Climate Neutral Disaster Response: Challenges and Opportunities


Note: This essay was published in New Perspectives in Foreign Policy Vol 11, Summer 2016. A PDF copy can be downloaded here: 


As global temperatures rise, confronting the link between human-induced climate change and humanitarian disasters has become a pressing component of U.S. foreign policy. While the effects of climate change on humanitarian crises are well documented, the impact of disaster response activities on climate change remains largely invisible (1). Emergency humanitarian assistance actors must do more to understand and address their direct contribution to climate change.

Relief agencies have long sought to “do no harm” to the communities they intend to serve, but initiatives to improve intervention strategies and build a better response have yet to involve climate change mitigation in a meaningful way (2,3). Providing emergency humanitarian aid is energy intensive and leaves a significant carbon footprint. Efforts to calculate and reduce the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of disaster response activities deserve sustained attention from both humanitarian policymakers and practitioners.

Emergency aid organizations and their donors can mitigate their climate impact by 1) requiring and performing detailed audits of CO2 emissions, 2) integrating sustainable solutions into fieldwork, and 3) offsetting irreducible emissions with carbon credits. Aside from obvious planetary benefits, a climate-neutral approach to humanitarian relief would improve operational efficiency and reduce the long-term costs of providing assistance. Most importantly, by reducing emissions, responders truly fulfill their mission to do no harm.

The Footprint of Response

The first challenge is to calculate the CO2 emissions generated by humanitarian agencies providing emergency aid. This carbon footprint can be surprisingly large. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group attempted to calculate the total carbon emissions for “items shipped to point of entry” during the first six months of the response (4). They estimated a total of 1.14 million tons, nearly equivalent to the annual carbon cost of all active UN peacekeeping missions, or putting over 240,000 vehicles on the road for a year (5,6).

Next to shipping consumables, providing shelter and energy for disaster-affected populations is also emissions intensive. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a life-cycle assessment found that post- tsunami reconstruction housing types were linked with CO2 emissions “up to fifty times higher than traditional types” (7). In refugee settings, energy needed for basic utilities (cooking, lighting, water distribution) leaves a huge, often overlooked, carbon footprint (8).

Overall, a profound lack of data on the carbon footprint of relief activities makes it difficult to understand problems and share solutions. The availability, consistency, and quality of emissions information all pose immense challenges for anyone seeking to complete a carbon audit of a humanitarian response mission (9). So far, emissions assessments are performed on a case-by-case basis, and most focus only on home-country operations. For example, Mercy Corps has completed a Climate Change Impact Assessment, but the evaluation omits carbon emissions “associated with emergency operations (such as the delivery and provision of material aid) and emissions associated with other parties (such as partners or donors of the material aid)” (10).

While performing emissions audits of home-country offices is a start, agencies can and should reach higher. The UN’s “Greening the Blue” campaign serves as a model for measuring and acting on emissions, but few others have made such far-reaching commitments (11). A comprehensive carbon inventory would cover the lifecycle of the mission, calculating the footprint of the responding organizations’ headquarters activities, the CO2 cost of field-country operations, and the emissions generated by beneficiaries using the services delivered (for example, cooking fuel used in refugee camps). Humanitarian agencies have piloted rapid environmental impact assessments on the ground, but these tools do not include comprehensive carbon inventories (12).

Though detailed carbon accounting adds to overhead costs, it is a vital step toward reducing the footprint of humanitarian response. Emergency aid organizations have a long way to go in understanding how they contribute to climate change, and until clear data exists quantifying the carbon emissions of disaster relief activities, efforts to mitigate impact will remain piecemeal at best.

Integrating Sustainable Solutions

When it comes to lowering the carbon cost of response, opportunities and obstacles abound. Pre-positioning materials and personnel can help prevent international air transport, and effective fleet management can reduce fuel use. INSEAD’s Haiti study suggests that 17,000 tons of CO2 could have been saved if pre-positioning had been 20 percent higher (13). The UN World Food Programme (WFP) attributes its “biggest single source of GHG savings” to smart fleet management (14). In Afghanistan, new software has helped them reduce diesel consumption by 25 percent since 2008 (15).

Integrating renewable energy into relief programs and strategies would also yield huge benefits. An estimated 6.85 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (mtCO2eq)—more than double the annual emissions of Washington, D.C.— could be saved per year through widespread introduction of improved cookstoves and basic solar lanterns in refugee camps (16,17).

