What’s the aid sector’s carbon footprint?

Everyone is measuring different things, so we are comparing apples and pears.

by Léopold Salzenstein, Kylee Pedersen

About this investigation: The aviation and energy sectors come with a heavy carbon footprint, but what about the aid sector? The New Humanitarian asked 24 organisations to estimate their total carbon footprint and say what – if anything – they’re doing to reduce it. The findings were surprising. For starters, it was hard to get an accurate sector-wide picture because many groups – particularly UN agencies – don’t measure all their emissions. Some also rely on carbon offsetting to reduce the impact of their more harmful activities even though critics say this is no cure-all. It’s not all gloomy, however. Several are adopting lessons from the pandemic: taking fewer flights and buying local. 

The world’s largest aid organisations are divided when it comes to which greenhouse gas emissions to measure and how, according to a survey by The New Humanitarian that paints a messy picture of greening efforts in the sector and exposes gaps in tracking data.

Over the course of an eight-month investigation, 10 UN agencies and 14 international NGOs responded to questions on their efforts to address the environmental and climate impacts of humanitarian operations.

At a glance: Aid sector greening efforts

  • No uniform system exists for humanitarian organisations to measure their carbon footprints.
  • More than half of the groups surveyed do not count their total emissions.
  • Indirect emissions can sometimes amount to nearly half of an organisation’s footprint.
  • World Health Organisation was one of the UN agencies with the highest per capita emissions, largely because of the flights.
  • Flights accounted for one of the UN’s biggest emissions sources.
  • Packaging and waste management produce large amounts of emissions yet many organisations do not measure this.
  • Médecins Sans Frontières estimates that 70 percent of its supply chain emissions occur during the extraction and manufacturing processes.

The survey – focusing on 2019 data prior to the COVID-19 pandemic – asked groups to estimate their greenhouse gas emissions and to describe what they’ve been doing to reduce their carbon footprint. To reflect strategies put into place since the onset of the pandemic, reporters conducted additional interviews between August and October 2021.

The responses suggest differences on which emissions are tracked and how; little consensus on whether buying carbon credits is the right approach to reduce organisations’ footprints; concerns over a lack of donor funding for green initiatives; and dilemmas when it comes to buying aid supplies.

For example, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) has bought more than $41 million in fortified palm oil – for cooking and food aid – this year alone to send to countries such as AfghanistanSomalia, and Togo, where changing climate patterns and deforestation have amplified humanitarian needs.

Around the world, palm oil plantations have led to deforestation – a driving factor in global warming – but they have also been linked to land conflicts, displacement of Indigenous communitiesloss of biodiversitywater pollution, and soil erosion.

WFP said it has been buying more sunflower oil in recent years, but even that comes with environmental drawbacks.

Other aid organisations also stressed that there are no easy greening solutions, while survey responses suggested that some pandemic-induced shifts – in both mindset and practices – are underway, offering starting points for more sustainable operations in the future.

In August, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered a sobering report on the climate crisis, warning that urgent action was needed to reduce emissions and rising temperatures. And ahead of the UN’s COP26 climate change conference, which begins 31 October in Glasgow, a report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) revealed that greenhouse gas emissions saw record highs in 2020 despite pandemic lockdowns.

Aid workers have had a front-row seat to witnessing and responding to disasters driven by climate change. With rising temperatures have come new conflictsdisplacement, migrationextreme weather events, and shortages of food and water. But the aid sector’s own practices – which sometimes involve moving goods and people in fleets of planes, clearing trees to make way for shelters, and purchasing goods that come with their own heavy carbon footprints – may also be contributing to those same climate-related crises.

Given the worrying predictions that current reductions won’t slow the Earth’s rising temperatures as fast as needed, several organisations surveyed said they were accelerating plans to reduce emissions: some planned to halve emissions by 2030; and the World Health Organization (WHO) – one of the UN agencies with the highest per capita emissions, largely because of air travel – was actively reducing flights as a result of travel habits altered by the pandemic.  

