Taking action on climate change at IDS

Published on 30 September 2021

Imogen Bellwood-Howard

Research Fellow

Martin Gardner

Project Support Officer

Climate change is one of the most urgent and challenging issues faced globally and, at the 2019 IDS staff retreat, a discussion on the concerns shared by many prompted launch of the IDS Climate Action Taskforce.

The focus was on how the institute could take action to reduce its impact on climate change by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases produced. The Climate Change Action Task Force (CCATF) was formed of staff volunteers from across IDS and led by the Director of Finance. The CCATF had several subgroups, each with a particular area of focus. It included the travel and technology subgroup who considered how digital technology could help in reducing the need for IDS staff to travel in order to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from international air travel.

Quantifying IDS’ environmental impact

To confirm assumptions and create a benchmark of IDS’ impact on climate change, an audit subgroup was created and tasked with analysing greenhouse gas emissions. This group selected the ‘Greenhouse Gas Protocol’ (GHGP), produced by the World Resources Institute and World Business Council for Sustainable Development, to quantify IDS’ emissions. It is by far the most widely applied method but was found not to be well suited to office-based organisations like IDS. This meant we had to adapt it in order to be able to quantify emissions accurately and meaningfully.

For instance, emissions from internet use were found to be particularly difficult to quantify, and not explicitly considered by the GHGP method nor by any others. Here, the lack of regulated reporting standards and calculations of carbon offsetting by our internet provider reduced the integrity of the data source. However, the overall proportion of our emissions that came from internet use was assessed to be relatively negligible. This example also highlights a key benefit of the GHG protocol, in that it promotes more detailed analysis of those emission sources identified as having the greatest impact, making it easier for organisations to focus attention on reducing their most polluting activities.

The first audit drew on data from the 2019-20 financial year, with a total calculated emissions profile for IDS of 3,106 tCO2e from the 533 staff and students. Although it was suspected that travel emissions would comprise a large proportion of our footprint, the extent to which this was the case was quite overwhelming. Eighty-three per cent of IDS’ emissions were from travel, and 77 per cent from flights alone. The majority of flights were for business travel by researchers and research students. Short course participants who flew to IDS also represented a considerable proportion.

Figure 1:  IDS’ GHG emissions for the financial year 2019-2020 (top emissions sources, rounded to nearest figure)

Acting on emissions

The report findings have helped us identify measures to immediately reduce emissions, with travel a primary focus. This was underlined by the Covid-19 pandemic which hit in the middle of analysis and helped both better understand the impact of travel on emissions but also underlined that change was possible, particularly in relation to viable substitutes to travel. For example, cloud based productivity tools such as MS Teams and Zoom supported collaboration and knowledge sharing, despite participants being in different physical locations.

Reporting back

At the online all-staff retreat in 2020, the CCATF presented the results of the greenhouse gas audit and gained support from colleagues to take the learnings forward, including reducing international travel to achieve meaningful impact on emissions. This commitment came at a time when international travel was already restricted by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic but, as the world reopens, the aim is to use the findings of the 2020-21 audit when complete to encourage further discussion at IDS about how to make this a lasting change. It is expected that the 2020-2021 audit will show a large drop in emissions, primarily driven by reduced and restricted travel.

To understand what changes would be needed to implement a lasting reduction in international travel, the CCATF are planning to consult with the IDS community. This would include a round of qualitative data collection comprising of focus groups, interviews and workshops with staff across IDS to understand which changes can be maintained without detriment to core activities. At the same time, the audit subgroup is also reviewing the systems in place to understand how they can be strengthened to improve collection of data and better understand factors contributing to the IDS emissions profile.

Critical factors

A very important factor in the success of the greenhouse gas audit was the cross institute support to reduce the institute’s environmental impact, including funding the staff time needed. Alongside, the institute included a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as a key performance indicator in the IDS Annual Report, underlining the commitment to reducing emissions. This also emphasised the importance of collecting accurate data that in turn could be analysed.

While IDS has been late to audit its emissions in comparison to peer institutions, it was noted while making benchmarking comparisons that the way the Greenhouse Gas Protocol was applied was comparatively comprehensive – for example, as many ‘scope 3’ emissions were calculated as possible, which includes emissions from business travel, waste collection and consumables.

Our shared ambition for change

Over the coming years, the aim is to share the learnings from this initiative with both immediate contractors and peers within the wider sector. One reason is to share methodologies, to encourage more accurate and meaningful data collection across institutions. Another is to understand better some of the sector-wide constraints to emissions reductions, with a view to developing solutions which overcome commonly faced challenges. This includes recognition that sharing learning contributes to improved common practice amongst partnered organisations within a global network.

Preliminary qualitative data collected at the 2020 retreat indicated that IDS’ partners and funders’ expectations were among the reasons that IDS staff made international trips that could be considered ‘unnecessary’. It therefore seems that achieving change would require discussion at a sectoral level. Linked to this, accurate qualitative as well as quantitative data collection would help to ensure that attempts at emissions reduction are equitable as well as effective. Comparative difference and equitable outcomes are important. For instance, an ‘essential’ journey may have different meanings for different staff members, e.g., for early career compared to senior researchers.

IDS’ approach to auditing greenhouse gas emissions demonstrates that the collection of meaningful data is essential for setting the foundations for understanding the challenge. This then provides the basis upon which to define the actions needed then make significant steps towards progressive, equitable and sustainable change towards a reduced environmental impact.

For further information on how the audit was conducted and the method employed or to obtain a copy of the report, please get in touch with Imogen Bellwood-Howard and Mariah Cannon.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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