For many humanitarian agencies and donors, the upfront investment in mitigation may appear daunting, but the long-term payoff is clear. Heavy carbon emissions are linked to operational inefficiencies. By streamlining travel plans, supply chains, vehicle dispatch, and utility usage, aid organizations serve themselves as well as the earth. WFP has saved $400,000 by delivering remote training sessions, and the British Red Cross has saved £497,000 since 2009 by reducing electricity and gas consumption (18,19). The estimated 6.85 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (mtCO2eq) reduced through improved cookstoves and basic solar lanterns in refugee camps would also save $323 million a year in fuel costs (20).

Operational changes have their limitations, however. In unstable, low-tech settings, humanitarian agencies hoping to reduce emissions are constrained by urgency, reliability, and security. Disasters cannot be managed solely through videoconference, and Tesla has yet to invent an electric armored vehicle. Greening supply chains, reducing international travel, and using renewable energy are all steps in the right direction, but for the time being, certain humanitarian activities will remain emissions intensive by technical default.

While a zero-carbon response is currently unfeasible, agencies can offset their irreducible emissions by purchasing carbon credits (21). To achieve climate neutrality, WFP offset over 160,000 mtCO2eq from 2014 by financing renewable energy and conservation projects that reduce emissions elsewhere. One program distributes fuel-efficient cookstoves that reduce firewood usage to combat deforestation in Ethiopia (22). As humanitarian organizations work to reduce the direct CO2 emissions of their response activities, they can reach climate neutrality through carbon offsetting.


Although barriers to climate neutral disaster response exist, agencies can reduce their footprint without compromising the quality of assistance. Many agencies have already taken their first steps toward addressing their contribution to climate change, and the humanitarian community should build upon and institutionalize these efforts. Organizations can reduce their climate impact by:

1) Strengthening their carbon accounting. Disaster response agencies should apply a lifecycle approach to evaluate their impact, spanning from the home- country office to the beneficiaries. The UN cluster system would provide an excellent forum for documenting emissions and sharing solutions across organizations working on the ground.

2) Pursuing sustainable solutions, when and where possible. Lowering CO2 emissions goes hand-in-hand with increasing operational efficiency and cutting expenses.

3) Offsetting irreducible emissions with carbon credits. When greening humanitarian logistics chains and budgeting for solar over diesel is unfeasible, carbon credits offer a flexible option.

Notably, donors (governments, private foundations, companies, and individuals) have a crucial role to play in encouraging partners to include climate neutrality as a core element of response programming. Relief agencies that integrate carbon accounting and sustainability plans into proposed projects should be recognized for their efforts, and funding streams should be dedicated toward climate neutral aid to spur innovation.

Emergency aid organizations should view their investment in curbing CO2 emissions as an integral part of meeting the core humanitarian standards and reducing the risk of future disasters (i.e., disaster risk reduction). Operationalizing climate neutrality allows responders to extend and improve the services they provide to communities in need, while reducing the negative impacts of intervention (23). The costs of addressing the footprint of relief operations are significant, but so are the benefits. Climate neutral disaster response is possible, and if the humanitarian community truly seeks to do no harm, it is necessary.


(1) International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “Aggravating
factors: climate change,” about-disasters/aggravating-factors/climate-change/; R. Akhtar et al., “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—Working Group II, March 2014, php?idp=347.

(2) “The Do No Harm Handbook,” Collaborative for Development Action, November 2004, Do_No_Harm_Handbook_2004_EN.pdf; U.S. Agency for International Development et al., “Building a Better Response Curriculum,” 2014, http://www.buildingabetterresponse. org; Sphere Project, “The Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response,” 2011, download-publications/?search=1&keywords=&language=English&category=22; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “Code of conduct,”; CHS Alliance, Group URD, and the Sphere Project, “Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability,” 2014, Humanitarian%20Standard%20-%20English.pdf.

(3) In this article I define the relief community generally, included but not limited to government disaster agencies, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations. See Council on Foreign Relations, “Humanitarian Relief Organizations,” July 17, 2015, humanitarian-relief-organizations/p9007. I also consider “disasters” to include crises arising from both extreme weather and human conflict. The lack of available data prevents classifying emissions based on specific types of humanitarian need. The gray area between emergency and development (the average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years) doesn’t help, either. See Talia Radford, “Refugee camps are the ‘cities of tomorrow,’ says humanitarian-aid expert,” Dezeen Magazine, November 23, 2015, http://www. humanitarian-aid-expert/.

(4) INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group, “Greening the Humanitarian Response: 2010 Haiti Earthquake,” March 2011, research-projects/documents/GHR_10_05_2011_Review.pdf.

(5) Ibid.

(6) “Moving Towards a Climate Neutral UN: The UN System’s Footprint and Efforts to Reduce It,” United Nations Environment Programme, 2015 edition, http://www. See also: “Greenhouse Gas Equivalency Calculator,” United States Environmental Protection Agency, April 2014, calculator.

