Climate change 101: What is climate change and why should I care?

We all know that climate change is the most important environmental issue facing our planet. But what does it actually mean and why should not-for-profit organisations care?

What is climate change?

All climates vary naturally: there are warm years and cooler periods and so on. When we talk about the climate change crisis, we are talking about the unnatural warming of our planet caused by human activity. In particular, we mean the carbon dioxide (CO2) we release into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels for energy. This excess carbon acts like a blanket, trapping heat in our atmosphere and warming up the Earth. The warming of the planet is a real and significant threat to life on Earth and is something we all need to actively work towards resolving.

To limit the impact of climate change we all need – urgently – to change the way we live. The burning of fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions. Transitioning away from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy sources such as solar and wind are vital if we are to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Limiting warming to this level requires global CO2 emissions to peak immediately and halve by 2030.

Why all the talk about carbon?

The warming of our planet is due to the excess carbon in our atmosphere that limits the ability of our planet to regulate the temperature. The carbon created when we burn fossil fuels, or through bushfires etc, acts like a blanket, trapping heat on the surface of the Earth.

That’s why you hear so much about carbon offsets, reducing carbon emissions, and carbon capture and storage. The common theme is reducing the amount of carbon in our atmosphere by reducing (or eliminating) the amount we produce or by taking it out of the atmosphere.

Why your not-for-profit organisation needs to aim for net zero

“Net zero” refers to achieving a balance between the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere and the amount removed from it. Net zero is when we have achieved a state of neutrality where the carbon we produce is negated by the carbon we remove. Net zero is achieved by:

  1. Reducing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere, and
  2. Removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Tasmania achieved net-zero in 2015. Other governments, businesses, councils and not-for-profits all need to aim for net zero because climate change is a governance issue. It affects everything from workforce planning to funding to the safety of people and physical properties. It has to be understood, planned for, responded to. It’s every not-for-profit’s responsibility to ensure that their organisation – and its constituents – are ready.

Climate change will affect (and is already affecting) everything your organisation does. You need to be prepared and plan for those impacts so you can mitigate the risks and take advantage of opportunities. For example, in the future, how will your organisation:

  • pay for rising energy bills? Will you need to fundraise more?
  • get insurance or afford rising premiums? Some reports suggest one in 25 properties will be uninsurable by 2030.
  • deal with floods, fires and other extreme weather events? What impact will these have on your donor base, your staff, your clients, and those you care for?
  • deal with the reputational risk of climate inaction? How will this influence donors? What will it cost you in fundraising?
  • adapt to new, more sustainable technology? Are you ready to make smart investments or will you be left behind?

What is ESG?

You’ll often hear the term “ESG” in the context of organisational strategy. ESG stands for environmental, social and governance factors. ESG is a way of measuring how well an organisation is performing in those areas, including its responsibility for managing its carbon footprint.

What are government carbon targets?

The Australian Government has committed to reducing carbon emissions to 43% below 2005 levels by 2030, and to net zero by 2050. (For the latest announcements, go to

A key way the government plans to reduce emissions is to cap emissions of big polluters and fine them if they go over that cap. While not-for-profits likely won’t fall into this category of polluters, it’s clear that there will be many financial, social and environmental incentives to transition to a carbon-free way of operating.

Each state also has its own, usually more ambitious, targets and these include carrot-and-stick incentives and disincentives for businesses and households. Your organisation needs to plan for these changes. Understanding the likely effects of climate change and climate-related policies is critical. It will help your organisation prepare and adapt in a way that limits negative impacts on your operations and positions you well to take advantage of new opportunities.

Your organisation’s carbon footprint

Understanding your not-for-profit’s carbon footprint is important. It helps you identify the challenges and opportunities your organisation has in achieving carbon neutrality. These will be different for every not-for-profit and will be influenced by factors such as whether you own or rent property, where you are based, what you do, how you do it, and your size and financial capacity. For some organisations, transport will be the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions; for others, energy used for heating or cooling will be biggest.

There are many ways to calculate your organisation's carbon footprint. The easiest way is to use a free online calculator such as the one available from Carbon Positive Australia, here: https://carbonpositiveaustrali... (We recommend you scroll down the left side of the page and click the link to "request our full carbon calculator".)

Setting a carbon target for your NFP

Setting a carbon target for your organisation is a way of publicly stating your organisation’s commitment to reducing its emissions. It helps ensure that transitioning to a carbon-free future becomes a core part of your goals.

A carbon target might consist of a statement like this: “We aim to reduce our emissions by 50% by 2025 and achieve net zero by 2030”.

So how do you decide what your carbon target should be? First you need to understand what your footprint looks like. You also need to gauge the level of interest at board level in achieving net zero. How much is the organisation prepared to invest or spend on this?

Once you have a good understanding of your carbon profile, the opportunities you have to reduce your carbon emissions and the feasibility of those options, you can use that information to gain a good sense of what your carbon target should be. The questions you need to answer are these:

  1. What carbon emission reductions can our organisation make?
  2. Of the things we can’t reduce or eliminate, how can we offset them?
  3. By when can we feasibly make these changes?

Reduction or elimination of carbon vs offsets

Carbon reduction is when an organisation reduces its carbon footprint by actively switching to more efficient, sustainable energy solutions (e.g. installing solar panels, buying energy efficient appliances).

Carbon offsetting is when an organisation cancels out its emissions by doing something else that takes carbon from the atmosphere (e.g. funding a reforestation project to offset staff flights).

Most organisations aim to reduce what they can, when they can, and offset what they can’t.

How your organisation can reduce its carbon emissions

  1. Switch to 100% green power
  2. Install solar panels
  3. Install batteries
  4. Invest in efficient building infrastructure and appliances
  5. Replace fossil-fuel vehicles with electric vehicles
  6. Replace meetings that require travel with online meetings

How your organisation can offset its carbon emissions

  1. Invest in a carbon offsetting project
  2. Offset your transport fleet emissions
  3. Buy carbon credits

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