Clean Air Task Force: Deep Dive

This report was lightly updated in November 2022. The prior version of this report was published in November 2021. We may do a more detailed investigation of Clean Air Task Force in the future.


Summary


Clean Air Task Force is a nonprofit that advocates for public policies that invest in climate-protecting technologies, curb fossil-fuel emissions, and enact pollution regulations. Although it continues to lead on US policy advocacy, it has also scaled its work on technology innovation and commercialization to a global level.




Giving Green classifies Clean Air Task Force as one of its top recommendations to reduce climate change. We believe donations to Clean Air Task Force are within the range of the most cost-effective giving opportunities we have identified, and could additionally increase its organizational growth trajectory. We have some uncertainties around Clean Air Task Force’s expansion into new geographies, its room for more funding, and its partial focus on short-lived climate pollutants. We will continue assessing these uncertainties in 2023.


Assessment

 

We recommend Clean Air Task Force (CATF) because of its strong track record of policy accomplishments at the national level (including policies with bipartisan support), its international model, its focus on relatively neglected issue areas, the strength of its staff, and its ability to productively absorb additional funds in coming years. We previously recommended CATF in 2021 and 2020. [1]

 

In 2022, we conducted a series of expert interviews regarding CATF and spoke with CATF multiple times to stay updated on its strategic priorities, current activities, and room for more funding. We also reviewed materials on CATF’s website, media coverage, and an earlier analysis of CATF by Founders Pledge, a group that recommends high-impact donation options primarily for its members who have taken a philanthropic pledge. [2]

 

Here, we present our reasons for recommending CATF. We also recommend that interested persons read Founders Pledge’s analysis.



1. CATF has a strong US track record and list of policy accomplishments, including bipartisan policy wins.


Based on our assessment of CATF’s portfolio, we think it generally takes a risk-based approach where it supports a broad swath of technologies instead of betting on a single strategy. Focusing on this approach, policies supporting climate-protecting technologies could accelerate emissions reductions by enabling widespread deployment. These policies may also have international spillover effects if other countries use these policy accomplishments as models for their own policies, or simply adopt the technologies or deployment models developed in the US.


Below, we list US policies that CATF has advocated for and the government has passed. We are unsure about the degree to which CATF influenced these passing. Based on our understanding of CATF’s strategies, our general assessment of its ability to execute strategies, and our understanding of its role vis-à-vis other advocacy organizations, we generally think CATF likely marginally or substantially increased the likelihood of most of these policies passing.

  • Energy Act of 2020 – CATF has played an important role in ensuring that key climate provisions were included in the bipartisan Energy Act of 2020, which authorized $125 billion over five years for grid modernization as well as projects related to carbon capture and storage (CCS), advanced nuclear, superhot rock geothermal, hydrogen, solar, and wind. [3]

  • Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)CATF provided technical assistance and other input on many key authorization and funding measures in the bipartisan IIJA, which Congress passed in November 2021. [4] The bill’s clean energy and technology provisions include billions in funding for CCS and direct air capture demonstrations and prizes, CO2 transport and storage, hydrogen hubs, and the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. [5] It also included funding for plugging methane leaks from abandoned wells, one of CATF’s policy priorities.

  • Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)CATF successfully advocated for provisions related to cutting methane pollution and advancing neglected low-emissions technologies in the IRA. [6] During negotiations, it also played a role in retaining key provisions such as stacking tax incentives and federal grants. [7]


After digging into CATF’s track record, we are impressed with its list of accomplishments across policy areas, its pragmatic approach to incentivizing and enabling adoption of decarbonized technologies, and its focus on achieving concrete policy impact. Additionally, our take is that CATF’s bipartisan approach to US legislation is well-suited for the political moment. Namely, our impression is that the 2022 midterm elections have caused a shift in power that makes it more challenging for policymakers to pass federal climate change legislation without across-the-aisle support.


