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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 12, special issue: Environment

Assessment of greenhouse gas emissions in the humanitarian sector: what we have learned from initial experiences
The Humanitarian Environment Network

There is a broad scientific consensus that attributes the rise in global temperatures to the greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans, particularly carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels (transport, the production of electricity, heating) and methane from agriculture and the decomposition of waste. The effects of climate change can already be observed and they are primarily affecting the most fragile populations: increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, reduction of agricultural yields, extension of areas where there is a prevalence of diseases like malaria, dengue fever, etc. Taking into account the current rate of emissions and the lifespan of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, without a major technological or economic change, this phenomenon is going to continue to grow in the decades to come. In order to remain faithful to their principles (notably, the objective of doing no harm) and to ensure that there is coherence between what they do and their mandate and public positioning, several humanitarian organizations have decided to evaluate their carbon footprint by assessing their greenhouse gas emissions, in order to then put in place measures to reduce them. What does this type of assessment involve and what lessons can be drawn from these first experiences?

 An essential precondition: choosing the methodology and the scope of the assessment

The objective of these assessments is to evaluate the volume of greenhouse gas emitted within a given area of activity and to use this to establish an action plan to reduce emissions.

The gases which are taken into account are generally the six greenhouse gases included in the Kyoto Protocol: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide and three fluorinated gases which are essentially of industrial origin. All these gases have different effects and life spans in the atmosphere. As carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas globally, assessments are generally expressed in tons of CO2 equivalent (TeqCO2), calculated on the basis of a century. One ton of methane, for example, equals 23 TeqCO2 [1].

The first step in an assessment of greenhouse gas emissions is to define the scope of the assessment. This step has a major influence on the results. For example, it is possible to only take into account direct emissions from sources belonging to the organisation (fleets of vehicles, generators, etc.) or, at the other extreme, to take into account all direct and indirect emissions, including those that are caused by the production of goods and services and by energy bought. Certain tools impose the scope, such as the Bilan Carbone [2]. The scope can also be imposed by law. In France, article 75 of the Grenelle II Law makes it legally binding for corporate bodies which employ more than 500 people to carry out an assessment of their emissions which includes their direct emissions and their indirect emissions linked to energy bought. Smaller private organizations, including the majority of humanitarian organizations, do not have any legal obligations in this area for the time being.

[1] In other terms, the energy that a ton of methane sends back to the earth in 100 years is the same as the energy that 23 tonnes of carbone dioxide sends back.

[2] The term Bilan Carbone is often used generically to describe an assessment of greenhouse gas emissions, but it is actually a trademark owned by the Association Bilan Carbone which can only be used under certain conditions.