The New Humanitarian | NGO emissions: Greening the aid sector


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 25 Oct. 2021

It’s gonna be very, very tough this summit. And I’m very worried because it might go wrong. And we might not get the agreements that we need.

Greta Thunberg, 28 Sept. 2021

This is not about some expensive politically correct green act of bunny hugging, or blah, blah. Net zero by 2050, blah, blah, blah. Net zero, blah, blah, blah. Climate neutral, blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. 

David Attenborough, 23 Feb. 2021

It is crucial that these meetings in Glasgow, COP26, have success. And that at last, the nations will come together to solve the crippling problems that the world – the globe – now faces. 

Heba Aly: Next week, world leaders will gather in Scotland for the UN climate conference COP26, where they’re expected to commit to reducing carbon emissions. Humanitarian organisations are increasingly responding to the effects of climate change. Rising temperatures have come with new conflicts, displacement, migration, extreme weather events, and shortages of food and water. But to what extent do massive logistical relief operations also contribute to those same climate related crises?

I’m Heba Aly and this is Rethinking Humanitarianism.

The humanitarian aid sector moves people around the world in fleets of planes and 4x4s. It sometimes cuts down trees to make way for shelters. It purchases goods that come with their own heavy carbon footprints in complex international supply chains. 

Last year, I attended a conference where aid agencies committed to providing clean energy in refugee camps. And I wondered: What is the aid sector’s carbon footprint? Turns out it’s not a simple question to answer. 

Léopold Salzenstein is a journalist based in France, who specialises in climate issues. And he dug into this question for us. Hi Léopold.

Léopold Salzenstein: Hi.

Aly: As part of an investigation for The New Humanitarian, you asked 24 organisations to estimate their total carbon footprint. Four said they couldn’t because they don’t measure it. But of the 20 that did respond, what did you find? 

Salzenstein: So, we surveyed ten agencies from the United Nations and also fourteen non-governmental organisations. And we were expecting, perhaps a bit naively, to compile their annual emissions by activity. And the idea was to map the sector’s impact on climate change. But we found that to be basically impossible because there was no uniform system for humanitarian organisations to measure their emissions. And so, we were just comparing data that didn’t fit together. And of the organisations that we surveyed, there were only three of them that were measuring all of their emissions, including those from buying and shipping humanitarian goods across the world. So the other organisations, including all of the 10 UN agencies, they either measured the emissions from only part of their activities or across a limited number of operations, basically. 

Aly: So can you walk us through that? What do they or don’t they count?

Salzenstein: Measuring emissions is a tricky thing to do because it’s not possible for a humanitarian organisation or any organisation to just directly measure the emissions as they happen. It would just be too difficult and costly. Instead, what the organisations do, is to estimate how much they emit by multiplying information that they do know about their activities. So for example, how many plane tickets they have booked in the past year, or how many litres of gasoline they used to fuel their cars or trucks. Or even their monthly electricity bills. And they multiply this with the estimated emissions of these activities. To do that, they use something called ‘emission factors’, which are basically an estimate that is put together by either government agencies or research institutes and say: One litre of gasoline, for example, emits that much CO2. And so by multiplying data on the activities, with how much these kinds of activities usually emit, they can get a rough estimate of their carbon footprint. 

Aly: So you’ve said it’s basically impossible to get a full picture of the sector’s carbon emissions, but from what you were able to piece together, how serious is the carbon and waste footprint of aid organisations? I mean, what are we talking about here in terms of scale? 

Salzenstein: So, as you said, it is quite difficult to say because the data that exists is quite patchy. But one way we could visualise it is, for example, what the UN agencies – the 10 UN agencies that we surveyed – the footprint that they gave us, represented more or less the equivalent of the footprint of the Central African Republic. So that gives us an idea of 10 organisations having the size of a state basically. But what we found more than that is that a lot of the emissions that are emitted by actors like the UN were not basically being counted. It’s likely to be much more than that. Basically, many organisations did not measure indirect emission from all of the goods they purchase and ship during an emergency. And unlike other sectors, this activity is quite central to humanitarian work. You know, this is something that humanitarians do a lot – to buy goods and ship them. And actually, a few organisations that did measure this emission found that they represented nearly half of their overall footprint. If we just were to apply this to the UN, this would double their emissions, basically. But because of that patchy data, it is quite difficult to measure the footprint of humanitarians. Of the entire humanitarian sector, it’s even more challenging, because there is a lot of different types of actors: the UN, NGOs, some government actors also do humanitarian work. Realistically, it’s unlikely that the humanitarian sector emits as much as the bigger polluters like the extractive or farming industry. It’s a sector whose emission is unlikely to be negligible, but often gets a pass because of its role in saving lives. And what some informants were saying is: it’s not because a sector contributes to saving life that it shouldn’t also contribute to the climate solution. 

