How to drive philanthropic efforts to tackle climate change
“I’ve always been quite environmentally and socially motivated,” says Jane Burston with understatement. It’s been a passion since childhood, when she came home from secondary school one day and told her family she’d decided to become a vegetarian after seeing a video about abattoirs. As a student at Cambridge University, she lobbied the institution’s bursar to invest her college’s endowment into ethical funds.
Once she graduated in 2002, Burston continued her environmental and social drive. Working in strategy consultancy at Transport for London in her early twenties, she refused to fly to meetings. And it was on her cycle journeys to and from work that she became engaged in what would become her crowning achievement: trying to rid the air of toxic pollutants. While cycling, Burston wore an air-filter mask. In Cambridge, the mask could be reworn for several days; in London, it became black after a day.
At the National Physical Laboratory, where she managed a team of 150 scientists, Burston extended her attempts to tackle the public health issue of unclean air that is responsible for 15 per cent of deaths every year. “There, I recognised that the sources of air pollution are very often the same as the sources of climate change: burning fossil fuels,” she says. “Working on air pollution would be a triple win for climate, health and equity – because it most affects children and low-income communities.”
She began thinking about how to affect change in a meaningful manner. In her twenties, she set up an organisation called Carbon Retirement, which took credits from the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme and cancelling them, so they couldn’t be used as a tool of greenwashing by big companies. Carbon Retirement secured investment and acquired clients including FTSE 100 businesses, NGOs and pop stars. As well as launching startup initiatives – a key tool to affect change throughout her career – she also worked from inside the tent, taking up a role as Head of Climate and Energy Science in the UK government.
While working in a major institution like government may seem stifling to change, Burston was working almost as a startup. The role was for a quasi-governmental institution that was a standalone entity – skills that were put to good use in her next challenge.
In 2018 she set up the London-based Clean Air Fund. It launched in 2019 with a lofty goal: to raise cash to make meaningful difference to the environment. “One of the main things I learned across the startups I worked at is that the more people who are involved with different perspectives from the beginning, the better the strategy, and the more collective the response,” she says. That broad church approach helped the Clean Air Fund launch with $50 million of funding. The Clean Air Fund has now raised $58 million from a variety of sources. “Because you can tackle a number of issues at once, I think people find it quite a cost-effective way to donate,” she says.
Burston took lessons from Carbon Retirement when launching the Clean Air Fund to make the maximum impact. In her first organisation, she set the bar too low, and didn’t involve enough people in its shared success from the beginning. “I think if we’d invested more time earlier in getting a community together around the idea, everything would have accelerated a lot quicker,” she says. In setting up the Clean Air Fund, she made sure to build a community-focused group – and a laser-targeted strategy.
To date, the Clean Air Fund has supported 115 projects, with global effects. As a result of the organisation’s work, 10 companies have committed to reducing their air pollution, while the Fund has also driven the creation or expansion of four Clean Air Zones (CAZ) in Bath, Brighton, Portsmouth and the London Ultra Low Emission Zone in the UK.
The biggest donors are on the board of the Clean Air Fund, enabling them to hear about and shape strategy from the offset. “We start off with a blank sheet of paper, a lot of trust, and build it together,” Burston says. Building it is happening at pace – but is far from complete. “Even though $58 million is a large amount of money, and we’re very appreciative of everyone who’s donated, we’re nowhere near matching the scale of the issue,” she says. By 2026 she hopes to have $250 million donated to reducing air pollution worldwide, and 100 multinational businesses committing to drawing down pollutants in their supply chains and operations.
Biography / key highlights
2002 Graduates from the University of Cambridge with a first-class degree in Philosophy
2003 Becomes a strategy consultant for Transport for London and environment adviser to the mayor of London
2008 Sets up the ethical offsetting organisation Carbon Retirement
2012 Leads a team of 150 scientists as the Head of Energy and Environment at the National Physical Laboratory
2017 Transitions to Head of Climate and Energy Science in the UK government
2019 Founds and launches her philanthropic foundation Clean Air Fund, with $50 million in funding; joins Parkinson’s UK as a board trustee
2020 Profiled by WIRED as one of the magazine’s changemakers of tomorrow; named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum; and as one of the ‘40 under 40’ European Young Leaders by Friends of Europe