How development organizations can make the switch to climate neutrality

Aerial view of Asian Development Bank headquarters, with solar panels on the right generating about 817 megawatt-hours of electricity annually. This accounts for 5 percent of total annual electricity usage at ADB headquarters. Photo by: ADB / CC BY-NC

BARCELONA — At the U.N. climate change conference held in Poland last December, 15 international organizations committed to becoming climate neutral in their operations.

The promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or offset them in order to achieve a net zero carbon footprint is not an easy one to fulfill, especially given that international travel is an integral part of development work. Air travel alone was responsible for 42 percent of the United Nations’ emissions last year, according to the 2018 Greening the Blue report.

“International organizations have a moral commitment toward the civil society to do the best they can.”

— Mel Rusu Amancio, environmental coordinator, OECD

The report found that 43 U.N. entities, or 39 percent of the system, have already managed to achieve climate neutrality — something the whole organization hopes to do by 2020.

“International organizations have a moral commitment toward the civil society to do the best they can and to walk the talk because the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals are commitments taken at the highest level by governments,” said Mel Rusu Amancio, environmental coordinator at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development  — one of the 15 organizations that committed to and has already achieved climate neutrality.

The World Travel and Tourism Council, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the Asian Development Bank are also among the organizations that made the commitment, but how can they make good on their efforts toward the Paris Agreement and climate neutrality without compromising their efforts on other development targets, such as the SDGs? Here are some steps suggested by sustainability experts.

1. Assess

Wolfgang Teubner, regional director for Europe at ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, said the first step is to do an assessment of where your organization is in terms of emissions before identifying what changes to make.

“In terms of real practical measures, the key point is to systemize your approaches, to really analyze your own internal procedures, the materials, the equipment that you're using in order to identify your potential,” he said, adding that this will differ between different organizations. “To really systematically monitor your impacts, start from that point and then approach the reduction.”

Peter Lübkert, head of buildings, logistics, and services at OECD, suggested launching an assessment around a specific moment to create awareness and build momentum. For example, OECD used its 50th anniversary to give the organization a target to work toward.

2. Start small

Offices or events within an organization are a good place to start when tackling carbon emissions, said Sarene Marshall, sustainable development expert at the Inter-American Development Bank. IDB began working toward a carbon neutrality commitment in 2007 by making its annual meeting carbon neutral before expanding to cover the entire footprint of corporate activities and country offices.

Short-term and simple actions such as recycling, turning off lights, and limiting use of paper are minor behavior changes that organizations could implement as a first step. From there, organizations can progress to the larger steps necessary to maximize change.

For example, tackling energy efficiency and sourcing alternative energy for office spaces can make a big difference. “Depending on the organization’s office configuration, renewable energy can be a very practical and efficient solution, especially in many developing countries where utility costs are high, renewable sources like sunshine are abundant, and grid reliability is poor,” said Marshall, adding that there are also monetary benefits to be had.

Nearly all the actions IDB has taken to reduce its carbon footprint have produced savings — for example, upgrading mechanical equipment in their headquarters has saved $325,000 annually, according to Marshall.

3. Get employees on board

Without successfully communicating such initiatives to employees, the full potential of “green” buildings cannot be realized. While the carbon footprint of waste is small in comparison to travel emissions, Rusu Amancio said it’s important to talk to staff about issues such as waste management to ensure that every extra bit of improvement is made.

“Waste is a constant topic for our staff and it’s also important to reach staff because we have to be raising awareness among them so they understand and get on board,” she said.

IDB goes as far as to conduct educational events and offers various incentives to help employees lower their personal, as well as professional, carbon footprints. “Engaging staff is also important, both because their behavior affects the organization’s carbon footprint, and because what they do personally helps make a difference in addressing overall carbon emissions in the world,” Marshall explained.

ICLEI has even eliminated parking spaces in its offices for staff. “We do not provide any parking spaces and they are highly encouraged to come to work by public transport, bike, or on foot,” Teubner said, adding that except in exceptional cases, this is adhered to by 100 percent of staff.

4. Manage travel

Overseas rather than local travel is one of the main contributors to carbon footprints for development organizations and poses the biggest challenge in becoming more environmentally friendly.

“Since travel is a business necessity in an international development organization, offsets are a critical piece of the puzzle, and they can help lower emissions from other sources in the world like deforestation,” Marshall said. “At the same time, closely examining airline travel and looking for alternatives is something we need to do in order to effectively address climate change.”

OECD’s Peter Lübkert, head of buildings, logistics, and services, recommends implementing an internal carbon price initiative under which it charges its internal directorate an amount for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted for official missions. 

“Thanks to this, we’ve been able to raise awareness about the impact [of carbon emissions] and finance side projects to help improve environmental performance.”

If all else fails, purchasing carbon credits — an offset that allows you to emit more greenhouse gases to compensate for any unavoidable emissions by funding projects that reduce greenhouse gases — can help achieve climate neutrality. For example, IBD has invested in carbon reduction projects around reforestation in Nicaragua, efficient cookstoves in Honduras, and wind energy development in Argentina.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.