Aly: You’ve said that half of the emissions come from the procurement of goods and other services in the supply chain. Of the more direct emissions, what is driving most of those emissions for UN agencies?

Salzenstein: The UN, which I think represents a good picture of an actor that records mainly its direct emissions, and some indirect emissions, they found that taking planes basically, and transport were the biggest emitters. But that was not the case for the organisation that measured more than that. And that did take into account their indirect emissions. 

Aly: And what surprised you or shocked you the most when looking at those emissions, and the cause of those emissions? Did anything stand out? 

Salzenstein: Something that really surprised me is that some organisations – despite not measuring the entire emissions – were still comfortable with saying that they were carbon neutral. Their rationale is to say: ‘We measure that much emission, and this is how much we emit therefore, and we can buy carbon credits to offset those emissions. And because we buy the right amount of carbon credits, we are carbon neutral.’ But if those organisations don’t measure the entire scope of their emissions, then I think there is a flaw in the thinking because they cannot be carbon neutral then.

Aly: And in any case, this business of considering yourself carbon neutral, because you participate in offsetting schemes or carbon credits, how accepted is that as a means of being, “green” as compared to actually reducing your emissions? 

Salzenstein: Well, it’s quite controversial. And there is a topic of using offsets only to compensate for unavoidable emissions. But what we found was that a lot of organisations use that term of carbon neutral, maybe a bit early on in the process. There is still a lot of reduction to be made. And actually, the issue of using carbon offset is in itself contentious because there have been many investigations showing that they’re not necessarily the silver bullet. You might, for example, plant a lot of trees, but what if a fire happens and all of those trees burn. Then you’ve technically been carbon neutral for some years, but the emissions are back into the atmosphere. 

Aly: Could you tell me a little bit about what you found in terms of what organisations are doing? And in particular, I suppose this investigation took several months, in part due to COVID-related delays, in part because organisations didn’t necessarily have the data. Over the course of the research, did you see any change? 

Salzenstein: I think there’s been a lot of change in the sector during the time that we’ve been reporting. And this is actually one of the reasons that the investigation took quite some time to complete. The COVID-19 pandemic has, I think, coincided with a realisation that humanitarians needed to become part of the solution to decarbonise. And so, a lot has actually changed while we were reporting. We’ve had to update the article several times. Well, organisations have started to work on a common tool to try to measure and be able to compare their emissions. The International Committee of the Red Cross together with the Federation of the Red Cross Red Crescent Society, they’ve also published a Climate and Environmental Charter for Humanitarian Organizations, which includes a commitment to green activities and has been signed by more than 160 organisations to date. Since the last European election, and also the election of Joseph Biden in the United States, donors have also become more involved in pushing for a greener humanitarian sector. 

Aly: The charter is one set of commitments. Two years ago, I attended a conference where humanitarian organisations made all kinds of other pledges to green their operations. In this case, specifically in refugee settings. The UN Refugee Agency had launched a clean energy challenge committing to bringing sustainable energy to all settlements of displaced people by 2030. The Norwegian Refugee Council pledged to be carbon neutral. There’s a global plan of action for sustainable energy solutions and displacement situations. Has all of that led to an actual reduction in emissions, from what you can tell? 

Salzenstein: So that’s also quite difficult to know, because we cannot measure the emissions. But in terms of the UN actors, for example, they have seen a reduction in the emissions that they do measure over the past years. And the COVID-19 pandemic has played quite a role in reducing emissions, especially related to flights. But it’s still a bit unclear whether those commitments have made an actual impact. 

Aly: And I suppose whether post-COVID – if there is such a thing – we’ll see an increase in emissions, and that this is just the kind of temporary drop.

