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How can we build confidence and demonstrate to organisations the feasibility of the transition to net-zero carbon emissions?

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By Bruno Jochum
1 December 2021

The Climate Action Accelerator aims to mobilise a critical mass of organisations in the aid, health and education sectors to halve their carbon footprint by 2030 without the use of offsets. These transformations aim to show that action is both feasible and beneficial and that a commitment to a “net-zero” emissions level is possible. Perhaps most importantly, these organisations will then influence others in their sector to accelerate the implementation of climate solutions and cause a large-scale domino effect.

To enable organisations to get on board and inspire their sector, there are several obstacles to be overcome to convince them that they have a role to play in limiting the carbon stock in the atmosphere, as a prerequisite to reducing their carbon footprint.

Raising climate awareness

Most NGOs, health institutions or universities are not hostile to decarbonisation. On the contrary, they are often acutely aware of the climate issues. But few are aware of the extent to which – and the speed with which – temperatures will rise, that their missions could be affected or even threatened and, in the field of aid, that they will be on the front line of climate disasters. The populations most affected by climate change are those in the south, in sub-Saharan Africa, India, Bangladesh and central America – precisely those to whom these organisations provide aid.

There is a real paradox between the massive amount of information everywhere on the desperate need to decarbonise, and the bandwidth of organisations that have often not integrated decarbonisation into their strategy and practices. Most organisations have never had any specific awareness of climate issues, apart from what is available to citizens through the media. All known life is found in a narrow layer about ten kilometres thick around the globe and we are systematically destabilising its balance by injecting tens of billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into its atmosphere and through many other harmful practices. There is no public agency today that is briefing the governing bodies of organisations on the real risks to society and the planet or their own operations, even though we are already in an emergency. How does this concern them and why should they act? This is the first observation: Organisations are not adopting concrete scenarios of what awaits us in the next 20 years, which still seem too abstract compared to their main mission. The Climate Action Accelerator, therefore, brings this concrete awareness to organisations.

Most organisations, once they become aware of the situation they face, then need help to know where to start. There is a great need for operational support in taking concrete action; we are no longer in the context of a vague social and environmental responsibility, but in need of a radical transformation to be undertaken over the next decade. Too many companies and institutions congratulate themselves on environmental improvements that remain far too weak compared to the trajectory recommended by the scientific community to mitigate the ecological and climate crises. When experts speak of “radical transformation”, it’s driven by the scientific knowledge of how little time is left to implement solutions.

The responsibility to act on what we can control

The question of the responsibility that organisations have to act upon themselves is undeniable. Traditionally, each humanitarian agency focuses on their objective in assisting the most vulnerable populations, which remains their “core business”. For a long time, these organisations have expected governments, industry and the finance sector to take responsibility for the changing climate.

But in the face of an emergency, it has now become essential for all actors in society to set an example, especially those on the front line of human impacts. It is not always obvious to leaders of organisations that they have this role to play. They still often believe that they contribute very little in terms of emissions compared to other sectors or on a global scale, which is sometimes false. Responsible for 5% of global emissions, the health sector emits twice as much as aviation. It is therefore becoming imperative to break out of these reflexes and to focus responsibilities on what is under the direct control of each of these organisations. Today, all of society’s collective organisations can reduce their emissions quite considerably without waiting for policies to be put in place that oblige them to do so.

Generally speaking, in line with the Paris Climate Agreement, the trajectory to follow is to get as close as possible to “zero carbon emissions”, starting with an intermediate target in 2025 and then at least a 50% reduction by 2030. Thus, whatever their initial volume of emissions, collective organisations have a role to play, first within themselves, but also in their capacity to influence others – sometimes considerably. We must be aware of the power of example, of network and impact. Healthcare professions enjoy a high level of social trust and hospitals are generally the leading employers in a region, ahead of businessesReminding people of the current state of affairs and the responsibility to act is the driving force behind the move to action.


