Earth Day Q&A: Zhuli Hess on climate philanthropy and reaching climate goals

30,000 square meters of solar energy panels sit on the top floor of the Theme Pavilion in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Liu Jianfeng/Visual China Group via Getty Images)

This Earth Day is like no other. As a war upends Europe and reshapes its climate future, the latest report from the International Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sounds the alarm on the need to quickly reduce and reverse emissions before it’s too late. Still, we are heartened by the many people working diligently across the globe to chart a new course on climate — one that leads to a healthy, prosperous, and sustainable future for all.

To commemorate this Earth Day, we’re highlighting one of those people: Environment Program Officer Zhuli Hess. Zhuli has spent over a decade supporting communities around the globe on climate, particularly in China — where she is from and where she began her career. We share her perspectives on transitioning to philanthropy, why it’s essential for China to meet its climate goals, and how philanthropy can support sustainable development for emerging economies.

Tell us a bit about yourself — why did you decide to work on climate change?

Climate change is the most important issue for my generation. And it’s closely linked with global development, which is another passion for me. I also like that climate change challenges me — from finding the greatest opportunities to quickly decarbonize our economy to uncovering what’s hindering progress and identifying effective levers for action. My skills and experiences in international policymaking, facilitating public-private partnerships, and communications have been pushed to the extreme on solving the climate crisis. And there is still so much to learn and to do.

You previously worked at a nonprofit — why did you decide to make the transition to philanthropy? What do you think philanthropy’s role is in addressing climate change?

It’s an interesting time where multiple stakeholders — be they policymakers, corporations, or civil society — all have an active role to play and can contribute effectively to address climate change. In over a decade of working on international climate policy, I saw how powerful these stakeholders can be when driving collectively towards one direction, and how philanthropy can help make that possible. Nevertheless, there seems to be a widening gap between those willing to collaborate and those who act. I thought I could play a role, via philanthropy, in reducing that divide and inducing action. The more I have worked in philanthropy, the more I believe deeply its power to build bridges, mobilize resources, and continuously innovate.

Your focus is on ensuring China is able to meet its ambitious climate goals — what are those goals? Why is it so important for China reach those goals?

Given the size of the country, its role in the international economy, and its current emissions — which are still high despite improvements — we simply cannot ignore China. What gives hope is the country’s long-term inspiring vision for green development. China pledged to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality in 2060. One reason for this is Chinese leaders and people believe climate change is a threat to its ability to sustain its long-term economic growth and social development. At this critical historic juncture, China has actually embraced a vision to reduce its carbon emissions in the long run. Where there’s uncertainty is the speed and scale of China’s decarbonization efforts in the next five to 10 years.

What are examples of progress you’ve seen in China when it comes to addressing the climate crisis?

The past decade has seen tremendous progress in China’s overall understanding, capacity, and determination to address climate crisis. It took only a decade for China to shift from its stance at the Copenhagen COP15 to President Xi’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) announcement in 2019 to commit the country to carbon control targets. This announcement was quickly followed by corresponding policies, road maps, mechanisms, and best practices from all sectors of Chinese society to fulfill that commitment. Two years later, at the 2021 UNGA, President Xi committed China to not build new coal-fired power projects abroad, which sent a clear signal that they, along with nations around the globe, see the need to transition to a more sustainable energy source.

What are the big opportunities you see as you look ahead?

It can be easy to focus on the challenges, especially with a looming climate deadline, but there are also tremendous opportunities in the near term. Energy security, economic growth, and social welfare are top issues for countries around the globe, and China is no different. There’s also tremendous opportunity in the technology and social innovation sectors, and in growing public-private partnerships, especially as countries like China experience an accelerated economic transition.

You’re beginning to support grantees in the Global South, particularly in countries in Africa and Southeast and East Asia. Tell us about some of the unique challenges and opportunities happening in these countries.

Everything and everywhere is interconnected in today’s world, and over 60% of future emissions will come from the fast growth — through investment, trade, and local population growth — in a handful of emerging economies. While the Hewlett Foundation has primarily focused on China, the United States, the European Union, and India, we recognize that we also need to support other parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which are charting their development pathway.

What are some of the ways in which philanthropy can be a catalyst for change in China and the Global South? Are there specific strategies that you’re excited about?

The best philanthropy could do while working in regions like China and Global South is to listen first, then identify the best people and organizations that are well positioned to support the local agenda. There is tremendous human capacity and ingenuity in emerging economies, but there is a real lack of support in helping individuals advance policies and practices that their countries need to avert the climate crisis.

One of the things you often talk about is the importance of collaboration across the philanthropic space — why is collaboration so important, and how are you approaching it in your own work?

Climate philanthropy has grown exponentially in the past three years, and we are experiencing even more growth in terms of the number of foundations and amount of funding going forward. We are all sailors aiming the same destination, and instead of riding in our own little boat and figuring out how to navigate the current and uncertainty, it only makes sense — especially in areas that require speed, scale, and unity — that we build a bigger ship and collaborate.

If there was one thing you could say to other funders this Earth Day, what would it be?

The clock is ticking, let’s race against time.

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