The future of U.S.-China philanthropic collaboration on the environment

Society & Culture

“At the end of the day, compared to climate, everything else is irrelevant,” says Joyce Ma, China Country Director for The Nature Conservancy.

Meltwater flows over the Laohugou No. 12 glacier in the Qilian mountains, Subei Mongol Autonomous County in Gansu province, China, September 27, 2020. Photo via REUTERS/Carlos Garcia.

We spoke with Joyce Ma, China Country Director for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), to discuss some of the impacts and future prospects for U.S.-China philanthropic collaboration on the environment. (Interview has been edited for clarity and length)

Serica: How has TNC’s engagement with China changed over the years and are you seeing a shift in the way that the philanthropic community has responded to China’s rise?

JM: TNC has been operating in China for 23 years. For the first decade, China had mostly been a recipient of funds. The tipping point happened in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, which was a breakthrough for China and was when China was really able to stand on both feet. In 2009, TNC founded the China Board and in 2011, Jack Ma, our then-Board Chair, started a global philanthropic fund to support not only domestic initiatives but 21 global projects, mostly in Africa and Latin America, over five years. TNC is, to this day, well-received in China and we are able to leverage partners in our network to carry out science-based and action-driven research, enabling work and policy impact to play a more continuous role for development in China.

Serica: Domestically, the environment has lagged considerably behind poverty alleviation, education, and public health, as charitable causes for China’s top philanthropists. What do you see as some of the reasons for this underweighting and are there positive trends that you see as turning around philanthropic engagement with the environmental sector?

JM: Underfunding of the environment is a global phenomenon, as only 2% of total philanthropic funding in the U.S. goes to environmental causes. However, there are some positive signs. China’s latest commitment to be carbon neutral by 2060 makes environmental issues a universal target. We still have 40 years before we reach this goal, but we each individually have a responsibility to act now to contribute. At the end of the day, compared to climate, everything else is irrelevant. Our basic mission is to educate and convert daily activities into service protection related to climate. If we are able to achieve these outcomes, donors will have more of a reach and impact.

Serica: For philanthropists looking to make the most impact on climate change, what organizations or causes would you recommend that they start?

JM: There are a number of international organizations to start with, including TNC and the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN). All of these organizations are working on various tactics to address climate change, such as negotiation, policy advocacy, social economic transformation, food security, and environmental conservation. I would recommend our guide Speak Up For Nature, which details steps and tips to talk about nature and climate change with your colleagues. At the UN level, there are a number of online learning courses developed for professional training on climate change, such as UN CC: Learn. Finally, I’d also recommend visiting Countdown, a global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crises powered by TED and Future Stewards.

Serica: What are some specific areas in which you’ve seen strong U.S.-China collaboration on climate change and the environment?

JM: Historically, climate change and the environment have been areas where our two governments have been able to cooperate and share ideas, approaches, and technical systems. In the last 10 years, emission trading on the national and state level between China and the U.S. have been active, especially in California. For instance, TNC takes advantage of its global presence, and brings together its California Chapter, its China team, and the California-China Climate Institute to explore opportunities to collaborate on the state level.

Serica: What are some examples you’ve seen of successful and constructive dialogue between the U.S. and China on climate change?

JM: The most important example of dialogue was the U.S.-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change in 2014. Its release played a key role in advancing the Paris Agreement. The process involved important steps of cooperation and laid a good foundation for international efforts on combating climate change. This is a good example to show the significance of our two governments working together. Bilateral cooperation could bring out global commitment. Successful dialogues start with mutual will, understanding, and trust. It takes common goals and a shared agenda for them to be effective.


Want to learn more? The Serica Initiative’s China Philanthropy & Nonprofit Newsletter is a monthly deep-dive into the trends, major players, and regulatory environment for philanthropic and nonprofit activity between the U.S. and China. Subscribe to the newsletter here.