It started with a research trip to northern Mali in April 2019. Colleagues kept describing the growing and dramatic impacts of climate risks and environmental degradation on communities that were already barely coping with the armed conflict. They felt that we humanitarians needed a clearer vision of our role and a better framework for action – this strongly resonated with questions that were regularly asked at the COP about the role of the Red Cross Red Crescent and the humanitarian sector in responding to the climate crisis. That’s when we suggested embarking on the development of a short, clear and aspirational climate and environment charter that would guide our action and complement the 1994 Code of Conduct for the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief.
Two years later, the three of us have listened to hundreds of colleagues from over 150 humanitarian organizations – local and international, big and small. We have received overwhelming support for the idea, along with incredibly useful feedback on the content of the Charter. We have also benefited from the invaluable support of an advisory committee of 19 people representing local, national and international NGO networks, UN agencies, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and experts in the humanitarian, climate and environmental fields.
Thanks to everyone’s strong engagement, the Climate and Environment Charter for Humanitarian Organizations is now open for adoption. The many contributions we have received have made the Charter much better, and we are convinced that the extraordinary engagement we have seen speaks of a collective will to come together as a humanitarian community around this issue and step up our response to the climate and environment crises.
What’s in it?
When we started this process, detailed technical guidance on greening operations and on integrating climate risk management into our programmes already existed. What didn’t exist was an overarching, high-level commitment from humanitarian organizations to use these resources to improve their practice. Over the last year, other organizations and networks have also been developing their own institutional commitments on this issue – take, for example, InterAction’s Climate Compact, the Réseau Environnement Humanitaire’s Statement of Commitment on Climate by Humanitarian Organizations and Médecins Sans Frontières’ Environmental Pact. These are incredibly important steps, but we felt we still needed to capture our collective ambition, as a broader community of humanitarian organizations, to do more and to do better, together, to tackle the climate crisis.
The Charter is short and aspirational. It promotes a transformational change across the humanitarian sector, and includes commitments intended to guide humanitarian organizations on stepping up and improving our humanitarian action to address the climate and environmental crises and reduce humanitarian needs.
Two core commitments are at the heart of the Charter: first, to step up our response to growing humanitarian needs and help people adapt to the impacts of climate and environmental crises. And second, to maximize the environmental sustainability of our work and rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The next five commitments focus on how to achieve our ambitions, from embracing local leadership and leveraging our influence to building our knowledge and nurturing collective action.
The very last commitment is about the adoption of specific targets that demonstrate how changes are being implemented and that lead to real reductions in the climate and environmental impact of organizations that sign the Charter. This means that each organization must develop its own specific targets, reflecting its scale, capacities and mandate.
In addition to establishing targets and implementation plans, sharing knowledge and tools – such as those on assessing climate and environmental risk, incorporating risks into programming, or carbon accounting – will be critical to the success of the Charter. Many organizations have already committed to ensuring that existing tools are shared widely and to identifying potential gaps and ways to address them. Following the launch of the Charter, the intention is to establish communities of practice to serve as forums for exchanging knowledge, guidance and best practice.
Shifting our ways of working also entails changing our mindsets and approaches. This will take time and resources. There will be transition costs, not only related to reducing emissions, but also to adapting programmes. It will be critical to work together on this, including with donors.
Why does it matter?
The climate and environmental crises represent an existential threat. All dimensions of our lives are already or will be affected, from our physical and mental health to our food, water and economic security.
IFRC’s World Disasters Report 2020 shows that the number of disasters triggered by extreme weather- and climate-related events has risen almost 35% since the 1990s. Over the last decade, these extreme weather- and climate-related disasters, in particular heatwaves and storms, have killed more than 410,000 people, the vast majority in low and lower middle-income countries. In 2019 alone, nearly 97.6 million people were affected by disasters – more than two-thirds of them climate or weather related. While everyone is impacted, those who have contributed least to these problems are often hit hardest. This includes conflict-affected communities, whose capacity to cope with and adapt to changes is drastically limited by the impacts of conflict on institutions, development and social cohesion.
Humanitarian organizations cannot address these crises alone. The protection of the lives and the rights of present and future generations largely depends on political ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions, halt biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, adapt to rising risks, and address loss and damage associated with the impacts of the crises. We humanitarians nevertheless have a role to play in responding to growing needs and adapting our responses to ensure that they help people adapt to these crises themselves.
The Charter itself is really only the beginning of the journey. It is by turning it into reality, through each organization setting concrete and ambitious targets and successfully achieving them, that we will make a difference for the people we serve. We need to stand together, as local, national and international organizations, to reduce the impacts of the crises and convince others to do the same.
Humanitarian organizations can sign the Charter by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. A website and home for the Charter is currently in development. Specific guidance on the implementation of the Charter will be made available there.
- Janini Vivekananda, Climate, conflict and crises: first and foremost, do no harm, February 27, 2020
- Cécile Aptel, The future is now: time to scale up climate mitigation and adaptation measures, February 6, 2020
- Catherine-Lune Grayson, When rain turns to dust: climate change, conflict and humanitarian action, December 5, 2019