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The UN Moves Toward ‘Climate Neutrality,’ but Is It Fast Enough?


Solar panels installed on the roof of the United Nations in New York, Aug. 27, 2019. The complexity of the UN system makes it difficult for outsiders to assess its success in reducing its climate footprint. Moreover, some UN staff want the organization to be more of a global role model for environmental action. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

The United Nations system has instituted some important changes toward becoming what it calls climate neutral. Some employees and former employees, however, think the UN could be doing much more to reduce the organization’s carbon footprint globally and to be a stronger role model in mitigating climate change.

After all, Secretary-General António Guterres recently said in Pakistan about the global “climate emergency” that “climate disruption is a clear and present danger worldwide.”

UN officials contend the system has largely met its target of becoming climate neutral by this year. The Secretariat — the main administrative and policymaking body of the UN system — reached that goal in 2018, and the overall UN system is now 95 percent climate neutral, according to UN Information Officer Dan Shepard.

The system’s latest Greening the Blue report, which refers to the UN emblematically as “blue,” includes 2018 data on greenhouse gas emissions and waste, water and environmental management from over 60 entities across the UN system, representing approximately 290,000 personnel. Last summer, the UN headquarters banned single-use plastic, improving waste management at its base in New York. 

In 2007, when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon led the UN, the heads of the organization’s agencies, funds and programs vowed to achieve the UN climate neutral strategy by 2020. The Ban initiative aimed to: “estimate the greenhouse gas emissions of UN system organizations consistent with accepted international standards; undertake efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; analyze the cost implications and explore budgetary modalities of purchasing carbon offsets to eventually reach climate neutrality.”   

In an interview with PassBlue, UN Under Secretary-General for Operational Support Atul Khare described efforts the system is doing across the globe, such as treating and improving management of wastewater, using more efficient generators and installing solar-power panels at facilities as far-flung as New York and Bamako, Mali. 

Progress appears to have been made in many areas, but the overwhelming complexity of the system’s operations and of measuring outputs, reductions and impact makes outside analysis difficult.

Daniel Cooney, acting spokesperson for the Nairobi-based UN Environment Program, told PassBlue, for example, that “emissions reductions are taking place at both offices and entity level but, given the variety and complexity of UN System operations, the approach chosen in the Greening the Blue report is not to report collective emissions reductions but rather focus on specific best practices as reported in the Greening the Blue website regularly.”

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Last September, some 2,000 UN employees signed an open letter to Secretary-General Guterres appealing for more reductions of the system’s carbon footprint. “While some UN entities have started to establish greener air travel policies, many UN entities have no policy in place to reduce air travel,” the letter stated. “Moreover, current offsetting policies allow for UN entities to claim carbon neutrality by offsetting through minor financial contributions which do not reflect the true cost of emissions.” The group behind that letter now calls itself “Young UN.”

Cooney said that last year, “95 percent of the total reported UN system 2018 GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions were offset, a significant improvement compared to the 39 percent offset the previous year.” He added, as did the two other officials who were interviewed for this article, that the UN recognizes reductions, not offsets, as the objective. 

When asked about carbon offsets, Khare said that the UN had reached the climate neutral objective partly through them and that it was working to cut reliance on them. “Carbon offsets are primarily a means of assuaging guilty conscience without doing something about it,” he said. “Reduction of flights is preferable.”

A green roof being built next to the new solar panels on the roof of the UN in New York, Aug. 29, 2019. An open letter by UN staffers to the UN secretary-general bemoaned the lack of such systemwide policies as greener air travel. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

The UN Environment Program has publicly stated its concern about the UN system’s reliance on offsets. “UN Environment supports carbon offsets as a temporary measure leading up to 2030, and a tool for speeding up climate action,” according to a climate specialist, Niklas Hagelberg, with the agency. “However, it is not a silver bullet, and the danger is that it can lead to complacency.”

Asked about Young UN’s letter calling for more action to lower emissions and reliance on carbon offsets, Shepard said, “It was a call from the staff for leaders around the world to ramp up action on climate change and sustainability,” adding that Guterres’s 10-year climate action plan, announced in September, addresses these concerns.

The plan lays out goals such as making a 45 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and relying on renewable energy for 80 percent of electricity by 2030. Echoing other system documents and statements, including the 2019 Greening the Blue report, the plan says the UN strives to “lead by example.” It’s an ambitious goal that Young UN, the Environment Program and others hope to see realized.

Franz Baumann, a former assistant secretary-general and special adviser on environment and peace operations at the UN, said, “Leading by example, I trust, means that by the end of the year, the UN Joint Staff Pension Fund will have divested all fossil fuel assets, that carbon offsets are purchased for all official travel as well as for the use of fossil fuels for transportation and facilities — and that a public accounting of these action is made available in time for COP26” — the 26th UN climate change conference, to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November.

Fiona Shukri is an American living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She lived in Kabul, Afghanistan, from 2008 to 2018, where she worked as an adviser to the Afghan government. Previously, she was a Middle East senior program manager for the National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C.; and a communications strategist at Unesco in Paris and at UNA-USA in New York City.

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The UN Moves Toward ‘Climate Neutrality,’ but Is It Fast Enough?
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