How green is the United Nations’ own environmental policies?
Shepherding the Paris climate agreement to conclusion in December 2015 has been a major achievement of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The agreement got more than 190 states to commit to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 degrees centigrade, above pre-industrial levels. At the signing ceremony of the agreement at UN headquarters on Earth Day 2016, Ban reasserted that “leadership from the top is crucial.”
Ban also confirmed that the UN “must embody the integrated and indivisible nature of the Sustainable Development Goals through its own operations, from procurement to emission reductions.” In addition, the executive heads of 30 UN funds, programs and specialized agencies have emphasized, as far back as 2007, “to move towards a climate neutral UN.”
What can all these commitments actually do for climate-neutrality goals at the UN?
Given that buildings — through air-conditioning and heating — and transportation are the main carbon emitters, reductions must happen in these settings, either through avoidance or intelligent design.
Decarbonization, however, is not a priority for senior management of the UN Secretariat, Ban’s domain, so the potential for renewable energy use is being left untapped.
The United Nations Environment Program has developed an assessment method and, since 2009, issued annual greenhouse gas emissions inventory that indicates the total and per capita carbon release into the environment in tons of carbon dioxide, technically expressed as tCO2 eq. The 2015 edition confirms that 18 UN system organizations had an emissions-reduction strategy and that 21 had become climate neutral through the purchase of carbon credits.
The UN Secretariat, astonishingly, is not among the UN entities with a reduction plan.
Peacekeeping missions, which are part of the Secretariat, are by far the biggest carbon emitters of the entire UN system. Data sets were reported for 2009 and again for 2014, although not for the four years in between. In 2008, peacekeeping missions emitted 56 percent of the entire UN system, or 0.97 million t eq (or 8.5 tCO2 eq/staff).
Sadly, the 2014 assessment showed a regression. The percentage remained unchanged — 55 percent — but both the absolute and relative numbers of peacekeeping missions have risen significantly, by 16 percent to 1.12 million tCO2 eq (or by 9 percent to 9.3 tCO2 eq/staff).
Is the four-year reporting gap related to the fact that there has been no decrease in the missions’ carbon footprint or that despite the General Assembly’s request to reduce the overall environmental footprint of each peacekeeping mission, no progress has been made?
While consolidated information is unavailable, a comparative analysis of the 2015-2016 and the 2016-2017 budgets of all 16 current peacekeeping missions reveals no systematic approach or developed policy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Budget documents reveal some ad hoc efforts to reduce the carbon footprint, even if their results are weak.
Some bright spots demonstrate the potential of significant results, such as a recently awarded environmental management certification of UN operations in Brindisi and Valencia, Italy. Also noteworthy is the expectation of the UN mission in Kosovo to produce 67 percent of its electricity from solar panels by 2017.
Unfortunately, most of the measures being taken are trivial in scale. For instance, the UN mission in Golan Heights (Undof) plans to install only five solar panels for water heating; the mission in Lebanon has an unspecified number “for perimeter security lights for force headquarters”; and at the Entebbe support base in Uganda, a solar-roofed parking yard. The mission in Darfur, Sudan, has installed “carlogs in all vehicles to monitor the duration of car idling and control fuel consumption.” In Darfur? Seriously? Is this a response at scale?
About $200 million a year is spent on diesel fuel to power generators that run air-conditioners for prefabricated residential metal containers, most of them located in the hot, sunny and inaccessible deployment areas of Africa or the Middle East. Much of the roughly $100 million a year spent on aircraft fuel goes to airlift diesel to remote areas, although the documents do not disaggregate the data.
There are mature solar-diesel hybrid systems that would dramatically cut the need for diesel (and for carting and flying it around). Equally dramatic, such hybrid systems would cut carbon dioxide emissions and would amortize in a short time, creating major cost savings: cleaner, easier, cheaper.
This use of diesel is astounding, given that renewable energy is much more economical, avoids pollution, is maintenance-free, reduces risks — oil tankers are traveling bombs — and leaves something beneficial behind when the missions’ mandates are completed. Solar systems are guaranteed for two to three decades. In our house on the outskirts of New York City, we installed solar panels in 2011 and have not paid a penny since for electricity or for maintenance.
Prices for solar systems have decreased 80 percent in the last half decade, yet UN peacekeeping remains wedded to expensive, polluting, maintenance-heavy 1970s technology for power generation and ground transportation, despite many calls for a responsible presence of UN peacekeepers.
The standard vehicle in peacekeeping missions, of which thousands are used, are fuel-guzzling, polluting four-wheel-drive diesels, which, incidentally, do not meet North American emissions standards. Nimbler approaches to transportation suggest moving away from a one-size-fits-all standardization at the highest requirement level toward task-dependent differentiation. For mission bases or in cities, smaller cars, even electric or hybrid models, could be more useful while also appearing friendlier to the local population.
Photovoltaic diesel hybrid systems are an obvious stopgap solution for power generation in peacekeeping sites. They are scalable and easy to plan and install as complements to the existing diesel infrastructure. The capital investment is quickly recovered through savings in fuel and transportation costs, and hybrid systems immediately deliver cleaner and sustainable energy.
Some tentative steps in this direction are underway, yet they lack the strategic push in line with Ban’s pronouncement of September 2015 that the environment is one of his priorities and that he is “fully committed to ensuring that United Nations Peace Operations are a sustainable presence.” And that a “review of [his] 2009 environmental policy for United Nations field missions will be completed early in 2016.”
The updated policy has not been issued as of August. Opportunities are being missed and there appears little sense of urgency to move ahead not only with decarbonization but also with more responsible waste management. Despite the Haiti cholera fiasco, in which the UN has been linked to an outbreak of the disease through poor sanitation at one of its bases, recent audits of waste management in peacekeeping missions have been less than encouraging.
Updating the field missions’ environmental policy is within the role of the secretary-general. Given the ostensible importance of climate neutrality, Ban’s action plan for the Secretariat, requested by the General Assembly in December 2015, is also eagerly awaited.
Meanwhile, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization reports that 2016 is on track, like last year, to be the hottest year on record; levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have reached new highs; June 2016 marked the 14th consecutive month of record heat and the 378th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th-century average. The last month with temperatures below the 20th-century average was December 1984.
Confidence in public institutions is eroding fast, and the UN — no longer universally considered an important global public good — is risking further marginalization.
In light of the dramatic state of the world’s climate, the UN must walk the talk, so to speak. The legislative mandates are there, the technology exists and countless UN staff members would enthusiastically contribute to such an exciting project and prospect.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Franz Baumann is a visiting research professor at New York University. He started his career at the European Parliament in Luxembourg before transferring to the European Commission in Brussels, joining Siemens in Munich and, in 1980, the United Nations, where he served in four cities on three continents in various roles. His last assignment was special adviser on Environment and Peace Operations with the rank of assistant secretary-general. Baumann has a Ph.D. in political science (African Studies) from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.