Salzenstein: Definitely, and here actually is a good example of why measuring is so important because when we were doing follow-up interviews post-COVID, some actors were saying: ‘‘We’re reducing a lot of our emissions because of flight reductions. And so we want to continue doing that and go online more, and try to foster more online meetings and reduce flights.” Other actors – those that did measure all of their emissions – they actually found that the reduction was not that large. Sure, there was a big reduction in terms of flights. But humanitarians kept buying things; they kept sending [them]. And so those organisations said: “Perhaps we need to look into other types of solutions. Maybe we need to localise aid more, or we need to look into pooled logistics.” And so I think this is a clear example of why something so dry as, you know, measuring emissions is actually quite crucial to know what we should do. 

Aly: Fascinating. Leopold, thank you so much for sharing this with us. 

Salzenstein: Thank you very much for having me. 

Aly: And you can look out for Leopold’s investigation into the carbon footprint of the humanitarian aid sector on our website:

So if you are an aid agency looking to green your operations, where do you start? What works and what are the challenges? 

In our virtual podcast studio today, we’ve got two organisations who are at the forefront of trying to become greener. 

Kathrine Vad is a climate change advisor at the International Committee of the Red Cross. The ICRC is one of the organisations, as Leopold mentioned, pushing the aid sector to sign the Climate and Environment Charter for humanitarian organisations, which lays out a series of commitments to integrate climate and environmental issues into their work. Welcome Kathrine. 

Kathrine Vad: Thank you. 

Aly: And André Krummacher is vice CEO of impact and accountability at ACTED, a French-based humanitarian relief charity that aspires to zero carbon emissions in its work. Hi, André. 

André Krummacher: Hi Heba, happy to be here. 

Aly: I’d like to ask both of you, first, what you make of what you just heard from Leopold and the findings of our investigation into carbon emissions in the sector?

Krummacher: They are very much actually in line – these findings from Leopold – with what we found ourselves when we did our first carbon footprint in 2017. Namely, that the emission hotspot for us is really in the supply chain. But you only know this if you do a full and comprehensive carbon footprint. Otherwise, the information in the data is really skewed, especially if you have reduction plans. If you don’t have this full view of what are your emission hotspots, you may work on reduction actions that may be important but may not be the most significant emissions that you are producing as an organisation. So it’s really, really aligned with Leopold’s findings. 

Aly: Kathrine, what were your reactions? 

Vad: What resonated a lot with me was also what Leopold said about carbon offsetting and claims to be carbon neutral. Here, at the ICRC we really believe that it’s really important for us to start drastically reducing our emissions and we’ve actually committed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, compared to our 2018 baseline, without actually calling on carbon offsets or compensation to support that. Because it is critical that we all reduce our emissions. Carbon offsets will be important in the longer term, but we do have scope for reduction that we absolutely need to act on. 

Aly: Historically, I think the dominant thinking in the humanitarian sector has been, we’re too busy saving lives to worry about the environment. When did each of your organisation’s decide it was time to kind of take this seriously? And why was that important to you? 

Vad: So the ICRC adopted its framework for sustainable development back in 2011. So it’s been about a decade now for us. The push really at the time was that this is actually going to make the quality of the aid that we provide better. Carbon emissions [are] one part of our environmental impacts. But obviously, any activity that we do also leaves much more local impacts in the field. You can think about packaging waste, you can think about – well you said it in the introduction – the trees that may be used for shelter. And this is the environment in which the people that we support have to live on afterwards. So if we leave an environment behind that’s polluted, we are diminishing the quality of the aid that we’re providing. So it’s really about making our work much better. Environmental impacts should never prevent us from doing our mission. But we need to look at them to make sure that we actually achieve the mission that we set out to do, which is to help people. 

Aly: André, what about you? 

Krummacher: We started looking into our missions at the end of 2017. At that time, the organisation was undergoing a transformation. Especially the zero carbon elements in our vision, compels us, of course, to walk the talk on climate change and environment and to take necessary measures to reduce our climate and environmental footprint, both at an organisational and at an operational level. When we came up with this new vision, we said we need to understand our organisational carbon footprint – where our CO2 emissions are coming from – before starting to implement concrete mitigation measures at both organisational and operational level. 

Aly: How complicated has it been to actually measure all of this? I mean, ACTED spent, as I understand it, 25,000 euros to set up a kind of organisation-wide calculator. And you’re using the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which is a globally used standard for greenhouse gas accounting that allows you to estimate your footprint, and classifies different types of emissions under what they call Scope 1, Scope 2, Scope 3. You’ve gone beyond what most organisations do in trying to actually track, not just direct emissions, but also your indirect emissions. How hard was that?