(7) D. O’Brien; I. Ahmed and D. Hes, “Housing Reconstruction in Aceh: Relationships Between House Type and Environmental Sustainability,” Gonzalo Lizarralde, Colin Davidson, Andrea Pukteris and Michel de Blois (ed.) Proceedings of the International Conference on Building Abroad: Procurement of Construction and Reconstruction Projects in the International Context, Canada, October 24-25, 2008. See also: Matti Kuittinen and Stefan Winter. “Carbon Footprint of Transitional Shelters.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Science. September 28, 2015.

(8) 36 million trees from the Virunga National Park were used to meet the cooking
and shelter needs of Rwandan refugees between 1994 and 1996. Deforestation
carries a carbon cost equivalent to directly emitting CO2, as it removes a carbon
sink. “Humanitarian Action and the Environment,” Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations, Accessed April 2, 2016, http://postconflict.unep. ch/publications/IASC_leaflet.pdf.

(9) “Greening the Humanitarian Response: 2010 Haiti Earthquake

(10) “Frequently Asked Questions: Our Carbon Footprint,” Mercy Corps, September 26, 2007. footprint; See also: “Our Carbon Footprint,” British Red Cross, Accessed April 2, 2016, carbon-footprint; and “Greenhouse gas assessment,” Environment and Humanitarian Network – Group URD, July 2013, sheet_-_GHG_Assessment.pdf.

(11) United Nations Environment Program, “Greening the Blue,” http://www.greeningtheblue. org; and United Nations Environment Programme, “Moving Towards a Climate Neutral UN: The UN System’s Footprint and Efforts to Reduce It.”

(12) Charles Kelly, “Guidelines for Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment in Disasters,” Benfield Hazard Research Centre, University College London, April 2005, http://www. Impact%20Assessment_CARE.pdf; Eamonn Barrett, Sarah Murfitt, and Paul Venton, “Mainstreaming the Environment into Humanitarian Response: An Exploration of Opportunities and Issues,” Environmental Resources Management, November 2007,; Charles Kelly. “Including the environment in humanitarian assistance,” Benfield Hazard Research Centre, University College London, July 2004, the-environment-in-humanitarian-assistance/; Humanitarian Environment Network, “Greenhouse gas assessment,” July 2013, sheet_-_GHG_Assessment.pdf; Humanitarian Environment Network, “Humanitarian Space,” Humanitarian Aid on the move No.12, October 2013, pdf/HEM_12_En_Network.pdf; Frauke Urban, Tom Mitchell, and Paula Silva Villanueva, “Greening disaster risk management: Issues at the interface of disaster risk management and low carbon development,” University of Sussex, September 2010, uk/PDF/Outputs/ClimateChange/SCR-DiscussionPaper3-greening-low-carbon.pdf.

(13) INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group, “Greening the Humanitarian Response: 2010 Haiti Earthquake.”

(14) World Food Program, “WFP Announces Climate Neutrality,” September 23, 2015,

(15) Ibid.

(16) Glada Lahn and Owen Grafham, “Heat, Light and Power for Refugees: Saving Lives, Reducing Costs,” November 2015, Chatham House Report for the Moving Energy Initiative, research/2015-11-17-heat-light-power-refugees-lahn-grafham-final.pdf; Raffaella Bellanca, “Sustainable Energy Provision among Displaced Populations: Policy and Practice,” Chatham House Research Paper–Energy, Environment and Resources, December 2014, ergyDisplacedPopulationsPolicyPracticeBellanca.pdf.

(17) U.S. Energy Information Administration, “State Carbon Dioxide Emissions,” October 26, 2015,

(18) United Nations Environment Program, “Greening the Blue.”

(19) Richard Dickens, email exchange, environmental/carbon reduction officer, British Red

Cross, March 24, 2016.

(20) Lahn and Grafham, “Heat, Light and Power for Refugees.”

(21) Carbon offsetting is the use of carbon credits generated by zero-emission projects to enable organizations and individuals to compensate for their emissions. Purchasing carbon credits finances essential renewable energy, forestry, and resource conservation projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. See Natural Capital Partners, “Carbon offsetting explained,” explained.

(22) Fuel-efficient cookstoves also help reduce mortality from indoor air pollution and promote gender equality. See World Food Program, “Carbon Credits,” http://www.wfp. org/climate-change-initiatives/carbon-credits.

(23) Veolia Group, “Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and the Veolia Foundation sign research and innovation partnership,” Press release, March 16, 2015, doctors-without-borders-and-veolia-foundation-sign-research-and-innovation-partnership.


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