Curbing the aid carbon footprint: how an Africa-based NGO is leading the charge

Solar panels ensure energy supply to a health centre in Dioila, Mali, to keep oxygen concentrators running for hospitalised children. Nurse major Mamadou Dembélé is in charge of maintenance work. (Credit: Seyba Keita/ALIMA)

The Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA) is the first aid organisation to launch its roadmap towards carbon neutrality with the help of the Geneva-born initiative Climate Action Accelerator. Geneva Solutions spoke to the Africa-based NGO about the massive challenge it has taken on.

As the world heads for a rise in global temperatures, worsening floods, droughts and other weather events threaten to upset the lives of millions of people across the globe. Humanitarian organisations, at the forefront of efforts to protect vulnerable communities, will see demand for their help skyrocket. Despite having the critical mission of saving lives, these NGOs and their operations carry a hefty price for the environment, ultimately contributing to the threat they are fighting against.

To a number of these large aid organisations, it is their moral responsibility to lead by example and shrink their own carbon footprint. For the past year, 16 of them, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières, have been partnering up with the Geneva-based Climate Action Accelerator to design a blueprint for their ecological transition.

Read also: Geneva-born initiative to help organisations halve their carbon footprint

The aim is to slash greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050. To do this, organisations agree to count all of their emissions – including indirect emissions from their value chain, which tend to be left out from measurements. Plus, they cannot resort to carbon credits to improve their numbers.

ALIMA, an international medical aid organisation working mainly in west Africa and the Sahel, was the first one to complete its roadmap and publish it last December. It took nine months of planning. The relatively new organisation, created in 2009 and headquartered in Dakar, Senegal, is convinced of the urgency to act as it witnessed first hand the catastrophic effects of climate change in the continent.

“ALIMA was born around emergency response, particularly to the food crisis in the Sahel and the ebola epidemic in west Africa. But there is one crisis which we had not looked hard enough into and that is the climate emergency and its impact on the places we intervene,” Henri Leblanc, ALIMA’s deputy director general, told Geneva Solutions.

“Very quickly, we saw the consequences of global warming on the health of populations, whether in terms of displacement, extreme weather events or epidemic outbreaks. We realised that we had to question our own model of care.”

For ALIMA, it's also a matter of principles. “One of our basic principles as humanitarians is to do no harm, and that means limiting our contribution to the environmental degradation that could harm our patients and communities health.”

First, some numbers

To figure out how to cut their carbon emissions, ALIMA had to first evaluate how much it was emitting. Operating in 11 countries with 1,920 employees and an annual budget of €61 million, ALIMA estimated that it had emitted 12,950 tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2019 – a trend that did not slow down from Covid as their emissions grew to 14,545 tonnes the next year, according to ALIMA’s projections.

From air travel, to powering its buildings, to buying and transporting medicine, food and equipment, ALIMA’s operations leave a mark on the Earth – although relatively small compared to the nearly 60 gigatonnes the world emitted in 2020. But some activities have a heavier footprint than others.

“Our greenhouse gas emissions are highly concentrated in a handful of emission sources,” said Leblanc.

Transportation, energy to power buildings and purchases were found to be responsible for 97 per cent of their emissions. Tackling these areas would be key to having the most impact.

Key solutions

ALIMA plans to bring down its emissions to 7,300 tonnes in 2030. To achieve this, it devised five measures that should take care of 85 per cent of the job, from buying greener products to cutting back on their professional travels.

Buying green. One of its largest sources of emissions at 39 per cent is purchases of both medical and non medical items. To reduce their environmental impact, ALIMA is starting to look at sourcing products produced in an eco-friendly way.

“Integrating environmental criteria for our purchases means looking more closely at how items are produced and not just looking at price or purely technical criteria when choosing our suppliers,” Leblanc said, citing the example of oxygen concentrators, which can be more or less energy consuming depending on the model.

In some cases, it will mean paying more for a more eco-friendly item. For medical equipment and drugs, finding alternatives can be tricky since the number of producers can be very limited. ALIMA is banding together with other NGOs such as MSF, which has its own procurement agency, to approach these companies to get them to improve their own production line.

“The more we are to make commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and beyond that, to adapt the practices of humanitarian medicine, from purchasing to waste management, the stronger we will be to influence both donors and suppliers,” Leblanc said.