Krummacher: It was quite difficult. And we learned a lot and we have come a long way. Because if you want to do it well and properly, you really need to put the means for this into place. 

Aly: And the financial means, you mean? 

Krummacher: Not only the financial means, but the means to measure within the organisation. And for this, the buy-in from staff is very, very important, who are actually involved in measuring the emissions. We have almost 250 data points for our carbon footprint. We are measuring in each country on a monthly basis to get really real-time data. But of course, there are so many competing priorities for our teams. They have many other things to do. So to explain to them why they should measure on a weekly basis the kilograms of trash in an office, or in a sub-office, and how this then contributes to the bigger picture is very difficult to make them understand. Because priorities were initially somewhere else – the delivery of goods, for example, and ultimately helping the beneficiaries – and then asking them to do more and more reporting. And there’s already so much reporting requirements also from our donors, and internally for the organisation. So we really needed to mobilise the staff first and get the buy-in. 

This took a long time, this took more than one year to really convince them, Now, I would say, now we have kind of industrialised it within the organisation. So it’s the new normal, but it takes time to go there. 

Aly: And that’s understandable, right? Because I think many would argue that there is a bit of a moral dilemma in taking time and energy away from saving lives in order to track your emissions. How are you wrestling with that dilemma? 

I’m thinking of one respondent to the survey who said, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not a good use of our funding to take the time to fill out the survey.’ So if even filling out a survey is not a good use of funding, imagine all the time it takes to actually track your emissions and then do something about it. Should that be the priority compared to immediate life saving activities?

Krummacher: I think it’s clear, we need to walk a thin line between the humanitarian imperative, saving lives, and at the same time protecting the most vulnerable actually, who have contributed least to climate change, and are often the hardest hit by its effects. So there is actually a link because we are working in countries that are affected by climate change, where people are heavily affected by climate change. And as such, as all organisations in the humanitarian systems, I think we have this collective responsibility in greening our operations so that our work does not further contribute to deteriorating the environment [that] people who are already very vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradations live in. And that’s why I’m saying, you can have the humanitarian imperative, and you can have, at the same time, environment [on] your radar, because really, it’s interconnected. 

Vad: I couldn’t have said it better than André. I firmly believe that we have a responsibility both towards our beneficiaries, because indeed, they are the most impacted by climate change. But also, we are faced with such a crisis and such an urgent crisis that I think we will all have to do our part if we want to keep our planet in the sort of livable condition for everyone. And that will have to include sectors like the humanitarian sector, that are here to save lives. But we cannot shy away from the fact that we do also need to reduce our emissions and continue to mitigate other environmental impacts that we have. 

And for the ICRC, it’s also about walking the talk. We’ve collaborated with the Federation on our Climate and Environment Charter. We are setting up and talking to many different actors – from financial institutions to development actors – about how we can bring climate finance to the areas of the world that need it most and that are not receiving a fair share of climate finance out there. 

We cannot work on these areas if we don’t also demonstrate our commitment to reducing our own emissions, basically. 

Aly: And when you started doing that, so really properly measuring your carbon footprint, what did you discover? You talked earlier about the supply chain being a big hotspot, but what else came up in that digging? 

Krummacher: We were surprised about the split of the emissions among Scope 1, which are basically the direct emissions of an organisation by fuel and fuel consumption. The Scope 2 emissions, which are indirect emissions through, say, generation of electricity, heating, cooling, all the air conditioners we were using. And then Scope 3, which really looks more at the value chain of an organisation. And as Leopold also found, almost 50 percent of our emissions came from the procurement and distribution of humanitarian goods and services that we deliver to people in crises. For example, we have 7,000 staff. And employee commuting only takes six percent of our emissions and pre-COVID business travel only made seven percent of our global emissions. And that’s where we then really said, let’s go on procurement and supply chains and look at how we can best localise such supply chains. 

Vad: We had a little bit of the same findings, actually. So our supply chains also account for – actually even more – I think it’s rather 60 percent of our emissions. And indeed, it’s about understanding what are the strategies to reduce that. Now, we will need to reduce emissions across all three scopes, particularly if we want to reach the 50 percent target and go even below after that. We will have to reduce our flying to the levels that we’ve probably known in these past couple of years. We will need to look at how we use energy in our premises. So walk away from grid electricity and diesel generators and more and more into using solar energy and other renewable energies and just being more efficient in the way we use energy. But we cannot reach a reduction of 50 percent if we don’t look at our supply chain emissions. That is very clear. First of all, I believe we have a lot to learn from the private sector. The private sector has been looking into their supply chains for much longer than us and so it’s about reaching out and understanding what has worked, what hasn’t. But we will also as humanitarians, I think, have to – a little bit – invent some of the solutions. Agree that it’s about, probably, more local procurement. But I think that it has to go beyond that. For me it’s also about thinking in different ways and meeting people’s needs in different ways. 

