The race to reach net zero emissions is a huge undertaking and only possible with the help of businesses. Humanitarian organisations, hospitals and universities might not be the most polluting sectors but they can lead by example, according to a new Geneva-born initiative that intends to help them to halve their carbon footprint by 2030.
The Climate Action Accelerator is partnering with some of the big names of the aid and development world, including the International Committee for the Red Cross, Médecins sans frontières and Terre des hommes, to create a 10-year plan to make their worldwide operations climate-friendly. The organisations will be initially funding the project with contributions of their own.
Bruno Jochum, director and founder of the Climate Action Accelerator, tells Geneva Solutions why the health, aid, education and research sectors hold the key to triggering a “domino effect” of climate action.
Geneva Solutions: Why did you choose to work with organisations, instead of companies or governments?
Bruno Jochum: Organisations have much more impact and power than individual citizens, given their much larger footprint and networks. Some of them have thousands or tens of thousands of employees and they sometimes reach hundreds of thousands of people. They have the capacity to not only influence their own contribution to global warming but they can actually trigger a domino effect. At times when markets and policy-making by governments are frighteningly slow considering the risks for human societies and nature, that's what makes it interesting.
GS: Why are you targeting the aid, health, education and research sectors in particular?
BJ: The paradox is that many organisations and institutions that are often extremely aware of the impacts of global warming on populations and their health are still not fully on board with climate action, like the rest of society. For example, universities that produce climate science do not themselves always follow the trajectory they claim for the rest of society. But things are changing fast, as the adoption last May of the climate and environment charter by several humanitarian organisations shows. They understand they need to be at the forefront of assistance, adaptation and mitigation at the same time.
The sectors we chose are among the most trusted actors in society, and play a key role in terms of care, solidarity, production and transmission of knowledge. So they have a special responsibility to take commitments and turn them into actions, and to use their vast networks to influence others.
GS: How much do they represent in terms of carbon emissions?
BJ: The humanitarian aid sector represents about 25 to 30 billion euros in 2021 so it's not that massive globally; these organisations often have footprints that are quite similar to same size service sector companies. What's important is their networks. The Red Cross movement, for example, is one of the few human institutions present almost everywhere in the world, in every district and every country. They have hundreds of thousands of staff and volunteers, and they're in contact with authorities, communities, local and international suppliers, farmers, so they have the potential for far-reaching impact through their actions.
If you take the health sector, which we will be looking at in the coming months, it represents more or less five to six per cent of the global carbon footprint. It's actually higher than aviation, which is 2.5 per cent of the global footprint. That’s massive, and many public health stakeholders realise that a radical transformation will be needed to reach a sustainable healthcare system offering quality care to all.
GS: When you talk to these organisations, what do they say is the biggest obstacle to decarbonising their activities?
BJ: These organisations are very mission focused, which is why they are respected. For example, the aid sector is focused on saving lives, alleviating poverty, etc. And since they’re not the biggest contributors to emissions in the world, their priority is understandably to make sure that the fundamental mission can still carry on. You have to propose solutions and ways of decarbonising that actually reinforce their mission. It’s a question of what's the right approach, what's the right target and are we going to be able to make it. It’s also a question of sharing know-how, as many are eager to do more but don’t know where to start.
GS: One could imagine that reducing the carbon footprint, for example, by replacing fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources, can be expensive. How much of a role does the financial aspect play for these organisations?
BJ: At first there's a lot of apprehension about the costs involved, but when you actually do the costs analysis, you realise that some of the actions need investment and some bring savings. Of course it depends from organisation to organisation but in many cases the savings and the investments compensate each other, and it's more about reallocating means.
There are very significant savings that come from transport, for example, from flying less and shifting air freight to sea freight more systematically. When it comes to renewable energies, you will need an initial investment because the purchasing costs are a little higher, but the return on investment comes very quickly within just a couple of years. It goes against this myth that the transition is necessarily going to be extremely costly for organisations.
GS: With organisations working in different parts of the world in such different contexts how do you help them bring down their emissions?
BJ: When organisations partner with the accelerator, they agree on addressing the footprint of all their operations in every country where they're present. It's not only their direct emissions, but also what we call the indirect emissions, so it's their supply chain – what they buy and what they distribute, for example funding to local NGOs or items to populations. It’s about developing procurement criteria and policies with strong environmental requirements. In some cases, there are already alternatives and in others it means working with producers to ensure transparency of information on the life cycle of products, choosing products that are less carbon intensive and create less waste, notably for plastics.
GS: How long does it take them to apply their roadmaps?
BJ: It's a long term endeavour. You're going to have a few quick wins in the first years which are relatively easy, such as flights for example. But procurement and supply chain transport, I would say takes five to 10 years to change direction significantly. You can probably reach, for most organisations, a reduction of 30 per cent of carbon emissions within about four or five years, and then move to 50 per cent. The earlier you start, the better: those organisations that have been successful in their decarbonisation are those that took a strategic decision 10 to 15 years ago.
GS: Is the project only aimed at large organisations or could a small NGO reach out for your help?
BJ: We’re also supporting small organisations. We'd like this initiative to be able to support organisations in general, whether they have or don't have the means, notably smaller organisations and in developing countries that are affected but also whose emissions are increasing fast.
GS: You’ve decided to put all the tools and material up on the web for any organisation in the world to use. Why?
BJ: A big pillar of the initiative is to create a domino effect to contribute to climate stabilisation and avoid the worst effects. First, our partners can act as champions and get peers and others in their networks to come on board with the same action-oriented commitments. The other condition for the domino effect is to make knowledge and know-how easily available, to all and for free.
Today, you do have knowledge on low carbon strategies that exists in our societies, but it's a privatised market and the market is tragically late. It's quite expensive for organisations who don't have the means, and a lot of the knowledge and tools are not necessarily available – despite the fact that we're in an emergency situation. Most of the decarbonisation objectives are determined by the clients so they don't necessarily follow what's actually requested by the scientific consensus to tackle the climate crisis. The science is clear: to stabilise the climate, we need to achieve zero emissions in the next 25 years and reduce by half by 2030, without counting carbon offsets. For that to happen, climate solutions must become a universal good.