Questions on the survey included:

  • What measures are in place to calculate the organisation’s CO2 emissions (GHG protocol, scope of the study, etc.)?
  • What is the organisation’s estimated footprint?
  • What actions are being implemented to mitigate the organisation’s carbon impact, and what is the timeline to implement these changes?
  • What changes, if any, were made to the organisation’s activities in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What impact did these changes have on the organisation’s carbon footprint? Are you planning to replicate any of these changes in the future?
  • More broadly, what lessons, if any, did the pandemic teach your organisation with regards to GHG emissions?
  • Is your organisation currently offsetting its carbon emissions? If so, how?

Other aid organisations, such as the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, look for “green” options, but they’re not always to be found, said Andrew Harper, the agency’s special adviser on climate action. “As emergency organisations – in lifesaving situations – we have no option but to have a large footprint,” Harper said. “At the same time, COVID-19 and climate change provide amazing opportunities for a paradigm shift in this sector.”

Since the pandemic, some organisations were also looking toward localisationpooled resources, and preparedness to reduce emissions.

“This crisis has shown that we can do things differently,” said Samantha Brangeon, a former researcher at Groupe Urgence – Réhabilitation – Développement (Groupe URD), a French think tank specialising in humanitarian issues that published a report last year on the challenges of greening aid operations.

Although many humanitarian organisations already apply the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) in their operations – this includes the need to address negative environmental impacts of aid and promotes sustainability – participation is voluntary. And while many have also been implementing greener practices since the 2015 Paris Agreement, sector-wide changes have been patchy.

“We need something that pulls us together, where we agree on high-level commitments,” said Catherine-Lune Grayson, policy adviser at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Ahead of COP26, the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) have been rallying aid groups to sign the new Climate and Environment Charter for Humanitarian Organizations.

As of 26 October, 165 organisations have signed the charter – which calls for the sector to make specific emissions reduction commitments and adopt common environmental standards – and more are expected to do so by the end of the conference. But as it is non-binding it is unclear what difference it will make, if any.

What’s measured and how

According to follow-up interviews with The New Humanitarian’s survey respondents, one of the stumbling blocks in reducing the sector’s total carbon footprint has been assessing which emissions are actually measured.

As long as organisations fail to measure all emissions, the sector’s footprint will remain largely unknown, according to André Krummacher, who oversees programmes at the Paris-based emergency relief organisation ACTED.

“Everyone is measuring different things, so we are comparing apples and pears,” Krummacher told The New Humanitarian.

Although sector-wide statistics on travel are spotty, organisations generally calculate their emissions by multiplying activity data – distance travelled by planes, or litres of gasoline used – with the estimated emissions of those actions.

ACTED, for example, said in the survey and interviews that it spent 25,000 euros to set up an organisation-wide carbon footprint calculator based on the Greenhouse Gas Protocol methodology. The tool allows the NGO to estimate the footprint of its main activities, ranging from the use of generator fuel to procuring seeds or livestock.

Unlike some organisations, ACTED includes activities from its suppliers and service providers, measuring a wider range of activities than most.

Many other organisations mostly measure direct emissions – emissions they generated themselves, for example by driving cars owned by the organisation or burning fuel to generate electricity.

In 2007, UN agencies were asked to start reporting emissions from facilities and travel from headquarters, regional and administrative centres, and field offices – emissions that could include the use of electricity and heat as well as air, sea, and ground transportation.

UN entities are not required to track other emissions, such as those from procurement efforts or projects run by outside partners – though agencies can voluntarily report the additional emissions. Those, however, were not included in last year’s Greening the Blue report, which gives one of the most comprehensive recent snapshots of the UN’s environmental impact and the steps being taken to reduce it.

WFP, for example, had a footprint of nearly 95,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to the report. That same year, however, the organisation also measured optional emissions, which nearly doubled the amount to roughly 196,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases, according to follow-up interviews with WFP.

Even with the additional reporting, WFP’s footprint was likely even larger in 2019, as its total emissions associated with procurement efforts and staff commuting were not measured, according to a WFP spokesperson.

“One of the areas that we will re-evaluate is what, if any, additional indirect emissions should be included in the environmental inventory – such as those generated by the organisations that we procure from,” said Isabella Marras, coordinator of the Sustainable United Nations, a unit under the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) that has been working towards greening the UN’s operations.

For the UN, flights are unsurprisingly one of the largest contributors to estimated emissions.

Roughly 90 percent of the WHO’s yearly emissions footprint in 2018, for example, was generated by flights.

