Why this NGO is publishing its carbon emissions

A Q&A on future-proofing emergency aid for the climate crisis.

A Médecins Sans Frontières worker paddles a boat through floods in Pibor, in the Greater Upper Nile region of South Sudan, in November 2019. Samir Bol/Reuters
A Médecins Sans Frontières worker paddles a boat through floods in Pibor, in the Greater Upper Nile region of South Sudan, in November 2019.

A world of extreme heat and overlapping threats is forcing aid groups to rethink how they prepare for and respond to emergencies.

Many are examining their own sizeable carbon footprints and promising to cut emissions. Médecins Sans Frontières is one of the first to publicly chart a path forward.

  • Measuring up

    The Médecins Sans Frontières audit crunched the numbers on what’s fuelling emissions in operations covered by its Geneva hub, which include offices in 29 countries and 6,700 employees.


    This covers everything from employee commutes and emergency freight to diesel generators, construction, and waste. Operations in eight countries were responsible for more than 60% of the counted emissions. The top two were in the Democratic Republic of Congo (14%) and at MSF's Switzerland hub (12%).


    The roadmap, created with the Geneva-based Climate Action Accelerator, lists 32 steps to cut emissions. These range from the global to the minute – changing how goods are shipped, reducing the overuse of medical items, cutting energy consumption, and even shaving off emissions from online data storage. Buying carbon offsets is not part of the plan.

Its Geneva operational centre – one of six hubs that manage the organisation’s global responses – took the rare step of publishing the full audit of its carbon footprint last year. It also released a roadmap outlining steps to meet its goal of halving emissions by 2030 (based on 2019 baselines).

“The idea is not to showcase our good practices,” Dikolela Kalubi, MSF’s coordinator for planetary health, said in an interview. “It’s more to say we’re not so good, actually – to explain why we are bad at it, and what needs to be done.” 

More than 300 aid groups have signed on to broad pledges to green their operations and take action on climate change. Far fewer have publicly stated their targets, and fewer yet are showing the math on how they would reach them. It’s hard to track progress – or to be held accountable – without clear targets and baselines.

These early steps are another sign of the changing ways in which aid groups wrestle with the climate crisis. Kalubi’s own job at MSF is another: His position – responsible in part for integrating a climate mindset into strategy, responses, and advocacy – was newly created in 2021.

Kalubi spoke to The New Humanitarian about greening operations in difficult environments, rethinking how responses work, and emergency aid’s evolving relationship with climate change.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


The New Humanitarian: I’m interested in this shift in how humanitarians are engaging with climate change. How do humanitarian groups view their role?

Dikolela Kalubi: Each organisation has its own mandate, and each of them sees that they have to be better prepared and better respond to those challenges. At MSF, our focus is on health. So how do we get better prepared, and how do we better respond to the needs?

Humanitarian organisations like to find solutions to problems, and here we don’t have the solution to climate change. We can only provide solutions to what we know how to do. But for the rest, I think we are – I don’t want to say we are exploring, because I think we have made a lot of progress – but I think our role is really to alert and to see what are the solutions that are being made, to prepare, and to see whether or not they are responding to the needs that we see on the ground.


The New Humanitarian: Where does tracking your own emissions fit into MSF’s climate strategy?

Kalubi: The idea of the mapping exercise was not just to get the figures to say how much we have to reduce, but really to identify where are the opportunities to improve.

For instance, we didn’t expect that the travel was so high in terms of carbon footprint. The same thing for energy consumption: We realised the emissions related to energy were quite high in a few countries. For us, it’s definitely concerning, but it’s also good news because we know that by focusing on a few countries, we can have a significant impact.


The New Humanitarian: Were there any surprises?

Kalubi: Freight. Air freight represents less than 30% of the volume of goods that are transported. But it represents 80% of the emissions related to freight [including goods transported by land and sea].

I think we have to be realistic. We will not say that we will not use air freight, because we are an emergency organisation. But I think there are some opportunities for improvement.

Same thing for the use of medical items. What we have seen is a sharp increase in the amount of gloves that we use, that are not related to the increase of operations, but more about behaviour of staff, behaviour of health workers that tend to use medical gloves in situations that you don’t need to use them. We see some opportunities to improve that.


The New Humanitarian: The traditional view might be that you’re doing life-saving work in difficult environments as a humanitarian organisation – surely you get a pass. Why is it important to you to be doing this?

Kalubi: I think it’s a matter of being coherent. We know that climate change has health consequences. We can talk about it. We can alert about it. But if at the same time we are contributing to the issue: If we want to speak up and to alert on the consequences, we need to be exemplary.

And the idea is also to show that we can do it – because, we have to be honest, we are working in contexts where access to basic services like access electricity or waste treatment facilities are not available. So it’s definitely a challenge to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels in those contexts. So we really have to find some innovative solutions.

That’s a huge challenge. It’s not like a company working in Switzerland, saying, “I will only buy renewable energy”. Here, we really have to invest massively to produce our own energy. We have to invest to develop some waste treatment facilities, and so on. I would say if a humanitarian organisation can decrease its [carbon dioxide] emissions by 50% by 2030, I think everyone should be able to do it.


The New Humanitarian: Is this a presentation you find yourself giving to colleagues? Do you have to convince them about the importance of reducing emissions?

Kalubi: Maybe three or four years ago, when we were talking about climate and environment issues, this was a side topic. But now, more and more people are realising, because I think they are concerned in their own life, that also they expect their organisations to do something.


The New Humanitarian: What about the humanitarian responses on the ground. What sort of changes are needed to prepare responses for climate change?

Kalubi: For me, the priority as a humanitarian organisation is, how do we respond to the growing needs. And for that, the priority is to make sure that we have a good understanding of what are those climate and environmental risks, the related consequences, and that we know how to anticipate them.

We have been responding to floods in Niger now for several years. But should we continue to respond as usual? Or should we better anticipate that? Or should we respond differently with a more long-term approach? That’s something that we need, to adapt our response.

The same thing for malaria in South Sudan. One of the big challenges is that we see that the pattern of malaria is changing. It’s why we’re trying to have a better prediction of the malaria peak in advance to be able to better allocate resources – not only us, but also the health authorities: How we can support them to better allocate resources.


The New Humanitarian: Is that fairly new for MSF, this focus?

Kalubi: I would say monitoring health issues is not new to MSF. But here the idea is really monitoring climate data, rainfall patterns, vegetation, to see how we can have a better modelling of malaria peaks. It’s not new, but it’s definitely something we will have to do more and more. 


The New Humanitarian: I think the ICRC has a programme for drought-resistant seeds as part of its emergency operations in several places. Is there a worry about humanitarian organisations straying too far from their mandates, into longer-term development work? 

Kalubi: That’s the old debate: humanitarian response and development, where is the border? Now, I think, with climate change, it’s one additional factor that makes this border more and more blurred – it’s one of the additional factors; it’s not the only one. I think, at the end of the day, it’s not to say that “I’m doing only humanitarian assistance”. The idea is that we want to respond to the needs.

The same thing: The reason we invest in early warning systems. You could say that’s a development activity. But we clearly see that if we want to better respond to the malaria peaks, we have to invest in those types of systems. 


Edited by Andrew Gully.

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