2. CATF’s theory of change applies internationally.


In addition to spurring innovation in the US, CATF helps other countries adopt policies, technologies, and practices that drive down emissions. For example, its work on reduced methane emissions is happening on an international stage. In particular, CATF was instrumental in catalyzing the Global Methane Pledge, which was introduced by US President Joe Biden and EU President Ursula von der Leyen in September 2021 and signed by over 100 countries at COP26. [8] Under this pledge, countries have agreed to collectively reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. CATF has also scaled its work on technology innovation to include global implementation and commercialization. For example, it is interested in expanding energy access in Sub-Saharan Africa and connecting people to low-emission energy sources like superhot rock energy. [9] In the Middle East and North Africa, CATF has focused on catalyzing and accelerating networks for low-carbon hydrogen, including that produced from natural gas and supported with CCS and upstream methane controls. [10]


3. CATF focuses on neglected policy areas.


Our impression is that the technologies and policy areas that CATF prioritizes are relatively neglected and do not otherwise receive much attention in the climate space. For example, CATF advocates for nascent technologies such as superhot rock energy, advanced nuclear energy, and zero-carbon fuels. By elevating these issue areas to public attention and advocating for favorable policies, CATF can help accelerate technologies and activities that would otherwise struggle to secure funding. Other policy areas CATF supports include reducing emissions of high-warming super pollutants such as methane and black carbon, and regulating emissions from US power plants. However, our impression is that methane mitigation has received a recent uptick in interest. For example, philanthropic organizations have committed around $328M to reducing methane emissions. [11] We believe CATF’s intentional focus on neglected policy areas increases the likelihood that its contributions to climate policy are additional and cover new ground.


4. CATF has a strong policy focus and an experienced staff well-suited to influence policy.


Overall, our own analysis and Founders Pledge’s research suggest that CATF is well-positioned to influence policy through its staff and programmatic focus. Since CATF’s founding in 1996, it has built close relationships with policymakers and brought in staff with extensive legal, technical, and policy experience. [12] Our understanding is that much of CATF’s team are long-time employees, suggesting that the organization does not function as a holding place for policymakers who would return to government after an administration change.


5. CATF has a strong policy focus and an experienced staff well-suited to influence policy.


In 2018, Founders Pledge conducted a cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) of CATF’s past work on three projects: targeting coal plants for non-climate pollutants, reducing methane emissions, and advocating for tax credits for CCS. Founders Pledge found that CATF averted one ton of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) per $1.26 spent (range of $0.35 to $4.40). [13] In a forward-looking estimate of CATF’s work on advanced nuclear, Founders Pledge estimated that, in expectation, CATF’s work will avert one ton of CO2e per $0.29 spent (range of $0.03 to $5.50). [14] These figures rely on both estimated and subjective inputs, and should be considered rough, indicative estimates. 

 

CATF has grown its budget substantially since Founders Pledge conducted its CEA, but CATF has expanded its focus areas and pathways to impact as well. Pending future CEAs, we suspect CATF’s approach to insider policy advocacy will continue to lead to cost-effective reductions in GHG emissions. Giving Green intends to conduct a more detailed cost-effectiveness analysis on CATF in the future.


6. CATF can productively use additional funds.


CATF estimates its 2022 budget will be about $39M and as of November 2022, it is on track to meet its self-reported funding gap of $3M. [15] CATF said its goal is to eventually build a sustainable multi-year funding program and potentially grow its operating budget to $100M over the next four to five years. [16]

 

CATF aims to increase its impact in three main areas: expanding geographically, growing its existing programs, and incubating newer programs.

 

  • Expanding geographically – CATF would like to scale its work on technology transfer and commercialization in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa, and also expand to China, India, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. [17] Our impression is that additional funding has helped CATF expand to new geographies it otherwise would not have focused on.


  • Growing existing programs – CATF plans to grow its current programs on “super pollutants,” such as helping countries meet their commitments to the Global Methane Pledge. Its ambitions include developing reporting mechanisms for methane mitigation, binding agreements between countries, and clear expectations for signatories. [18] Domestically, CATF also plans to support strong implementation of climate provisions from IIJA and IRA by working with various regulatory bodies. [19]


  • Incubating newer programs – According to CATF, direct donations have played a crucial role in helping it conduct exploratory work, such as its work on superhot rock energy. [20] CATF is now developing a fusion energy program and plans to establish an “internal think tank” that embeds social science into CATF’s work. [21]


Key uncertainties and open questions


Although we are excited about CATF’s potential for impact, we note a few key uncertainties and open questions:

 

  • CATF’s room for more funding – CATF has nearly doubled its budget in recent years, going from a total revenue of almost $20M in 2020 to $39M in 2022. [22] Given CATF’s fundraising success, there is a fair chance that CATF could successfully achieve its future fundraising goals without money directed by Giving Green. However, we think CATF could continue to absorb more funding as it expands to new geographies and implements its policy priorities. We have some uncertainty around this, because CATF’s international work is relatively new.


