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Climate Change, Armed Conflict and Humanitarian Organizations: Defining Their Role, Greening Their Response

By Colin Walch

Humanitarian actors play a critical role in responding to climate-related crises, armed conflict, or a combination of both. Their response comes with an environmental cost. Humanitarian staff air travel, for instance, represents a significant source of carbon emissions and humanitarian logistics remain heavily dependent on fossil fuels. As the demand for humanitarian response climbs and countries increase their commitments to curb climate change, a question arises: Can humanitarian organizations mitigate their environmental impact and remain effective in responding to the consequences of armed conflict and climate impacts?

It is possible---and urgent---for the sector to do so, but it requires significant changes to how humanitarian organizations operate. By being "as local as possible, as international as necessary" humanitarian action could reduce its environmental impact and put into practice the World Humanitarian Summit recommendation for more local humanitarian action. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted both the central role of local humanitarian action and the feasibility of reducing international travels for humanitarian staff.

The increasing connection between climate change and conflict

By definition, humanitarian assistance focuses on alleviating the suffering from victims of armed conflict and disasters. Impacts on the environment and climate are often viewed as a secondary concern to the humanitarian imperative. However, evidence increasingly indicates how climate change can have an indirect effect on the onset and duration of armed conflict. The degradation of the environment can fuel conflict and worsen humanitarian crises. For instance, farming and herder communities who see their income diminish because of climate-related droughts or floods have an increased likelihood of resorting to violence to secure access to fertile land or turning to rebel groups for alternative income.

In a growing number of contexts, such as Chad, Mali, Niger, and South Sudan, climate change and armed conflict are increasingly inter-related. This interconnectedness is likely to increase in the near future as the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation increase at a worrying pace. In this context, humanitarians must increase climate adaptation programs in conflict zones and step up their own environmental mitigation efforts.

At the forefront of climate change adaptations in conflict zones

There is strong evidence that communities living in conflict-affected countries are more vulnerable to climate change impacts. Armed conflict destroys infrastructure, weakens institutions, hampers access to basic services, and erodes social cohesion---all of which are critical to people's resilience and adaptation to climate change. Communities are on a "tightrope of survival" in facing these compounded crises.

Thanks to their impartiality, neutrality, and proximity to victims, humanitarian organizations have privileged access to conflict zones and are therefore well-positioned to conduct or support climate change adaption efforts in zones of conflict. Supporting existing and impartial conflict resolution mechanisms that deal with access to land and water may help communities better cope with climate shocks, for example.

In engagement and dialogue with armed groups (state and non-state), humanitarian organizations can highlight International Humanitarian Law considerations related to the protection of the natural environment. In fact, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) just released an updated Guidelines on the protection of the natural environment in armed conflict, highlighting that international humanitarian law can help protect biological diversity and limit environmental degradation during armed conflict. While the protection of civilian populations in armed conflict should remain the highest priority of humanitarian organizations, adding an environmental lens to their protection dialogue with armed groups should be encouraged as effective management of natural resources is important for restoring basic livelihoods.

Greening the humanitarian response

While humanitarian actors provide relief to people in climate and conflict crises, they also need to reduce their own environmental footprint. And while optimizing humanitarian operations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts is important, on its own, it is insufficient. The humanitarian sector needs to rethink the entire approach to operations in order to have a more coherent and greener humanitarian response.

A humanitarian system that is more horizontal and local will help humanitarian organizations pay more attention to the voices of people caught up in crisis and will reduce the reliance on international staff with higher environmental footprints. International staff will still be necessary, particularly in situations of high mistrust between ethnic groups when they are more easily perceived as neutral and impartial by armed actors, but they may provide less added value in relief assistance, such as food security, and water, sanitation and hygiene. In the context of climate change, it is time to factor in the carbon cost of deploying international staff when making staffing determinations.

Certain types of assistance require less logistics and therefore pollute less. For instance, research suggests that unconditional cash transfer is much preferred by people in crises than "in kind" distribution. Cash can also be delivered in increasingly affordable, secure, and transparent ways. Although cash transfers may not be the best option or useful in all conflict situations, they have the advantages of being done easily, locally, and with a smaller environmental footprint.

Conclusion: Expanding the Do No Harm concept to environmental protection?

While the humanitarian environmental footprint is arguably smaller than many other sectors, taking environmental issues into account is a question of coherence with the Do No Harm principle. Developed as a tool to ensure that humanitarian aid would not indirectly fuel armed conflict or increase marginalization of certain groups, the framework remains central to humanitarian assistance---though not yet applied to environmental considerations. Given the interconnections between climate change, conflict, and natural disasters, humanitarian organizations should include environmental protection into the Do Not Harm principle. Applying the principle could include more systematically conducting a cost-benefit analysis of the impact of humanitarian operations on the environment.

Most humanitarian organizations are becoming aware of the need to mitigate their impact on the environment and the climate. They are part of the solution and their relief efforts in crises should be complementary with long-term mitigation efforts that are required to curb climate change. The climate crisis is an opportunity to re-energize propositions to improve the organization of humanitarian aid by making it more local and horizontal. Crises are moments of change and the humanitarian sector has the ability to reform itself to be more local, greener, and sustainable.