Humanitarians shift towards radical transformation on climate and environment

Children affected by drought and dust in a displaced settlement, Ethiopia, Flickr/EU ECHO (Creative Commons)

On 20 May, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement adopted a new climate and environment charter. Increasingly worried by the environmental crises that threaten the future of humanity, their purpose is to "galvanise collective action" in response and provide vision and principles to guide humanitarian action in the coming period. It is also a reminder that those who are hit the hardest are those who contribute least to the worsening problem.

The charter itself is the result of a very broad consultative process across the humanitarian sector led by the IFRC and ICRC, bringing together experts and hundreds of humanitarian professionals from everywhere. Taking stock of field experience as well as the latest warnings by science and the Paris agreement goals, its language is without ambiguity:

As humanitarian organisations, we are deeply worried about the scale of the crises and our capacity to respond to rising needs. We are determined to act. We have a responsibility to work together to reduce the impacts of the crises by accelerating our own action and mobilising others to do the same. (…) Radical transformation is urgently needed to prevent further death and suffering.

Key content. Unsurprisingly, the first “core” commitment is to step up the humanitarian response to growing needs, help people adapt to the growing impacts of these crises, and support those most at risk. This notably translates into much more anticipation, better use of science data and local knowledge but also greater attention to vulnerability factors affecting individuals such as legal status, marginalisation, displacement and armed conflict.

The second commitment is in line with the long-standing principle of “do no harm”, but this time applied to the environment of human communities. It calls for maximising the sustainability of field programmes and rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining the ability to provide timely and principled assistance.

Catherine-Lune Grayson, policy advisor at the ICRC:

The Charter sends a clear signal that humanitarian organisations have a key role to play in addressing these crises and that we need to join forces to respond adequately.

Consequently, it is opened for signature to all aid actors including UN agencies. And many are expected to join.

Why it matters. Focused on saving lives and alleviating suffering, humanitarians have until now acted like most of society with regards to the ecological crisis. Aware of the impacts to come, naturally sensitive to the issue, but relying on governments to act and until recently not ready to factor in the full consequences of the scientific diagnosis and the dramatically late policy reaction.

That is changing fast now, and in many ways, the adoption of the Charter by the ICRC and IFRC symbolises the gradual shift of a whole sector towards managing its responsibility better and assuming the need to influence others in the process of doing so.

‘‘Even as we make this commitment, we must push for much more radical and ambitious action beyond the sector by governments, organisations, the private sector and individuals to reduce risks and address the causes and consequences of the climate and environmental crises. (…) Protecting the lives and rights of present and future generations depends on political action to cut emissions, halt environmental degradation, and adapt to increasing risks.”

Influence. Apart from faith-based organisations and a handful of multinational companies, few organisations in the world actually have the human and territorial reach of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. With national societies present in almost every district of every country, hundreds of thousands of RC & RC volunteers and employed staff interact daily with communities, national and local authorities, producers, farmers and transporters. The cumulated budget of the Movement exceeds several billion euros.

Often recognised for their integrity, lack of conflict of interest and their positioning in countries across the world, which allows them to witness the real impacts on people of the ecological crisis, humanitarian professionals can contribute to social tipping points in galvanising collective behaviour towards sustainable practices, demanding for cleaner products but also solidarity.

As the National Health Service in the United Kingdom did by setting a leadership example in the health sector, the IFRC and ICRC can play an instrumental role on footprint reduction within the humanitarian community but also beyond.

Also read: ‘UK’s National Health Service leads by example, commits to net zero’

How to get there. The charter articulates how the goals can be achieved by embracing local leadership, increasing collective capacity to understand climate and environmental risks, working together across and beyond the sector to mobilise even more ambitious climate action, and adopting clear targets to define ambitions and measure success.

Signatories also commit to “rigorously measure and transparently report” on the impact of their work, and translate their commitments into “time-bound targets and action plans within a year (if not already in place).”

Importantly, and unlike for many corporate companies, the charter prevents the risk of greenwashing by making clear that carbon offsets will be excluded from the calculation of reduction efforts, leading to what is called an “absolute reduction” pathway:

“Supporting high-quality emission reduction projects to offset unavoidable emissions, including through conservation and restoration of forests and land, will complement reduction efforts, but will not be considered a substitute for such efforts.”

As sharing tools and knowledge will be critical to the success of the Charter, ICRC and IFRC have been discussing the establishment of communities of practice and partnerships that will allow organisations to share lessons and resources as a common good and accelerate implementation.

Alignment of targets with the latest science. Pushing further, ICRC has simultaneously adopted a science-based target by aiming for the reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2030, compared to 2018 levels, including all direct and indirect emissions. In this it joins other humanitarian NGOs that have made a similar commitment recently, notably Médecins sans Frontières Switzerland in May this year, and a group of nine organisations in France in December 2020.

The bottom line. A shift is taking place among humanitarians, and this is good news, but it will need to be supported by the public and private funders on which most aid actors rely on.

Prevention, adaptation, and reforming the international supply chains that make emergency assistance possible will require investment, long-term projection, capacity-building, and moving towards more qualitative and sustainable products. Cost-wise, the amounts involved are far less than those that will have to be deployed if we keep the current trajectory of global heating and biodiversity collapse. But it means releasing them earlier to pay less later, and adapting some of the red tape that today prevents good practices from gaining pace.

Therefore, a high-stakes negotiation must soon take place with states, foundations, and donors to gather support for this humanitarian act of responsibility.