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The aid sector needs to go green. Here’s why.

‘If we are unable to look at ourselves, how can we say that we are acting in the interests of the communities that we serve?’

UN vehicles are unloaded from an airplane in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The aid sector’s carbon footprint is a known unknown.
UN vehicles are unloaded from an airplane in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The aid sector’s carbon footprint is a known unknown. (Ari Gaitanis/UN photo)

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Humanitarian organisations are increasingly being called upon to respond to the effects of climate change. 

Rising temperatures have given rise to new conflicts, from tensions between farmers and herders in Africa’s Sahel region, to poor harvests in Afghanistan leaving people vulnerable to join extremist groups. Extreme weather events have also caused displacement, migration, and shortages of food and water around the world. 

As the humanitarian sector, we know that we have a collective responsibility to mitigate environmental disasters and facilitate climate resilience. It is our duty to the populations that we serve and the planet that we all share.

With this in mind, it worries me to see how some humanitarian organisations are reluctant to address their own impact on the environment. 

Over the course of three years spent as the Vice CEO of Programmes, Impact and Accountability at ACTED, the Paris-based emergency relief organisation, I have witnessed many supposed humanitarians deflect blame to the private sector, arguing that their carbon footprints are much larger than ours. Others argue that we are too busy saving lives to examine our own shortcomings. 

As a result, the humanitarian sector has never been collectively accountable for its negative impact on the environment. We are not required to measure our global carbon footprint or wider environmental impact as a sector. 

If we are unable to look at ourselves, how can we say that we are acting in the interests of the communities that we serve?

Understanding our own emissions

At ACTED, we have embarked on a long and winding journey to look at our own organisation’s impact on the environment. 

We decided that the first step of this process should be to understand where our own CO2 emissions are coming from, at both the organisational and operational level. 

It was easier said than done. While still prioritising delivering humanitarian aid to our beneficiaries and meeting the reporting requirements of our donors, we were also asking staff to measure how many kilograms of waste we were producing in our offices every week, even in very remote parts of the world. 

It took a lot of cooperation and coordination to accurately measure our carbon footprint to the best of our abilities. 

It was important to us to take everything into account, from direct emissions, such as driving cars or burning fuel for electricity, to indirect emissions, such as the raw materials extracted, manufactured, and assembled into the goods that we distribute as part of our relief efforts.

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

But it is a small inconvenience when we consider that many of the families that we work with are on the front lines of the climate crisis. 

Our field staff hear daily accounts about some of the world’s most difficult environmental conditions, from the droughts that have devastated the agricultural sector in East Africa to the severe floods that have displaced millions in southeast Asia. 

We have done our best to adjust our operations to serve their needs, distributing drought-resistant seeds in Somaliland, building flood dykes, and promoting natural resource management in Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Myanmar.

Still, it is not enough to level up our crisis response. We also must look at ourselves, to ensure that we are doing everything that we can do to ensure that we do no harm to our beneficiaries.

Finding solutions together

As a sector, we need to take the time to understand the climate and environmental impact of our activities to be able to mitigate the damage we cause and ensure that we are a part of the solution. 

I suggest that we begin by measuring our greenhouse gas emissions as accurately as we can, at the organisational, crisis, and global level. 

While it is not easy to do this without a harmonised carbon accounting tool, both ACTED and the ICRC have proven that it is possible to take this step, using the Greenhouse Gas Protocol as a guideline to make sure we are counting all types of emission categories.

LISTEN → Rethinking Humanitarianism | Reducing emissions in the aid sector

One of the most valuable things that ACTED learned through this process was that more than 50 percent of our emissions came from the supply chain, meaning that we could significantly reduce our emissions by localising our supply chain and distribution.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

We know how difficult it is to access the items we require for our humanitarian operations in sufficient quantity and quality. It is undeniably an additional hurdle to ensure that they are produced and delivered with a low carbon footprint. Additionally, the administrative and compliance requirements imposed by certain donors are often unrealistic for local suppliers.

However, if we collectively agree as a sector that the supply chain is one of our most significant emission hotspots, we can look into collective solutions. 

What progress could we make if we pooled our logistics? 

We could prioritise supporting local suppliers to ensure that they could meet these requirements. We could pressure our donors to change these requirements, with a goal of being more inclusive.

It is important to note that the environmental impact of humanitarian organisations goes well beyond our carbon footprint. 

We also need to ensure that our assistance itself is part of the solution. We can provide fuel-efficient stoves and LED lights, and advocate for solar power and clean energy as part of our humanitarian response. At ACTED, we have been successful with distributing fuel-efficient stoves in refugee and IDP camps. We have internally prohibited producing charcoal as part of our livelihood activities.

We also need our donors to open up their minds to environmental solutions. Annual funding cycles are detrimental to making some of these transitions. 

One particularly memorable example of this involves ACTED haggling with a donor to solarise the water supply system in a refugee camp, a change that would have cost $300,000 to implement. We received pushback due to costs, but ironically ended up investing $100,000 a year for four years to pay for generator diesel and water trucking. 

Eventually, the donor saw the value of solar power – but only after we had wasted our limited financial resources on a less sustainable solution.

A call for urgent – and radical – transformation

It is no secret that today’s climate and environmental crises affect every dimension of our lives, from basic needs such as food and water to the very survival of our species. 

As humanitarians, we are being called upon to protect the lives and rights of both current and future generations. 

Will we answer that call with urgent and radical transformation of our sector? Or will we continue to uphold the status quo, turning a blind eye to our role in the crisis that so many of the people that we supposedly serve are already facing?

It is up to us to make the right choices. And we have to make them now.

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