Cutting back on flights. Travel also makes up another significant chunk of ALIMA’s emissions – 29 per cent. "In recent decades, there has been a real explosion in the number of trips and air travel in humanitarian organisations, which facilitates contact with the teams in a context where the price of air travel has become affordable,” he said.

“Today it is a question of streamlining this and putting in place a travel policy while sanctuarising the travel that is essential to our mission, i.e. providing care, reaching out to local populations and ensuring the safety and well-being of our teams.”

ALIMA works in conflict-struck places, where roads ridden with mines leave air travel to be the only safe option.

“On the other hand, there is wiggle room in other areas such as reducing mileage by choosing more direct flight routes or pooling missions in order to reduce the number of trips,” Leblanc added.

Transporting products through the air also carries a hefty price for the environment. Leblanc admits that ALIMA fell into the bad habit of freighting 90 per cent of its purchases by air. While some material purchases are time sensitive and cannot be done otherwise, others for regular projects focusing for example in malnutrition, can be planned out in advance to use sea or terrestrial freight – a much cheaper option.

Solar panels, a humanitarian solution. Another area that contributes heavily to ALIMA’s carbon footprint is energy. Powering its medical centres, heating its offices in Paris but also fueling its cars and trucks takes 17 per cent of the cake. As the market for solar panels balloons in Africa, NGOs like ALIMA have jumped at the chance to use solar energy as a backup for when the fossil fuel tap runs dry or is just too expensive for them to turn on.

“Today, the context of high fuel prices and insecurity for delivery in certain areas make it even more relevant to switch to environmental solutions, such as switching to solar energy to power health structures and ensure continuity of care,” said Leblanc, who sees solar energy as a humanitarian solution that can help medical centres become more resilient to the growing impact of unstable energy markets.

“You have to look at it as an investment and from a cost-benefit perspective.” Plus, the cost part has never been as favourable as today. In the cities of Liwa and Ngouri in Chad, ALIMA set up back up solar panels for medical centres. In only a matter of months, the local staff reported 40 per cent of return in investments.

With 60 per cent of the world’s best sunshine, Africa has the potential to become a renewable powerhouse, that is if the billions of dollars in investments it needs follow. The signs so far are positive.

“The good news is that there are providers in the countries of intervention. The challenge for us is one of expertise. It's not overnight that we know how to size an energy need or identify the best device to use,” said Leblanc, pointing out that the Climate Action Accelerator helped them with this aspect.

What about the costs?

While shrinking its carbon footprint to half its current size might seem like a giant, costly task, ALIMA has actually come across the pleasant surprise that it should even save money in the long run. According to its report, it will have to invest €3.1m but will eventually save €3.4m.

The key issue will be getting donors and other partners to help them with the costs upfront. “Some of the solutions are going to require new investments and so it will be a matter of planning and budgeting properly and making sure the partners we work with are on board and understand the importance of being part of the effort,” said Leblanc.

France’s crisis and support centre has already backed training of ALIMA’s staff to implement their environmental roadmap while others have provided funding for solar panels.

“We feel a common interest in improving practices. Now we need to collectively integrate our emission reduction priorities and local populations into all our projects in a systematic way,” he added.

ALIMA and other aid organisations working on similar roadmaps have also assured that this process will not interfere with their core mission of providing aid amid ever growing needs.

“For me there is no paradox between these two trends. We are facing a trend of increasing humanitarian needs and climate change is a factor that will also contribute to increasing these needs. ALIMA will continue to care, to go towards the patient and to grow if necessary according to the needs. Hence the importance of radically adapting our practices now,” said Leblanc.

MSF also published its roadmap in the last weeks. ICRC is expected to publish its own version in 2023, according to Bruno Jochum, founder of the Climate Action Accelerator. Jochum said that the organisation is in discussions with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to get them on board and plans to approach UN agencies soon.

Leblanc said: “I advise organisations that want to make a commitment to put their own roadmap in place, to frame the action and prioritise the effort. but we shouldn't spend too much time on it. This is an emergency and perfect plans do not exist. We must move quickly to action. That means assuming some risk and sometimes making mistakes, but the best way to scale up our practices internally is through action and experience.”