New Tack on Climate Change by Nonprofits and Foundations
On hot days, the children at a religious after-school on Bangka Island off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia have a hard time concentrating. They clamor for more fans and dream of air conditioning. The teachers often use fans day and night to cool the small homes the school provides.
Temperatures on the tropical island are often in the 90s with very high humidity -- and more than a dozen children at a time squeeze into the small classrooms. The school can’t afford air conditioning and even running fans adds to the electric bill says
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Temperatures on the tropical island are often in the 90s with very high humidity — and more than a dozen children at a time squeeze into the small classrooms. The school can’t afford air conditioning, and running fans adds to the electric bill, says Romadan, founder of the Daarul Hanasah school. (Like many Indonesians, Romadan has only one name.)
Last year, the school received several barrels of specially formulated, reflective white paint. It painted the asbestos roofs of two classroom buildings and two of its teachers’ homes. After painting the roofs, peak temperatures inside were about 5 degrees cooler than the buildings left unpainted. The children are happier and so are the teachers.
“It used to be so hot in the teachers’ houses that fans are needed all day long. Now they don’t need it in the evening. So that means there is less energy use,” Romadan says. “I am happy that we can give them one more smile on their faces.”
This roof-painting project is part of the Clean Cooling Collaborative, a worldwide program to help cool down buildings using less energy. It is managed by, and funded in part by, the ClimateWorks Foundation, a 14-year-old effort to address climate change that has given out $1.3 billion dollars and has been among the most influential groups in determining how donors give to the cause.
The cooling collaborative also helps governments develop rules requiring the sale of energy-efficient air conditioners and refrigerators that use environmentally friendly coolant. That will be increasingly important as temperatures around the globe continue to rise and more people earn enough money to purchase air conditioners and refrigerators.
“Populations are booming. There is intense, increased urbanization. There’s rising incomes, and obviously there’s rising temperatures,” says Jessica Brown, director of special projects at ClimateWorks. “As a result of all of the different ingredients getting mixed together, the demand for cooling is booming.”
Today keeping homes, businesses, and other buildings cool is responsible for at least 7 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions. Without change, Brown says, emissions from cooling could more than double over the next 30 years.
ClimateWorks and the collaborative made a $250,000 grant to the Global Cool Cities Alliance, a Washington nonprofit that, along with several other groups and supporters, created the Million Cool Roofs Challenge. In just two years, 10.7 million square feet of roof surface in countries around the world have been painted with reflective coating.
Teams in 10 countries — several in Africa as well as Mexico, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Indonesia — received $125,000 each to paint roofs in their countries. The team that best meets the 10 or so judging criteria — including community engagement, cooling, monitoring, and financial stability — wins a $750,000 grant to expand its work. The paint for the school’s roof was provided by the Indonesian team, which is directed by a university professor. It has painted the roofs of 70 buildings — including schools, low-cost housing, factories, and government offices. It was recently picked as the winner of the challenge.
Funding such a roof-painting program is a shift for ClimateWorks, which has historically supported efforts to change government policy and industry practices as a way to bring down emissions. In recent years the group has become more interested in helping people adapt to climate change, and it has faced pressure from climate-justice groups that want to see ClimateWorks fund more of their projects that are informed by the experiences and knowledge of the people most impacted by pollution and climate change. The cool-roofs program is about both adapting to climate change and curbing it, and more about people than policies.
The roof program has the potential to help many people live healthier and better lives, says Kurt Shickman, former executive director of Global Cool Cities Alliance, which started and manages the cool-roof effort. If indoor temperatures can be kept down, fewer air conditioners and fans will be used. People also are less likely to suffer heat-related health problems or to die during heat waves. A dark-colored roof absorbs heat and then radiates it, adding to higher local outside temperatures, whereas reflective surfaces bounce heat back into the atmosphere.
