market; a way to pay back their investments in addressing climate change, but needed impetus from governments to establish the market for them. This wasn't happening - scientific consensus was going slow and there was no sense of urgency amongst governments on the issue, despite WMO stating in 1979 that there were signs of climate change being a serious issue. With the 1st IPCC assessment report, the real movers on the issue started waking up to the urgency of the problem. But the international political community were still slow to move and real leadership came from the business arena and cities.

Because The °Climate Group were hands-on and leadership focused, with the message that even though it seems like nothing is being done, we can show that there is a lot of movement from big corporations and cities showing leadership. The ability to make use of the momentum of the right people in the right places, is what caught our eye about The °Climate Group, this and the idea that leadership can really change the story on how climate change is being tackled.

What changes in the climate change arena have you witnessed as a result of your donations?

We funded the launch of The °Climate Group, together with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 2004, an example of when we started getting serious about climate change. It was the investigative work of Michael Northrop from RBF that encouraged us to get involved, with his leadership in the face of a stagnating debate on the issue in the US. He said we need to do something and had the vision to get a European Foundation like DOEN on board.

And in terms of other gifts?

In concrete terms we aim to finance 5-10 projects each year which will produce tangible emissions reductions of approximately 100,000 metric tonnes {CO2} each year, once the projects have been established. We are allowing time for up-scaling, obviously, so once a project is up and running with our financing, we expect it to create this level of reduction.

I guess since Al Gore came along and has since won the Nobel Prize for his work on communicating climate change, my work has been made easier. I no longer have to explain that climate change is real and what the consequences are; its just a given now and there is such a sense of urgency - more like impatience that things aren't progressing fast enough, which is very encouraging to see.

What do you see as the role of the philanthropic community in addressing climate change?

The role of funders like DOEN Foundation is to really think strategically about issues and promote partnerships which see NGOs work together with businesses in a new way. Businesses are good at what they do, crudely put, 'making money', and NGOs are good at getting people engaged in certain societal issues. By bringing them together, you can create a platform for action that not only creates change, but is also likely to be financially sustainable in the long term.

For example, the Clinton Climate Initiative is interesting because they are working through a clear model - that is that a lot of energy is used by cities - 75% of global energy is used in urban areas. So if you get these cities together, pushing for the procurement of clean energy technologies, you stand a better chance of creating a stable market. If businesses know there's a market for what they are selling and making and they get on board, then you get this interesting strategic alliance. And a foundation like DOEN has a key role to play in financing the establishment of such alliances. Having NGOs like The °Climate Group and the Clinton Foundation stimulating partnerships between business and cities that wouldn't otherwise happen is significant.

DOEN has recently invested funds in a company which produces a new generation of LED lamps. We could potentially put this company in contact with an organisation like the Clinton Foundation in order to partner innovation with a societal push to address the issue, which is good for both parties - this is a clear example of the role we can play.

How important do you think investment in climate change solutions is going to be to addressing the problem and what challenges do you think we face?

It's going to be extremely important because the best way to go about tackling climate change is to invent or create solutions whereby {CO2} is not being emitted. Instead of 'cleaning up emissions' using end-of-pipe solutions, we need to change the structure of the problem and this is the investment challenge in the near future.

Climate change is an economic problem, so in changing the economics of it, there are going to be winners and losers, but we need to focus on the winners and what they mean in terms of changing the structure. The global economy runs on oil, so the ultimate goal is investment to get away from that basis. This means that more attention needs to be given to home owners being able to generate their own energy, for example. Decentralised energy - solar, wind or natural gas - is a clean way to produce electricity and warmth. It gets people away from the inefficiencies of centrally-produced energy, creates a new structure and new businesses to provide for this structure. You have to focus on getting away from the oil-based economy and move towards a new system that's based more/completely on how things are used from beginning to end.

Do you think that investment in climate change should be focused towards climate change mitigation, adaptation or both?

At DOEN we are investing very little, if nothing, in adaptation. That climate change is going to happen is a given, how serious its going to be we don't know, so in the short term at least, this is our perspective. Adaptation, particularly in developing countries where the consequences of climate change are likely to be worse, is definitely something that needs to be addressed. But as a foundation, you can't fund everything. In terms of our responsibility, we have given to a development aid organisation, which has knowledge and expertise in this area and has done a lot in terms of creating new water sources, offering flood protection and investing in reforestation. So we have contributed to adaptation, but it isn't our main focus.

Do you think we are likely to see an increase in philanthropic giving towards climate change solutions?

Yes I think so, although I can only speak for the Netherlands. In the past two years there has been a big push from private funders to invest a lot in climate change and I think this is generally the case in other countries too. I am not an expert on what the private funding community are doing internationally but my impression is that there will be increased investment in climate change. It is considered the mother of all problems; other environmental issues pale in comparison.

What are DOEN's future plans related to climate change?

Obviously we have to position ourselves in the bigger scheme of things. Whereas oil companies make billions of dollars in their business, we have a fund of say $2-3 million specifically for climate change, so we are relatively humbled in the role we have. That said our main goal is to support a lot of innovative ideas with our small financial injections.

For example, today I visited a sewage plant which has dumped a million cubic metres of methane into the air over the last 4-5 years. A company we are supporting is taking this methane and using it to fuel taxi cabs. We will continue to fund these kind of innovations, picking up on those that take a hands-on, practical approach. We will look for projects that are relatively straightforward and could be replicated. Our role is to give out these pin pricks, by financing really innovative, new, not very financially expensive projects and companies, helping organisations to set the example, be the first to try something new. And then the challenge for us is to upscale these kinds of schemes. We have set a lot of initiatives in motion, the next step for us is to consolidate.

We also want to find out-of-the-box solutions. Architects such as William McDonough, with his concept of cradle-to-cradle, for example, where you're not financing end-of-pipe solutions but changing things structurally. Thinking about how things are made and not polluting in the process, so you don't have to clean up afterwards. These concepts are very interesting and present some exciting new ideas for DOEN.

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