“It is clear that our carbon emissions should be reduced, and senior management is considering proposals to do this,” a WHO spokesperson told The New Humanitarian. “We are learning quickly from the enforced reduction of travel caused by COVID, and like almost all organisations and populations, are making much more use of virtual meetings… We expect this to continue in the future.”

Twenty of the 24 organisations surveyed by The New Humanitarian offered some details about emissions associated with flights, but only around half gave precise figures as to what emissions were actually generated by flights. Some organisations did not specifically quantify emissions associated with flights or air freight, while others didn’t offer information for all of their affiliates.

For example, Oxfam said air travel accounted for 22.9 percent of its total emissions in 2019-20, but with a caveat: The calculation only considered travel and freight from its UK arm. An estimated 46 percent of Oxfam’s total emissions in 2015-16 came from flights. It expects to release an updated figure for all of its affiliates later this year, according to Oxfam spokesperson Matt Grainger.

The devil’s in the details

While direct emissions are significant, the carbon impact of indirect emissions – emissions generated by aid organisations buying goods or services from other organisations – can be massive, according to the survey and follow-up interviews.

Humanitarian aid efforts often involve shipping huge amounts of goods and equipment to remote locations. Tarps, tents, jerrycans, water bottles, and food all carry a carbon price tag. That cost increases as items are transported, stored, or disposed of.

The bulk of indirect emissions often take place when raw materials are extracted, manufactured, and assembled into goods to distribute as part of a relief effort, according to Thierry Balloy, director of logistics, procurement, and supply chain management at the IFRC. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimates that 70 percent of its supply chain emissions occur during the extraction and manufacturing processes.

In 2019, ACTED estimated that purchased goods and contracted services represented nearly half (44 percent) of its yearly footprint, while the ICRC linked 66 percent of its emissions that year to the supply chain.

Purchasing sustainable items is one way to reduce emissions, but humanitarian organisations are sometimes constrained by donors.

On the one hand, there’s increasing pressure from donors to do more when it comes to environmental safeguarding, but that can often mean higher costs, Krummacher, of ACTED, told The New Humanitarian.

“It’s a bit of a Catch-22,” he said. “Let’s say you want to build 1,000 shelters. If you take certified timber from a plantation to ensure that you don’t buy illegally logged wood, it will cost 50,000 or 100,000 euros more. Would [donors] accept to pay this price?”

Clearing trees or land to make way for refugee or displaced persons camps has sometimes been needed in emergency responses, and a practice that impacts climate change.

According to the UN Development Programme, between 3,000 and 4,000 acresof hills and forests have been cut down to make way for temporary shelters, facilities, and cooking in Cox’s Bazar In Bangladesh, where nearly one million Rohingya refugees live after escaping a military crackdown in Myanmar.

In responses to The New Humanitarian’s survey, some groups, such as the IFRC, noted green shelter initiatives as part of their overall greening strategy.

Packaging and waste management are also considered indirect emissions that many organisations do not include in their overall carbon footprint, according to the survey.

In 2019, for example, WFP reported 663 metric tons of waste. But not all WFP offices around the world reported data on waste, so the actual amount is likely even larger.

Jerricans and tarpaulins are often made of non-compostable plastic, and some relief items come wrapped in single-use packages. WFP, UNHCR, and the ICRC are together trying to develop alternative materials to polypropylene bags, which are used to wrap basic relief goods such as cereals or pulses.

The WHO, meanwhile, said in an emailed response that some 99 percent of its waste is recycled, reused, or composted.

Carbon offsetting

Unable to significantly reduce their emissions because of the nature of aid work, many humanitarian organisations have turned to offsetting them. The UN, for example, considers itself mostly carbon neutral – largely because it buys carbon credits.

In 2020, it said some 97 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions reported by its agencies in 2019 were offset by purchasing carbon credits from the Clean Development Mechanism, one of the world’s largest carbon offsetting schemes.

These ‘green’ credits are traded for environmentally harmful credits, allowing organisations to offset activities they deem unavoidable, such as air travel or shipping relief supplies. Each credit equates to the amount of global warming caused by a metric ton of carbon dioxide.

However, there is little consensus over the benefits of offsetting.

Through carbon offsets, organisations are “allowed” to continue emissions-producing activities while publicly announcing a more carbon neutral platform.

