Can development organizations be carbon neutral?

Cutting back on airline travel is one way organizations are reducing their carbon footprint. Photo by: Jonathan Cohen / CC BY-NC

Development work can require substantial air travel — something the New York Times described as “your biggest carbon sin.” And with offices and staff strewn around the globe, development organizations in particular find it challenging to measure and reduce their emissions.

Achieving carbon neutrality is possible, according to corporate responsibility experts in the development industry. But doing so in a sustainable manner — and without limiting development impact in the field — is, unsurprisingly, a tricky process.

Devex sought advice from several development organizations that have started or are well along their own path to carbon neutrality. Here are four key steps to reducing your carbon footprint.

1. Measure.

Any development agenda involves measurement, and reducing carbon emissions is no different. Before you can reduce, you must know what your carbon footprint is and where your emissions are coming from.

“If you’re not measuring … you’re not going to even know where to start,” Olga Faktorovich Allen, sustainability program manager at Abt Associates, told Devex.

Abt Associates reduced its emissions by 15 percent from 2012 to 2015. To do so, Allen and her team first prioritized measurement by way of a “greenhouse gas inventory,” which highlighted electricity, air travel and commuting as its top three sources of emissions, according to Allen.

It’s an even more complicated process for the world’s largest multilateral donor, for which data collection of greenhouse gas emissions presented a “major hurdle,” according to a representative from the World Bank’s corporate responsibility department.

The bank’s efforts to reduce its own corporate carbon footprint began in 2002. In 2009, the global financial institution achieved carbon neutrality and has sustained it, according to a bank spokesperson. But getting there meant collecting data on greenhouse gas emissions from the bank’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., in addition to over 130 country offices, not to mention travel between offices and project sites.

That meant a lot of data documented through an inventory management plan — though it wasn’t possible for it all to be concrete, a hurdle that most organizations with a presence in multiple countries will likely face.

Before undertaking carbon footprint measurements, NGOs need to be clear about what to include in their calculations, according to a 2007 report written in support of the humanitarian organization CARE and its Carbon Workshop.

The report emphasized that emissions can be considered direct if they come, for example, from an organization's own vehicles or generators, and indirect if generated by commercial airline travel or purchased electricity.

“Calculating the carbon footprint for an organization with multiple offices and operations spread across the world appears daunting at first glance,” the report acknowledges. “But the task is simplified by breaking down emissions into more manageable categories such as generator use, vehicle fleet fuel consumption, purchased electricity, business travel and employee commuting.”

Of its more than 130 country offices, the World Bank only owns about two dozen of them, according to a bank spokesperson. The rest are leased properties or buildings from central banks or other U.N. agencies, which can make it difficult to access utility data. To overcome this particular challenge, the bank turned to proxies and estimates to “fill in the gaps,” a World Bank corporate responsibility representative told Devex.

2. Harness existing technologies to reduce emissions.

Once development organizations measure their carbon footprint and establish a method to continue measurement on a regular basis, they can then begin the work of lowering their carbon footprint. And technology can play a substantial role in emissions reductions.

In the office for example, multifunction devices that allow staff to perform tasks such as print, scan, photocopy and fax all from one machine present one way to reduce emissions and replace personal printers — a method the World Bank employs. The bank has also installed occupancy sensors that turn off the lights when someone leaves a room in its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Light-emitting diode lighting, more commonly known as LED, is becoming more affordable and provides another way to make more efficient use of energy. Solar panels, too, are increasingly practical and inexpensive for corporate use.

Videoconferencing technology is another worthy investment for an organization seeking to limit emissions from travel or commuting. The 2007 report providing recommendations for CARE identified videoconferencing as a potential long-term method to cut down on airfare expenses and the environmental impact of flying.

3. Offset.

Where emissions cannot be reduced, organizations can purchase offsets that financially support renewable energy, forestry or resource conservation projects around the globe to meet carbon neutrality goals.

But many in the global development community are wary of an over-reliance on offsets and don’t want to see them used as tickets for unsustainable or environmentally harmful development practices.

Further, offsets are not cheap.

“To be carbon neutral, you have to purchase offsets essentially every year to offset your emissions … That’s how you develop your inventory and report it out — calendar year,” said Allen of Abt. “That’s, as you can imagine, a lot of money.”

Some organizations don’t publicize their carbon neutrality, according to the 2007 report for CARE’s Carbon Workshop, which suggested the reason being that “critics question the conceptual and scientific value of offsets.”

Abt Associates, which is committed to reducing its footprint by 25 percent by 2021, has not yet purchased any offsets, instead putting its current investments towards improving operational efficiency, Allen said.

Still, “There’s certainly a place for offsets when you can no longer really do what you need to do to be more efficient and more carbon light,” she said.

The World Bank has purchased offsets in order to attain carbon neutrality, but as the corporate responsibility representative at the World Bank said, the primary goal is to reduce emissions.

“I don’t think we should just measure and then offset. The goal really is to reduce,” the representative said. “Obviously there are benefits to that, not only from a greenhouse gas standpoint, but also from a bottom line standpoint for an organization.”

When they are needed however, it’s important that development organizations purchase offsets from projects that are making a measureable difference on the environment. The report for CARE suggested finding the right project to support means considering its accountability mechanisms, its certifications or standards, whether it comes recommended, its price, its project type and whether it benefits populations or infrastructures in addition to the environment.

4. Make sustainability part of your business model.

Development organizations should always make sure a greenhouse gas reduction plan is integrated into the broader mission — keeping in mind where it is they make the biggest positive difference, according to Allen.

“The impact of a development organization is basically what you do in the field,” Allen said.

Sustainability should not only be about an organization’s own corporate operations, she explained, but also about the projects in the field the organization is implementing, which can help communities and economies around the globe to grow sustainably.

“It’s not a philanthropic proposition to be carbon neutral [or] to be sustainable,” Allen said, adding that sustainability should be discussed in a “language that makes sense to the business and to the positive impact that you want to have as an organization.”

Consulting and engineering firm Tetra Tech as well as consulting firm DAI take similar integrated approaches by emphasizing their projects in their greenhouse gas reduction plans.

Tetra Tech addresses sustainability in terms of projects, processes and procurements — also known as the “three P’s” according to Hope Herron, senior climate change specialist at the firm.

“We believe that our biggest impact is with our projects,” Herron told Devex, emphasizing Tetra Tech’s environmental work on carbon sequestration, energy efficiency, renewables and reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

DAI measures and assigns a monetary value to the carbon dioxide emitted for every trip in support of the European Union LIFE Program, an EU initiative designed specifically for environmental protection. And before each assignment supporting the Department for International Development’s Evidence on Demand Program, another environment focused initiative, DAI produces a carbon dioxide budget.

“Get stakeholders together across your departments and divisions and talk to them and figure out a way to integrate these concepts in their language into their jobs and operations,” Allen of Abt said. “That’s where it sticks and that’s where it becomes relevant.”

What are some other ways development organizations can effectively reduce emissions and be carbon neutral? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

Planet Worth is a global conversation in partnership with Abt Associates, Chemonics, HELVETAS, Tetra Tech, the U.N. Development Program and Zurich, exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change, while highlighting the champions of climate adaptation amid emerging global challenges. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #PlanetWorth.

About the author

  • Jeff tyson 400x400  1

    Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.