Once organisations understand that they have a role to play, they need to be made aware that such changes are feasible and that the available solutions will not prevent them from carrying out their primary mission: providing care in the case of hospitals, assisting vulnerable people for humanitarian organisations, and training and growing knowledge for universities and research centres. It is imperative to demonstrate that the necessary measures can be integrated into their social mission, that they can strengthen their activities by doing things differently, and that there are many benefits associated with such transformation.

Even before solutions are explored, confidence needs to be built about what is possible. A well-chosen example is often more convincing than many carefully constructed arguments because it immediately captures interest and support. The fact that the UK’s National Health Service has already reduced its direct emissions by 65% over the last 15 years and its supply chain emissions by over 20%, without the use of carbon offsets, shows the way forward toward net-zero by 2040. If the world’s largest public health service, with its intensive care, cancer and surgery services, can do it and adopt a radical transformation strategy, why can’t others?

Whether it is in terms of acquisition, transport, energy, construction or waste management, many practical solutions are documented and can be deployed in the short or medium term. Once you focus your energy on how, the path is built by combining collective intelligence and external expertise.

The strategic approach

Despite the global scale of the ecological crisis and its urgency, our society is still reluctant to devote an appropriate budget to this issue. For organisational leaders, devoting resources to necessary radical transformation is not always self-evident. There is often a kind of gap between the appreciation of the issues, the understanding that adjustments are possible and the allocation of dedicated financial resources. Many still question the act of setting aside resources – even minimal – to the climate issue, even though such questioning does not exist for other types of transformation (digitalisation, integration of new accounting standards, etc.).

However, the budget devoted to this issue is much more akin to investments than to costs. Our initial work with partners tends to indicate that the costs are more modest than generally thought and often financially neutral or even cost-effective. A complete reversal of perception must take place; the myth of an unaffordable transformation must be deconstructed. This is not what avant-garde organisations are finding when confronted with the reality of the challenge.

Within organisations, the approach to environmental and carbon footprint is still largely technical rather than strategic. Sustainability officers do not get the attention they need and their work is seen as just another technical or logistical issue, even though we are facing an unprecedented crisis for humanity that worsens by the day.

The whole approach of the Climate Action Accelerator is to start with the strategic commitment before asking the question of how to get there. When starting from the technical side, we often see targets reduced to the lowest possible level because they are set according to what is already being done or known, so as not to upset existing policies and operational models too much. But all the major organisations that have succeeded or are in the process of succeeding in decarbonising have started with a courageous political decision that involved setting a target based on a scientific consensus and then aligning their methods with the objective thus defined. We must therefore move away from a certain conservatism that aims to start with the technicalities and instead give priority to the objective, which will then determine the techniques and means to be used.

Not all solutions are technological or behavioural, as is sometimes thought. For service organisations (as opposed to manufacturing or agriculture), most solutions are more a matter of internal policies (purchasing criteria and location for the supply chain, business travel and commuting, energy efficiency of buildings and equipment choices).  While technological innovation is ultimately essential to achieve zero emissions, proven solutions and policy changes that drive collective behaviour are the key to successful decarbonisation by 2030. To rely on hypothetical innovations would be to condemn oneself and deny one’s responsibility to act.

The paradigm shift occurs when an organisation is willing to sign a letter of intent that precedes a formal agreement to work with the Climate Action Accelerator. This letter of intent has four simple commitments that have the merit of clarity, ambition and coherence:

  • Reduce emissions by at least 50% by 2030 without the use of carbon offsets, i.e. adopting the “absolute reductions” pathway,
  • Regularly measure all direct and indirect emissions and be transparent with the public on the results achieved,
  • Contribute and receive, as part of an open-source community of practice,
  • Contribute to bringing peers on board.

From there, the collaborative work begins in designing roadmaps, defining trajectories that are adapted to the organisation, and the practical implementation of these courses of action.

Bruno Jochum is the Founder of the Climate Action Accelerator and former Managing Director of Doctors Without Borders. 


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