  • CATF’s expansion into new geographies – CATF has less of a track record in the new regions it has expanded to, and it is uncertain whether it can replicate its prior success as it expands. We have a positive impression of CATF’s future potential in these new geographies due to its pragmatic approach and its policy skill set.

 

  • CATF’s partial focus on short-lived climate pollutants – For some of its work, CATF targets short-lived climate pollutants (e.g., methane) instead of (longer-lived) CO2. [23] Short-lived climate pollutants can be extremely potent in the short-term, but we are less certain about how to measure and compare their longer-term effects to those of CO2. As an initial attempt to explore part of this uncertainty, we wrote a preliminary short-lived climate pollutants report in April 2022, which we think is fairly simplistic and doesn’t take into account some new evidence. [24] We plan to assess this further in 2023.

 

  • Working towards equipping all fossil fuels with carbon capture – One particularly controversial element of CATF’s work is its work on decreasing  fossil fuels’ carbon intensity. For instance, CATF supports CCS and has advocated for passing enhancements to the Section 45Q tax credit for carbon sequestration. [25] In a February 2022 letter to Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Rosa DeLauro, dozens of signatories representing various environmental groups argued that policies supporting carbon capture would prop up fossil-based technologies. [26] While this is a valid concern, we at Giving Green believe CATF is taking a pragmatic approach to decarbonization. Indeed, the International Energy Agency notes that achieving net-zero emissions for industrial applications without CCS could become significantly more expensive. [27] We note that CATF does not accept money from the energy industry.[28]

 

Despite these uncertainties, we believe CATF’s long track record of success leaves it poised to grow and expand into new areas while remaining effective.


Bottom line / next steps


We classify CATF as one of our top recommendations to reduce climate change, and believe donations to CATF are within the range of the most cost-effective giving opportunities we have identified.

 

We believe CATF has been successful in getting bipartisan climate legislation passed in the US, its international model has high potential for impact, and it can currently absorb additional funding. Though we generally view CATF as promising, we remain uncertain on its room for more funding, whether its expansion into new geographies will be as impactful as its prior work, and its partial focus on short-lived climate pollutants. We will continue assessing these uncertainties, and believe we will be able to substantially improve our understanding of the severity and importance of these uncertainties as CATF executes its strategies in 2023.


Endnotes

Clean Air Task Force is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization in the United States. As Giving Green is part of IDinsight Inc., which is itself a charitable, tax-exempt organization, we are only offering an opinion on the charitable activities of Clean Air Task Force, and not on CATF Action. This is a non-partisan analysis (study or research) and is provided for educational purposes.


[1] We do not have an archived version of our 2020 report saved to the Wayback Machine.


[2] Founders Pledge: “Empowering altruism requires practical solutions. We provide a global network of experts, a dedicated support team, and access to world-class research on strategic giving. In other words, joining the community unlocks a door to the world of social impact, and a uniquely evidence-led approach to philanthropy.” “How It Works” n.d.


[3] “Late in 2020, CATF’s policy team expertly navigated the halls of Congress to help ensure that lawmakers understood the importance of comprehensive energy legislation, leading to the inclusion of key climate provisions into a year-end omnibus spending package that covered, among other things, a much-needed COVID-19 relief measure. The package included $125 billion in new spending authorizations over a five-year period to support research, development, and deployment incentives covering renewables, energy storage, advanced nuclear, carbon capture, geothermal, building efficiency, and more.” "Helped Secure $125 billion in Federal Funding for Climate Technology" n.d.


[4] Correspondence with Clean Air Task Force, 2022-03-17.


[5] For more information on climate provisions passed in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, please see: "Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act: A Down Payment on Fulfilling Federal Promises for Climate Action" n.d.


[6] Role in IRA: “After months of negotiation, with CATF playing a key advocacy role, Majority Leader Schumer and Senator Manchin struck a deal on the legislation that would push the IRA to the Senate floor and kick off what would become the passage of the largest investment in climate and clean energy in U.S. history.” Provisions: “As the bill made its way through Congress, CATF was well positioned to help ensure key provisions remained in the legislation before the deal was struck, including provisions to cut methane pollution and advance carbon capture, low-emissions hydrogen, nuclear energy, superhot rock energy, and more.” "The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022: What it is, what it means, and how it came to pass" 2022.


