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Can a new charter point the way to a greener future for the aid sector?

‘We’re getting to a stage of green where there’s no wiggle room anymore.’

The image shows a crushed plastic water bottle lying on cracked, parched earth. Amanda Perobelli/REUTERS
A crushed bottle lies near the Jaguari dam, on 8 October 2021. A severe drought has turned the reservoir that supplies Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city, into parched and cracked earth.

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While many humanitarians were disappointed by what came out of COP26, some are hopeful that a new “Climate and Environment Charter” might provide a roadmap that can at least help the aid sector reduce its own contribution to the climate crisis.

  • At a glance: Seven commitments to ‘green’ the aid sector

  • Step up our response to growing humanitarian needs and help people adapt to the impacts of the climate and environmental crises.
  • Maximize the environmental sustainability of our work and rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Embrace the leadership of local actors and communities.
  • Increase our capacity to understand climate and environmental risks and develop evidence-based solutions.
  • Work collaboratively across the humanitarian sector and beyond to strengthen climate and environmental action.
  • Use our influence to mobilise urgent and more ambitious climate action and environmental protection.
  • Develop targets and measure our progress as we implement our commitments.

So far, more than 180 organisations have signed on to the charter – a Red Cross initiative launched earlier this year that sets out seven key commitments, ranging from targets and actions to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions, to embracing local actors, to putting more resources into understanding climate risks and coming up with solutions. 

But for a humanitarian sector that prioritises immediate action to save lives and has an operational and financial model oriented towards relief, making this shift to prevention and anticipation – and changing internal practices to be part of the solution – is a significant leap.

That said, anticipatory action has been drawing greater attention – and donor funding – as humanitarian responses become increasingly stretched by the climate crisis. This is not only by the rising frequency and intensity of climate-related disasters, but also by the compounding effect that climate change is having on protracted crises – whether that’s drought-driven displacement or inter-communal conflict fuelled by competition over scant resources.

Some, therefore, see the shift towards greener operations, and greener thinking more broadly, as inevitable.

“We’re bearing witness to the consequences [of climate change] on communities that are most vulnerable,” Oenone Chadburn, head of the humanitarian and resilience team at UK-based charity Tearfund, told The New Humanitarian. Aid groups like hers want to be part of the solution and prevention, not just the response, she added.

No enforcement doesn’t have to mean no good

The Climate and Environment Charter for Humanitarian Organizations isn’t legally binding, but groups who sign on are expected to translate the commitments into time-bound targets on things like carbon footprint reduction and their overall environmental impact.

Each organisation will have its own specific targets, reflecting its scale, capacities, and mandate. For example, Tearfund, which works through local partners, will have a different starting point than another agency that directly implements programmes itself.

Read more → What’s the aid sector’s carbon footprint?

In order to identify targets, organisations first need to do their homework and determine their baseline when it comes to CO2 emissions, for example. They have a year to do so after signing up, and in this way it is hoped the charter will accelerate some groups’ greening work. 

But the big problem when commitments aren’t legally binding is that there’s typically no enforcement mechanism to hold groups to account for what they’ve signed up to.

Past voluntary standards and donor agreements have been important markers and articulators of change in the humanitarian sphere, but they’ve had varying degrees of success in delivering real change. Even large-scale, sector-wide commitments have made uneven progress over time.

While those same enforcement fears surround the climate charter, its supporters point to the evolution of the Red Cross movement's code of conduct for humanitarian organisations as an example of what it could eventually become.

Emerging in response to failings of the humanitarian sector, the code was aspirational and voluntary when introduced in 1994. Today, it is seen as an integral framework for the way humanitarians do business, with procedures and compliance mechanisms set up around it.  

And while there is no policing power behind the climate charter, for Tearfund’s Chadburn, “it provides a frame of reference that we can externally measure ourselves against and be more transparent about how we are doing business.” 

This kind of “moral pressure”, as ICRC policy adviser Catherine-Lune Grayson referred to it, is an important part of soft accountability. “If you sign up, you’re expected to demonstrate [how you are meeting the commitments],” she said, cautioning that while the number of signatories may be seen as a success, “the real measure… is whether they will implement.”