Switching from a 1,000-square-foot dark roof to a reflective one cancels the warming effect of 10 tons of carbon dioxide, Shickman said before leaving the group. It also requires about 20 percent less energy to cool a building with a reflective roof, he says.
Flexible When It Counts
A group of grant makers including ClimateWorks pledged $50 million in 2016 to create the Clean Cooling Collaborative. It is a good fit with the group’s history of policy-oriented work. It was initially helping to implement a 2016 United Nations agreement to phase down the manufacture and use of hydrofluorocarbons — greenhouse gases that are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide, and are used in air conditioners and refrigerators.
The agreement also included language about increasing the energy efficiency of these appliances but did not provide a schedule for change or funding. The collaborative decided that it could make an impact by funding efforts to create minimum standards for more efficient cooling appliances in countries across the globe. It has distributed $50 million to more than 50 groups as part of this effort.
ClimateWorks and the collaborative’s grantees work with governments to propose, adopt, and implement standards and help manufacturers adapt their products to use less energy. It also creates programs to label appliances based on their energy use. Success would be easy to track and quantify. Indeed, the group worked with the International Energy Agency to determine that the national rules will reduce greenhouse-gas emission by 4.2 gigatons by 2050. (A gigaton is 1 billion tons. or the weight of about 2,740 Empire State Buildings.)
With rising incomes and increasing temperatures, global demand for cooling is booming.
At first, Shickman of the Cool Cities Alliance wasn’t sure this small experimental roof-painting program would be a good fit for a grant from ClimateWorks, given its emphasis on policies and quantifiable metrics. Programs like his — small-scale projects spread out across the globe that adapt to local conditions — can be messy. Progress varies between, and even within, countries. Quick reporting of metrics is often not possible. Patience and flexibility are paramount. These were not qualities he associated with ClimateWorks.
“I thought we were throwing a Hail Mary even pitching this because I knew we weren’t going to be able to say, ‘We’ve saved exactly this amount of carbon dioxide emissions.’” says Shickman. “My perception of ClimateWorks was not my experience in the slightest.” He says ClimateWorks has been flexible, helped him make important contacts, and has been understanding of hiccups.
ClimateWorks is increasingly interested in supporting projects that both help to curb carbon dioxide emissions and help people adapt to a changing climate in a way that is equitable. And it’s OK if results can’t be quickly quantified or if they vary from place to place. “That’s going to be messy, partially because it’s experimental,” says ClimateWorks’s Brown. “One of the key areas for philanthropy to play in is in that experimental space.”
Things have been messy for Beta Paramita, an architecture professor at the Universitas Pendidikan near Jakarta who runs the program in Indonesia that won the Million Cool Roofs Challenge. Nothing is simple, and despite Paramita’s many accomplishments — Shickman calls her a “rock star” — the work can be so challenging that sometimes she’s not sure if she’s cut out for it.
When Paramita started this work, she quickly found that the existing reflective paints in Indonesia were far too expensive at $3 per square meter including labor. An expert in the United States helped arrange for her to get dry ingredients and advised her on formulating her own paint. She rents a friend’s workshop where she and her students mix the paint themselves. Laborers paint the roofs. Her product after labor costs about $1.40 per square meter.
White roofs are uncommon in much of Indonesia, so some home and business owners were resistant, even when costs came down. In Jakarta, the air is so humid and polluted that the white paint quickly turns gray and loses its reflective quality. The paint is very effective on metal roofs found in some parts of Indonesia, but it makes little impact on homes with clay tile roofing, which is common around Jakarta. Shipping the paint to Indonesia’s thousands of far-flung islands is complex and costly.
Nonetheless, there have been successes. After painting its roof, one factory saw its indoor temperature drop from 104 to 84 degrees at the hottest time of day. Schools have been open to the project — Paramita’s team has painted 10 of them — and the paint is being required on a pilot project for low-income housing, something that could vastly expand its reach. There are clear benefits in many places, and paint could likely be reformulated to be effective on different surfaces, like clay tile, and even when coated with pollutants.