[7] “Where negotiation and compromise were needed, CATF and its coalition partners worked through options for consideration during negotiation that ensured that provisions, like the methane fee, direct pay and transferability, and the stacking of tax incentives and federal grants, were included in the bill. “ "The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022: What it is, what it means, and how it came to pass" 2022.


[8] “President Biden and President Von der Leyen announced at the September 17 Major Economies Forum (MEF) meeting that the United States and the European Union are inviting countries to support the Global Methane Pledge to be launched at COP 26 in November 2021 in Glasgow… Participants joining the Pledge agree to take voluntary actions to contribute to a collective effort to reduce global methane emissions at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030, which could eliminate over 0.2˚C warming by 2050… With over 100 countries on board, representing nearly 50% of global anthropogenic methane emissions and over two thirds of global GDP, we are well on our way to achieving the Pledge goal and preventing more than 8 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from reaching the atmosphere annually by 2030.” "About the Global Methane Pledge" n.d.


[9] Correspondence with CATF, 2022-02-02.


[10] Correspondence with CATF, 2022-02-02.


[11] “Today, a first-of-its-kind alliance of more than 20 leading philanthropic organizations announced an intention to fund more than $328 million to drastically reduce methane emissions around the world. This includes supporting the diplomatic effort spearheaded by the United States and European Union’s Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% by the year 2030 and limit warming by 0.2℃ by 2050.” "Leading Philanthropic Organizations Partner and Commit to Over $328M to Reducing Methane Emissions" 2021.


[12] Founding date: “When CATF was launched in 1996, our strategy was simple: enact federal policy to force older coal plants to meet the same emission rates as new plants.” “Our History and Impact” n.d. Staff: For more information on CATF’s staff, please see its “Meet Our Experts” page


[13] “CATF work was also highly cost-effective in producing climate benefits, averting a tonne of CO2e for $1.26 with a range of ~$0.35 to $4.40, or equivalently averting 79 tonnes of CO2e per $100, with a range of 22 to 283 tonnes.” "Climate Change Cause Area Report" 2018.


[14] "Cost per tonne of CO2 avoided: $5.50, $0.29, $0.03.” “CATF cost-effectiveness” n.d.


[15] Correspondence with CATF, 2022-10-26.


[16] Correspondence with CATF, 2022-10-26.


[17] Correspondence with CATF, 2022-02-02.


[18] “We’d like to see detailed reporting mechanisms established for methane mitigation, as well as binding agreements between countries, strong national standards to reduce methane emissions, and the establishment of clear expectations for Global Methane Hub signatories.” "From Moment to Momentum: What methane leadership looks like at COP27" 2022.


[19] Correspondence with CATF, 2022-03-17.

[20] Correspondence with CATF, 2022-10-25.


[21] Correspondence with CATF, 2022-10-25.


[22] 2020 budget: “Total Revenue $19,594,322” "Clean Air Task Force" 2020.


[23] “[Short-lived climate pollutants] persist for a short time in the atmosphere but can be extremely potent in terms of their global warming potential compared to long-lasting greenhouse gases such as CO2.” World Bank: Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, 2014.


[24] For example, it doesn’t take into account emerging evidence on “tipping elements” (e.g., McKay et al 2022) or how reducing short-term warming could “bend the curve” on longer-term warming (e.g., Carmichael et al 2013).


[25] “In order to ensure that we can decarbonize heavy industries like steel and cement manufacturing (accounting for about 15% of CO2 emissions) and that we can remove significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through DAC, we must improve the 45Q tax credit.” "Inflation creates new urgency for passage of 45Q enhancements” 2022.


[26] “Fossil fuel industry efforts to use carbon capture, blue hydrogen, and various new “advanced” energy fuels to greenwash activities will support a new era of fossil fuel and petrochemical development.” "Stop Funding Fossil Fuel Greenwashing" 2022.


[27] “In the [Limited CO2 Storage scenario variant], the limited availability of CO2 storage would result in a doubling of the marginal CO2 abatement cost by 2060 relative to the CTS where CCUS is widely available.” "Transforming Industry through CCUS" 2019.


[28] Correspondence with CATF, 2022-11-15.