The quality of the credits for sale has in the past raised questions. To effectively reduce emissions, projects supported by credit schemes should be long-term and have a low measure of additionality, meaning they wouldn’t have been built or started without the credits.

Many programmes have failed to meet these criteria. A study released in 2017 found that 85 percent of carbon offset projects used by the EU under the Clean Development Mechanism had a low likelihood of significantly reducing emissions.

Yet, roughly half of the organisations surveyed by The New Humanitarian said they are either currently offsetting part of their emissions or considering it.

Oxfam GB was one of the organisations that said during follow-up interviews that it would not be relying on carbon offsets to reduce emissions.

“There is nothing wrong with carbon offsetting in principle, but it should not be a substitute for reducing carbon emissions,” said Sophie Brill, head of ethics at Oxfam GB. “Many carbon offsetting schemes depend on large amounts of land being reforested or used to grow biofuels,” she said, adding that the schemes then create competition for land to grow food on.

One component of the Climate and Environment Charter for Humanitarian Organizations calls for “high quality offset and carbon credit mechanisms”, but it also notes risks and offers guidance for standards on offsetting options.

“It is absolutely critical that we reduce real emissions,” said Amir Khouzam, policy adviser at the ICRC. “But it is also true that for the foreseeable future some level of emissions are likely to remain unavoidable.”

Pandemic-inspired solutions

Although COVID-19 travel restrictions lowered overall global carbon dioxide emissions by roughly 6.4 percent in 2020, it’s unclear how much the aid sector has reduced its footprint since the pandemic began.

While many humanitarian organisations had not yet tallied their 2020 carbon emissions when the survey was conducted, several noted reductions during follow-up interviews.

UNDP and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), for example, estimate a reduction of around 40 to 45 percent of their overall footprint. However, like many UN agencies, neither measures all the indirect emissions associated with their operations.

Others, such as the ICRC, noted a reduction of 61 percent in travel-related emissions and 42 percent in emissions from employee commuting in 2020 compared to 2019. With fewer people working from the office, the consumption of electricity and natural gas also decreased.

Several groups, such as the CARE confederation, Catholic Relief Services, and Mercy Corps, said during follow-up interviews that they were looking at remote-working options and reducing non-essential staff trips.

“Before the pandemic, our staff came to our HQ (headquarters) for in-person briefings,” Carol Devine, who leads the Climate Smart MSF project, told The New Humanitarian in July. “It works just as well using video conferencing.”

Organisations such as ACTED and ICRC offered a more nuanced picture.

“Business travel and employee commuting is relatively marginal in ACTED’s carbon footprint and account ‘only’ for 13 percent of our carbon emissions,” Krummacher told The New Humanitarian in an email interview in July. “We are therefore not fully convinced that less travel and going more virtual [will] significantly reduce our (greenhouse gas) emissions.”

ICRC’s air freight emissions increased during the pandemic as the organisation needed to quickly deliver protective equipment around the world. Emissions linked to the procurement of relief items – including carbon-intensive products such as soap and shampoo – also increased.

While buying compostable or sustainable products may not always be feasible for the humanitarian sector, experts say there are other ways to reduce procurement-related indirect emissions that would be in line with the Grand Bargain, which aims to optimise aid delivery.

“By pooling logistics services, aid agencies can avoid duplication through shared transport, storage, and human resources; thereby unlocking substantial emission reductions,” said Frances Crowley, an independent researcher in environmental sustainability, resilience, and aid.

Groups like the IFRC already try to buy local products when possible, according to Balloy, the organisation’s director of logistics, procurement, and supply chain management.

Because of the pandemic, agencies such as MSF also turned toward new local and regional procurement as a result of disrupted supply chains, said MSF’s Devine.

But buying locally is rarely a silver bullet. Timber is hard to come by in Haiti, for example. The Caribbean country is one of the most deforested in the world, a trend that began centuries ago with its agricultural exploitation.

MSF’s Devine said the humanitarian sector can’t keep striving to save lives at the cost of potentially harming others via climate impacts: “Humanitarian organisations surely don’t have the carbon or waste footprint of the biggest global polluters, but it doesn’t absolve us from our responsibility.”

The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit news agency focusing on humanitarian stories in regions that are often forgotten, under-reported, misunderstood or ignored. Prior to 1 January 2015, IRIN News was a project of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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