To give you one example, it’s a project from the ICRC in our Ukraine operations, which I love. They actually have started distributing LED lights to people rather than giving cash to enable people to pay for their electricity bills. And I love this example because I think it showcases how we can reach the same needs, which is to support people in having access to the energy that they need, but in a completely different way. And in this case it’s about reducing the amount of energy that they consume, rather than helping them pay for more energy. And that is something that I think we will have to really look into as a sector – reinventing how we meet people’s basic needs. 

Aly: And how much effort is it? How much time and cost have you had to invest in greening your operations? 

Vad: It’s a really good question. And I don’t have a fixed number to give you. The way I see it is this is going to be about mainstreaming it into everyone’s job in the organisation. And so down the line, it shouldn’t actually cost you much more than how we operate today. In some cases it’s true that greener projects may cost you a little bit more. I think, in other cases, particularly when you talk about renewable energy, we know that over time, it’s actually cheaper. 

So you probably have examples of more or less expensive projects on both lines, I think where it does cost you time is that you do need people in charge of the transition. And you do need people that have time to measure but also that have time to coordinate and implement the projects that you need to be greening. And that’s a little bit of what my team is doing. And that is some investment over some time before you see all the results being implemented. 

We are currently working on defining our really detailed environmental roadmap, and particularly how we are going to achieve this target of 50 percent reduction in our carbon emissions. And as part of that roadmap, we also want to actually quantify how much it’s going to cost. And we’re also working with our resource mobilisation division to see how can we start mobilising maybe other funds, not necessarily humanitarian funds, to support that approach. Because we will need financial support from traditional donors but also from other donors over some time if we want to achieve our objectives. 

Aly: That’s really interesting. But I want to just take a concrete example. So let’s take palm oil, which is the world’s most widely traded vegetable oil, but it’s also a leading cause of deforestation, which, of course, leads to climate change. And when you were doing your measurements, you realised that you were actually buying a few thousand tons of palm oil. How easy is it to remove that from your supply chains?

Vad: So it’s actually complicated for several reasons. We worked with our nutritionists and our economic security teams who are actually the ones distributing the palm oil to figure out how much palm oil is unavoidable. And that is simply because when we distribute palm oil, we do so based on people’s local traditions, preferences. If they’re used to eating palm oil, we’re not going to go and give them rapeseed oil, for example. It has a different taste; it has a different color. That’s not what they want; they want palm oil. So for the palm oil that we cannot avoid distributing, we are looking into buying sustainably produced palm oil – the one that’s certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. It has an increased cost. So there it’s a typical example of how you know greening your supply chain comes with an additional cost. 

But actually, our biggest hurdle at the moment is the additional lead time that this creates. Because – while we were shocked that you know, we were distributing a few thousand tonnes of palm oil – we are still a very small player on the palm oil market compared to other private companies in the food industry. And so our suppliers are unlikely to start producing sustainable palm oil just for the ICRC. They will wait to have a big enough order for other companies and then say, ‘Okay in this batch, we will then do sustainable palm oil.’ And that means that in our case, it took us between one and two months extra to actually get the sustainable palm oil to the African countries where we were going to distribute it. 

It also means questioning our capacity to better plan and actually order earlier on some of the sustainable palm oil. You can see that it starts really questioning a lot of processes, both the budgeting one but also just really basic planning and logistic processes that we have in place. 

Aly: It’s a bit mind boggling to think of how it must change so many things about the way you operate. I want to come back to the issue of cost that you raised. André, I’m wondering in your experience, the degree to which donors have been willing to cover the increased cost of green operations. When you present them a project and you say, ‘well I can do it sustainable but it’s going to cost you x amount more,’ what has been the reaction? 

