Iain Keith, Climate Emergency Collaboration Group: “You’re only as good as your word”

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combatting climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Iain Keith, Executive Director of the Climate Emergency Collaboration Group (CECG).

I grew up in a small village in rural Scotland, near a forest. A lot of people used to dump garbage there. It really upset me as a child. I spoke to my parents about it and organised a sponsored clean-up. Pupils at the school got their parents to sponsor them and the money was donated to Greenpeace. I think we raised £2,000! That was my first foray into campaigning.

In 1999, two years after the Kyoto Protocol, I went to Edinburgh University where I studied Natural Resource Management. When a teacher talked to me about climate change, it was a light bulb that went on in my head. I thought, “this is what I have to do”.

I did a master’s degree in the US focused on Environmental Science and Climate Change and Policy. Then I spent a year at the UN Development Program as an intern, trying to shape policies. But I realised that wasn’t the space that I wanted to be working in. I was really interested in engaging people and taking action. So, I made the jump to Avaaz. This grew into a huge global campaigning organisation focused on mobilising citizens around the climate crisis.

Now, in my new role in philanthropy, it’s all about connecting, facilitating and supporting other people. My journey is helping me to play that role.

Having an impact

In 2008, I was with Avaaz at the Climate Summit in Bali, Indonesia (COP13). Towards the end of the summit Japan, Canada and the US were derailing progress at the talks.

We did a global petition to the leaders of Canada and Japan. On the last day of the Climate Summit, we took out a full-page ad in the Jakarta Post. The ad showed the three leaders standing next to each other on the bow of the Titanic.

The negotiations went into 16 hours overtime. Japan and Canada peeled away from the US, which was left isolated as the sole blocker. And it changed its position.

At the time, I did not know that we’d had an impact. But two years later, I met the leaders of the opposition party in Japan. In their headquarters, they had a framed picture of our ad. They told me they had used it to say to the government, “is this how you want the world to see Japan?” And because of that, the government launched a review of all their climate targets, set new goals and supported the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol.

That was the moment I first realised the impact citizens can have when they come together.

Youth Climate Movement

The CECG launched last January. It was challenging against the backdrop of a global pandemic. I’m proud that we’ve been able to build a team that feels very cohesive and that the spirit and the culture is there.

So, what have we done? Firstly, we’ve moved a lot of money in the last few months to help civil society groups from the Global South to get to COP26. Rising travel costs, and complications with tests and quarantines made access difficult. I’m happy we’ve been able to support them. We’ve got all sorts of different people, from different walks of life, who will all do their part to contribute to some sense of progress.

In the past few years, we’ve seen the transformative power of the Youth Climate Movement. We’ve seen their ability to shape the media story, to generate mass public participation, to talk to decision makers. Many of these youth leaders have sat down with our presidents and prime ministers.

We’re on a journey to support the Youth Movement and bring some of our funders along for the ride. Philanthropy getting behind these movements will be key to sustaining them for the future. There are loads of ways philanthropy can get involved, such as by supporting training and leadership development.

Hopes and dreams for the future

I’ve just become a father. My little boy is now six months old and I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. We’ve not yet passed the point of no return but we’re not far off. If we look at the remaining carbon budget for a 1.5⁰C temperature rise, we’ve got about seven years left.

If I had 10 minutes to speak at the UN Climate Conference COP26, I’d say we’ve come a long way. The Paris Agreement has faced unprecedented tests. The previous US government tried to kill it and they failed. Why? Because we’re not talking about whether climate change is real. It’s real. We’re talking about how we’re going to deliver the solutions.

I think the world is ready for this change. We’re reaching tipping points in our societies, economies and politics. For example, electric vehicles are not only going to transform our economies, but also our communities and our entire approach to transport.

Building coalitions

More corporations than ever before are taking climate action. More cities, more states and more governments too. Most countries now have a nationally determined contribution plan to cut their carbon emissions and a long-term goal to get to net zero.

But at the same time, we’re seeing massive climate impacts, far worse than we were anticipating. The solution is to get the Paris Agreement working so that we’re all governed by the same rules. Because that’s fair. And we need new coalitions of countries and corporates.

One of the things that we’re supporting is the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. This is a new coalition of countries that are saying, “we’re going to keep oil and gas in the ground”. That’s the sort of leadership that we need.

The key thing is to honour your promises. When I was a kid, my mum used to say to me, “you’re only as good as your word”. In the past ten years, rich countries have made promises to low-income countries. And they still haven’t delivered. They need to deliver.

Iain Keith is the Executive Director of the Climate Emergency Collaboration Group (CECG), a collaboration between six of the largest climate funders in the international space. CECG looks at how we can use the moments and opportunities that the UN climate summits present to accelerate progress, both as philanthropy, but also through the influence that philanthropy can wield. In this way, it supports progress towards meeting the Paris Agreement targets and going beyond them.

The IKEA Foundation is partnering with CECG because we believe that unprecedented collaboration is vital for effective climate action. With this grant, we will help ensure nations and markets take urgent action to reduce emissions, while easing the transition for communities whose lives depend on the fossil fuel industry.


Climate Emergency Collaboration Group


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