Beyond conservation: How environmental NGOs are evolving

NGOs have become powerful voices in global environmental politics

climate change protest Representational image

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are usually thought to focus on environmental protection and conservation. A new study shows that environmental groups are moving beyond their traditional role of nature conservation and are increasingly involved in climate-change politics and environmental justice. Having gained more social acceptance as a result of the climate crisis, their focus has now been shifted to more active roles. However, their approach is largely determined by regional disparities in human and financial resources.

In order to understand what these groups are doing and why, researchers from McGill University, the University of Georgia and the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research analysed data from 679 environmental NGOs from all over the world.

The importance of climate politics (engagement on climate change) and environmental justice (respect for nature and human rights) in the mission statements of NGOs were grossly underestimated in previous studies. The research team calculated a power index for the NGOs based on their human and financial resources and found that more than 40 per cent of the most powerful organisations focus on these areas in their mission.

"There are more powerful organisations working on climate issues than on issues of biodiversity loss or land degradation," says co-author Klara Winkler, a postdoctoral researcher from McGill University. "It is important to be aware that some environmental issues garner more attention than others because it means that these other issues risk being neglected or even forgotten."

The study, Environmental Non-Governmental Organisations and Global Environmental Discourse, published in PLOS ONE, also shows regional disparities in human resources and financial capacity.

Environmental NGOs in Africa and Oceania have the lowest-median number of employees and African NGOs have the lowest-median annual budgets. While organisations in North America and Europe have the highest-median financial capacity, Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest-median number of employees.

According to the researchers, these differences likely reflect both labour costs and financial flows, where environmental NGOs in the Global South employ more people with less money while groups in the Global North handle more money with fewer employees. This disparity is also indicative of a global division of labour where northern environmental NGOs act as donors or coordinators for large projects, while southern organisations are subcontracted for implementation.

"The findings give us an indication of how feasible it is for NGOs to advocate and implement their agendas in practice. Seeing where the disparities and limitations are in different regions can help us better understand observed differences in environmental policies and politics," says co-author Stefan Partelow from the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research in Germany.