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UN Environment “walks the talk” on carbon neutrality

UN Environment is celebrating being carbon neutral since January 2008? About a third of all United Nations agencies are now carbon neutral.

Carbon neutrality, or having a net zero carbon footprint, refers to achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing a measured amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset.

In 2007, the United Nations principals endorsed the UN Climate Neutral Strategy asking each UN entity to measure, reduce and offset their unavoidable Greenhouse Gas emissions. UN Environment was given the task by the UN Secretary-General to lead the UN system in implementing the strategy. The Sustainable United Nations Initiative was then created to develop methodologies, coordinate inter-agency action and catalyse United Nations-wide efforts to mitigate and offset its climate footprint and practice greener operations.

Carbon dioxide emissions account for 82 per cent of global warming, with the rest coming mainly from the much more potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide.

A November 2018 report by the World Meteorological Organization of the United Nations showed that globally averaged concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) reached 405.5 parts per million (ppm) in 2017, up from 403.3 ppm in 2016 and 400.1 ppm in 2015. Concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide also rose, whilst there was a resurgence of a potent greenhouse gas and ozone depleting substance called CFC-11, which is regulated under an international agreement to protect the ozone layer.

Furthermore, the UN Environment’s 2018 Emissions Gap Report says global greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise as national commitments to combat climate change fall short. However, on a more positive note, it said surging momentum from the private sector and untapped potential from innovation and green-financing offer pathways to bridge the emissions gap.

How has UN Environment become climate neutral?

UN Environment has achieved climate neutrality largely thanks to an offset programme based on the mitigation and purchase of Certificates of Emission Reduction from projects, mainly in Asia, certified by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This, coupled with a 35 per cent net reduction in its climate footprint has ensured continuous climate neutrality for a decade.

The big-ticket item is flights. Carbon dioxide emissions due to flights taken by UN Environment staff, and people whom it invites to attend conferences and meetings, account for around 80 per cent of all UN Environment’s emissions.


Over half (56 per cent) of all UN Environment paid-for flights are for participants invited to attend events by UN Environment.

The proportion of business class flights between 2011 and 2016 dropped from 22 per cent to 10 per cent, although there was a 35 per cent spike in emissions in 2017. Flight emissions saw a downward trend in general, except for 2017.

“UN Environment’s flight footprint is typical of a small secretariat agency catering to many member states,” says Shoa Ehsani, the Sustainability and Climate Neutral Officer at UN Environment. “It cannot be compared to other UN agencies such as Peacekeeping or the World Food Programme that have much lower per capita flight emissions, but much higher emissions for terrestrial transportation. Our climate footprint is our carbon cost of doing business; efficiencies should help us reduce this while delivering our mandate.”

Overall, UN Environment saw a 50 per cent reduction in emissions between 2010 and 2016 which has kept UN Environment ahead of the Kyoto pace of reductions (3 per cent per annum) instituted by nation states and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This has been achieved by a large reduction in flights in general and business class flights in particular. In 2017 a 42 per cent increase over 2016 (or a 21 per cent compared to the 2010 baseline) gives an overall 35 per cent reduction of UN Environment’s footprint over seven years. However, it should be noted that these figures do not include emissions from staff use of personal vehicles.

Offsetting carbon dioxide emissions is a quick win for wealthy companies, organizations and individuals, as it looks to delegate the job of offsetting to countries and companies that can create global mitigation at the lowest cost, allowing others to buy these as credits. But it’s not the only, best, or most sustainable solution to mitigate climate change since it doesn’t change behaviours. Other actions to implement green policies are indispensable.

Greening the UN compound in Nairobi

The UN compound in Nairobi covers 56 hectares and has some 3,500 to 4,000 people on site every weekday. It has extensive arrays of solar panels which provide about 12 per cent of the compound’s power needs. The rest is covered by on-site diesel generators (seven per cent) and Kenya Power and Lighting Company.

Photo by UN Environment
In 2017, the compound began sorting and recycling its waste, with the aim of reducing by 90 per cent the amount of waste sent to landfills. Current information indicates that we are at 70 per cent reduction of office waste through recycling, and hope to hit the 90 per cent mark (and over) in a couple of years.

Other actions being taken to reduce the compound’s carbon footprint:

Thirteen shuttle buses ferry some staff to and from locations near where they live each day (some of these run on biodiesel)
The UN Office in Nairobi supports flexible working (to help avoid traffic jams) and teleworking, which obviates the need for staff to come to the office every day
During World Environment Day, healthy non-meat options are on the menu
A large photovoltaic array produces enough electrical power in a year to render UN Environment offices energy-neutral
The United Nations Environment Assembly and the Executive Office are eco-friendly and fully climate neutral. Many United Nations processes are now paperless. In UN Environment alone some 6–8 million sheets of paper are used annually, with a total annual printing and paper cost of US$80,000–100,000.

“Some argue that simply offsetting carbon emissions by purchasing carbon credits is a recipe for a ‘business as usual’ attitude. While much more can be done on the UN compound to ramp up the use of renewable energy and fine-tune recycling efforts, we’re on the right track,” says Ehsani.

A United Nations meeting (“COP-24”) is being held in Katowice, Poland, this week to hammer out agreement on the rules for implementing the Paris Agreement to keep global warming to a maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial era levels.

It’s the first such meeting since the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dramatic warning that we need to change the way we live if we are to avoid the serious consequences of allowing global warming to go 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The report urged changes “in all aspects of society” to limit climate warming.

See original release here.