Bringing local groups on board 

The charter integrates timely issues around localisation, with a specific commitment that not only seeks to learn from local and Indigenous knowledge of climate and environmental risks, but also vows to invest in promoting locally led responses to these threats.

Although local and national organisations (including national Red Cross societies) are the largest group of actors to sign the charter – 65 out of a total of 184 – there’s concern that many will need a lot more resources to implement its commitments.

READ MORE: What is localisation

Despite inside knowledge and access, local organisations are often told what to do by international partners – treated as disposable contractors and denied the chance to take charge. Rather than an elite of foreign aid organisations calling the shots, commitments around “localisation” have called for a more equitable and complementary division of labour – “as international as necessary, and as local as possible”. This concept is now hardwired into the humanitarian discourse, but progress on the ground is patchy, and direct funding to local groups remains low.

It may go beyond finding money to reduce their emissions and green their operations: The problem for some could even come down to having enough resources to provide the evidence they have done so, which the charter requires through the targets.

Even large international groups struggle to measure this and describe it as a complex effort, requiring dedicated capacity that they don’t often get extra funding for.

“The biggest cost is just finding the staff and additional capacity to assimilate and analyse the data about carbon positioning,” explained Chadburn. “We feel it’s a struggle to justify employing a cohort of people to do this analysis for us.”

For local groups, she wondered how far it is realistic to push: “Are we going to ask [them] to measure the carbon footprint from the lights they have on and the petroleum they use?” 

Manu Gupta, co-founder of the Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS), a humanitarian NGO based in India that works across Asia and the Pacific, agreed.

SEEDS signed onto the charter in June, and in the lead-up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow developed its own set of commitments for the next decade. “It takes a lot of extra work,” he told The New Humanitarian.

SEEDS has employed external consultants to advise it on climate change adaptation and audit its programmes and human resource capacity with a climate lens in mind. “We had to resource it from our own internal sources,” he said.

Still, local organisations are considered small fish when it comes to contributing to climate problems. “We are not the real culprits here,” Gupta said. “The fact [is], there are these big villains out there who are polluting. They need to walk the talk first, then it will come down to small organisations like us.”  

Unifying the disparate efforts

A months-long investigation published last month by The New Humanitarian found that while several aid organisations have introduced greener practices since the 2015 Paris Agreement, a cohesive, sector-wide shift has not yet materialised.

Part of this comes down to the fragmented nature of the humanitarian system – one in which many individual initiatives may be taking place but at different paces and with different interpretations of standards and measurement tools.

To help counter this, the Red Cross is developing a carbon accounting tool that aims to standardise how humanitarian organisations demonstrate carbon emissions and make such efforts more accessible and less resource-intensive. It aims to start piloting the tool in April 2022.

Meanwhile, only *two UN bodies – the refugee agency, UNHCR; and the emergency aid coordination body, OCHA – have signed onto the charter so far. The UN does have its own initiative, Greening the Blue, which seeks to measure the UN’s environmental footprint and step up efforts to reduce it. The UN's reticence when it comes to system-wide standards isn’t new: UN agencies often have too many internal bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, and typically show statements of support instead. 

The charter includes a special category of signatories for donors and disaster management agencies who want to sign up as supporters. What groups like Tearfund hope is that, down the line, donors will start to pre-qualify their funding for organisations with sound environmental policies, or turn away those without. But until then, aid groups may shy away from purchasing more environmentally friendly items that are more expensive, especially if auditors don’t accept it as justified.

Donors need to do more in other areas too.

They often enforce rule of origin procurement policies that require aid groups to purchase supplies from certain Western countries, so the money goes back into those economies. These result in higher carbon footprints for aid organisations when they then have to fly the goods and supplies to the places where they are to be used. Sourcing environmentally friendly goods locally would not only reduce emissions from flights, but also help support local suppliers in crisis-affected countries.

Regardless of how quickly donors and aid groups move towards the charter's new commitments, Chadburn believes it won’t be long before the aid sector is required to become more climate conscious.

“We’re getting to a stage of green where there’s no wiggle room anymore.” Chadburn said. All entities that are legally registered in a country will, at some point in the near future, have to demonstrate a net zero commitment, she added.

(*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that no UN bodies had signed. In fact, UNHCR signed on 27 October, and UN OCHA on 11 November. This article was updated on 24 November 2021.)

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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