Krummacher: It really depends. I would say most donors don’t have a clear policy on this. There is still a lot of [lack of] clarity or uncertainty. Just one or two examples: If we procure some supplies that are slightly more expensive because they are more environmentally friendly, for example, it is still not clear if the donors or auditors will accept those additional costs. The audit will be even two or three or five years down the line. And the auditor may say ‘Why didn’t you choose the cheapest supplier?’ And I [give] the greening argument, but given there is no policy now on this from the donor side, this may be [an] ineligible cost in the end. We are taking here a risk. And I think it’s very important that donors come clear about this and that they are willing to go and pay for this additional cost. 

Another example: It’s quite often linked to annual funding cycles of humanitarian donors. And Kathrine was also giving earlier an example, that maybe in the long run the cost of say a solarised borehole is cheaper than paying every year water tracking or the diesel generator of that borehole. But given that humanitarian donors work with [an] annual funding cycle, they are not looking at a five-year return on investment approach. And they say sorry, we don’t have the money this year, do water tracking or run the diesel generator. And then the next year they say it again. But in the third year, they say we do it again. And I say ‘Well, but now over the three years, I could have solarised the borehole and it would have been, I don’t know, 25 percent cheaper.’ We are not yet there. 

Aly: It’s interesting how so many of the challenges in the sector do come back to this kind of annual planning cycle, and the inability to really think and act long term on these questions and issues that are clearly long term. 

You’ve talked about some of the challenges, the lack of consistent data across the sector, the donor reticence, the lead time necessary to procure some of these more sustainable products. 

Where have you seen successes or where have you learned lessons that others might be able to benefit from?

Vad: One of the things that has worked really well in the ICRC is the approach that we’re trying to put in place to really empower our people in the field to implement environmental actions. So for the past six, seven years or so, the ICRC has a system in place to monitor – this goes beyond carbon – but to monitor the environmental impact of our delegations. And we look at things like also water consumption, waste management, obviously, energy consumption as well. And we actually communicate this to our sites. And we ask our sites to set up green teams that form action plans and take action. 

Now, it’s been a long process to start it. I think, as André said, it does take time to change the mentality of people. And it hasn’t been an easy process. But what we’re seeing now is that staff are extremely motivated to be part of the journey. And I think that it’s really powerful to be able to empower people and see all the great ideas that they come up with in the field – both for our premises, but once you get the ideas in our premises, you know, you learn from it, and you apply that in your operations. Typically in Ukraine, they had just done the LED-shift in their premises before they actually started thinking about, ‘well we could reuse LEDs also in our operations.’ 

Krummacher: Once you have mobilised and sensitised staff. And once you have their buy-in, I think a change can happen relatively quickly. But we also see now in project design, and in the responses we are planning, more and more elements in our projects that are taking the environment into consideration. For example, in terms of clean energy provision, we work a lot in refugee and IDP contexts and in camps, for example, through the provision of fuel efficient stoves. We have internally banned any type of livelihood activities that include, for example, the production of charcoal, things like this. And there is a full understanding now within the organisation and among our teams why we need to do this. 

Aly: Kathrine, I want to ask you about the Climate and Environment Charter for Humanitarian Organizations that I mentioned earlier, which the ICRC is pushing for, among others. What exactly are you trying to achieve with that charter? 

Vad: It’s really about getting the sector to move ahead on these topics together. I think we cannot achieve our ambitious goals, each of us in our own corner doing the little bit of best practices that we know here and there. We will have to do this together; we will have to find the innovative solutions together. We’ll have to learn from each other: looking at what has worked very practically in one organisation and how we can bring that into another organisation. 

So it’s really about, for us, fostering this collective movement as a sector. And we do want to continue enabling that basically. So following the Charter and following the fact that the ICRC, just as ACTED as you said at the beginning, came out with having measured our carbon footprint across all the scopes, we’ve also just launched a project to actually build a carbon accounting tool that will be made freely available to any humanitarian organisation. And we are doing that together with about 120 other humanitarian organisations. 

And at the moment, we are really having consultations on what kind of methodologies should we use to measure the different aspects of our footprint? What kind of data do organisations have access to? How should the tool be structured? But then next year, our ambition is really to work on a specific tool and have that at hand for everybody who wants to measure their carbon footprint.

So I think what we want as the ICRC is really just to foster that collective movement, because we are, as I said, convinced that we cannot do it alone. 

Aly: But it doesn’t, unlike some charters, set kind of direct targets or have a framework for holding organisations accountable. Why is that? 