But long-term challenges loom. Paramita says she is at a point where she plans to expand the project but is worried about competing directly with a local company that produces a similar, more expensive paint. She is not sure she wants to run a business or how she can balance this project with her other responsibilities at the university.
“I’m a researcher, I’m not a businesswoman,” Paramita says. “It’s quite exhausting.”
Shickman knew that even something as seemingly simple as painting roofs would be time-consuming and complicated when it is spread across 10 very different countries.
“There isn’t this wonderful formula that if we just did it this way, it would go everywhere,” he says. “You’ve got to meet people where they are and understand what their challenges are and try to help where you can.”
Still Getting Off the Ground
Historically, ClimateWorks has been part of philanthropy’s penchant for clear metrics. It is important to quantify progress to help determine if its programs are going to help keep countries on pace for emissions reductions required to keep temperature from increasing more than 1.5 degree Celsius. To do so, countries will have to go from 36 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2021 to net-zero by about 2050 — removing as much carbon dioxide as is put into the atmosphere so they are not technically adding any new emissions.
The ClimateWorks 2017-21 report for its cooling program includes the kind of clear figures that indicate progress toward those goals — 4.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions avoided by 2050, $600 million invested, and 21 national energy-efficiency standards proposed, adopted, or implemented in countries around the world.
The reduction estimates are based on national minimum standards for energy-efficient air conditioners and refrigerators. Brown says she hasn’t even tried to quantify and include reductions from the cool-roof program. But even some of that seemingly straightforward energy-efficient appliance program has been complicated.
ClimateWorks has been working with governments in many countries to help them adopt and implement energy-efficiency standards. Air conditioners and fans consume about 20 percent of the world’s electricity, says Brown of ClimateWorks. And it has been working with the largest manufacturers in several countries to help them make the products that meet these new mandates.
In China, both the government and manufacturers have agreed to the standards and are making big changes, she says. In Africa, the cooling program has funded efforts in 13 countries to adopt similar rules so old, inefficient products don’t end up getting dumped in one country when they are phased out in another.
Brian Holuj, a ClimateWorks grantee and program manager in the United Nations Environment Program, says immediate changes as a result of these programs are not likely.
“These programs are going to take years to do, and unless donors have the patience to see these through properly, it’s not going to stick,” Holuj says. “Fortunately, ClimateWorks has been a patient investor.”
Indeed, as Holuj points out, there are challenges, even in receptive countries. In Ghana, readily available inefficient used appliances from Europe are cheaper than new, efficient ones, and consumers are drawn to the familiar brand names. Regulations that banned these older appliances faced opposition from the businesses that sold them. The new, efficient units are expensive to buy, though much cheaper to operate over time.
Holuj has worked with local banks to develop a financing program that will allow people to buy highly efficient units that exceed the standards for little money upfront and then have a certain amount deducted from their paychecks to pay for them over time. Because the money comes directly from the borrower’s paycheck, the interest rate is very low. But that program is new, and few people have taken advantage of it.
Holuj thinks the program will succeed because local banks are making the loans, not a big grant maker or a large development bank. “When you get local banks taking action on their own accord because they see a business opportunity, that’s what will make this self-perpetuating and scalable,” he says.
ClimateWorks is increasingly patient with programs like the cool-roof challenge and this lending program. But Brown acknowledges not everyone is. Big donors can overlook programs that don’t have quick success and quantifiable metrics, even if they have the potential to be very successful in cutting carbon dioxide emissions and helping people adapt to climate change.
“The world of philanthropy does tend to be a little bit impatient. We want to see results right away,” says Brown. “One of the things that we are doing as a philanthropic program is trying out new things, and sometimes they are not going to work. Part of our role is to learn what does work and what doesn’t. But also to sometimes be patient.”
Reporting for this article was underwritten by a Lilly Endowment grant to enhance public understanding of philanthropy. See more about the grant and our gift-acceptance policy.