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Earth Day 2013: Internet helps us help the planet

Posted by Chad O'Connor  April 22, 2013 11:00 AM

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Today, April 22nd, is Earth Day! Across the country small towns and college campuses are showcasing how important a healthy environment is to our everyday lives. At Harvard and other colleges, there are movie screenings, e-waste pickups, multiple Earth Day Fairs, public service events, and more. Let’s not forget how important Earth Day is - the first Earth day brought 20 million people out of their homes, making it the largest organized celebration in US history. However, today we know that the challenges we face are bigger than one day’s work can handle. Climate change threatens Boston’s very existence.

Project GreenCampus, started by Harvard students, is helping in the college space. It connects green donation opportunities at universities to alumni and students interested in supporting sustainability. It targets projects that universities have committed to, or that in the very long term will pay back, but which the university doesn’t have funds right now to implement. It is piloting at Harvard to see if there is interest, where it is trying to fund a portion of an LED lighting replacement at the Harvard Quad. In the future, Project GreenCampus doesn’t want to just fund projects, but also empower university students and alumni interested in sustainability. Here are some key elements it’s trying to address.

Funding sustainability has always been a critical problem, and it’s truer now than ever – According to a Mintz Levin report, although $50B of clean energy projects will seek financing in 2013, only $34B will find funding. This gap is only going to grow. Even colleges are affected. 64% of universities in the US have greenhouse gas reduction goals. Harvard is a leader nationally and in Boston, pledging to reduce its emissions 30% from at 2006 baseline, despite also growing the campus. Yet after the financial crisis, colleges’ ability to spend on non-essential initiatives is lacking. The gap between green intentions and greenbacks is growing.

Crowdfunding on the internet, if it can transform from a fad to a real way of doing business, may be able to help – Individuals have donated $500 Million to help fund the development of cool ideas using the popular crowdfunding website Kickstarter. Instead of donating to a third-party charity, which can sometimes disconnect the donor from the cause they wish to support, people are increasingly interested in donating to specific causes they can more directly see and understand, such as developing a toy to teach young girls engineering. They would rather donate to one of the hundreds of specific causes or companies they like on Kickstarter (or on similar platforms, such as Indiegogo and Fundable).

If $500 Million isn’t big enough, over $1.5 Billion in loans have been issued through the “peer-to-peer” internet loan service LendingClub. LendingClub connects groups of people on the internet together to fund a loan to a borrower (instead of a bank). Crowdsourced lenders, by taking place of the bank, can get anywhere between 5 to 12% on their investments for taking the risk of the loan, after perusing hundreds of loan options. For many, this beats the alternative, which is either putting that money in a bank, making almost nothing, or playing an increasingly risky stock market. On the flip side, borrowers would not normally get nearly as good a loan if they used a regular bank.

What does this mean for the Earth (and green business)? – Can the environment benefit as people get more directly involved in deciding where their money goes? We’re starting to see that. 4th graders funded solar panels for their classroom using Kickstarter. IOBY, focused mainly in New York but spreading quickly, helps people directly fund environmental efforts taking place in their own backyard. Solar Mosaic is allowing Americans to invest in solar projects across the country.

What is the moral of this story? Climate change is a real threat and we’re clearly not doing enough to stop it. But new online tools may be able to help in this fight. For a low-lying coastal city like Boston, this is a bit of sunny news for this Earth Day.

Sachin Desai is a third year Harvard Law School student and co-founder of the sustainability-focused donation platform Project GreenCampus.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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