Vad: We don’t think that it’s the ICRC’s work to hold anybody else and ourselves accountable for what we do. But I think more fundamentally, each organisation will have to set targets depending on its means, but also on the sort of main environmental risk, in essence. I think international organisations like ours, we see that supply chains, travel weighs very heavily on our carbon footprint. I think that that might be very different from maybe Red Cross Red Crescent national societies that work in the field, on the ground, and maybe have less purchases, but many different types of activities that are just as important. And so they will have to understand their footprint and set, you know, targets according to their means and their risk. 

And here, we’re just talking about carbon footprint, but the environmental impact of organisations goes much beyond that. I think carbon doesn’t represent very well, for example, the waste that you generate. It certainly doesn’t represent the local environmental impacts that your projects may have. And here again, each organisation will need to understand what impact it really has, and how it can reduce those. I truly believe that it’s up to each single organisation to set its goal and also prioritise them because we can’t tackle everything all at once. 

Aly: And so one final question for both of you, as is custom on the podcast. Given you’ve just said, you do need to prioritise, if you are an organisation looking to kind of start on this journey, what is one practical thing that can be easily implemented or where you can start today?

Vad: I usually say that what we should be aiming at is for each and everyone in our organisation to understand how his or her work impacts the environment, and to understand what they can do to reduce that impact. That’s not easy to achieve – understand me well – and I think the ICRC is not there yet. But one thing that you can start out with is definitely raising awareness, talking about the issues, brainstorming with people on really what they see as their professional responsibility, if you want, in handling that. 

This is what I call a happy topic. People are happy to contribute to projects that protect the environment, limit carbon emissions, so use that motivation that many of us have to really see how you can integrate it into people’s work. 

Krummacher: One concrete starting point that we did is: we have now an environmental policy, and it’s even a contractual requirement. When we hire staff. It’s attached to the contract. Everyone who’s hired already has a clear, written commitment on the greening aspects. That’s what we implemented since last year.

Aly: Kathrine, André, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Vad: Thank you for the invitation.

Krummacher: Thank you.

For more on our investigation, check out an article on our website, which looks in depth at efforts to deliver humanitarian aid in a more sustainable way, as well as the roadblocks in doing so. You’ll find a link on

Aly: If you’ve got thoughts on this week’s episode, you know I’d love to hear them. How damaging is the aid sector’s contribution to climate change? Should that be a concern? Or is it simply the cost of doing business when you’re saving lives? What interesting efforts have you seen successfully reduce the footprint of the aid industry? Write to us or send us a voice note at [email protected].

Aly: Thank you to those who reached out and shared their thoughts on the last episode about diversity, equity and inclusion in the humanitarian sector. One aid worker wrote to say: “I work for a French nonprofit, and we only recently in a very subtle way introduced the topic. As a person of color, it was heavy. But the pandora’s box was opened. The French system or culture doesn’t speak of racism. Yet we all know that it exists. Someone within the organisation told me not to try to import American and British broken society into France. It won’t work because in France, there is no racism. As a Black person in a white space, I feel it and it cuts deep within the organisation and especially as it relates to the countries we are meant to support.”

Thank you to that listener for that very personal take on the issue and we look forward to hearing more of your thoughts. 

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian. This episode was produced and edited by Martha van der Wolf. And I’m your host Heba Aly. 

This week we’ll leave you with the words of a young climate activist called Vanessa Nakata. She spoke in September at a youth event in the lead up to COP26 about the impact of a changing climate in her home country, Uganda, and in other countries around the world. 

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism. 

Vanessa Nakate, 29 Sept. 2021

How long shall the land mourn? How long shall the farms lay in ruins? How long shall the herbs of every field wither? How long shall the animals and the birds perish? How long shall children be given up for marriage because their families have lost everything to the climate crisis? How long shall children sleep hungry because their farms have been washed away? Because their crops have been dried up? Because of the extreme weather conditions? How long are we to watch them die of thirst in the droughts and gasp for air in the floods? What is the state of the hearts of the world leaders who watch this happen and allow it to continue? Our leaders are lost and our planet is damaged.

TNH announcement

Hi, my name is Paisley Dodds. I’m the investigations editor at The New Humanitarian. Our investigations are having a real impact in the aid sector and the communities that aid workers serve. But these stories take time and they cost money. Because we believe that our story should be available to everyone. We keep our journalism free and accessible for all that means that there are no paywalls thanks to the support of donors and readers like you. But if you believe we need more independent journalism in the world, then please make a donation to support our mission and become a member so we can continue our award-winning investigative reporting. To do that, just visit


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