Working Towards a Sustainable UN

Reputation is a key asset for any organization, and the United Nations is no different. That is why it is critical that the organizations that make up the United Nations system clearly demonstrate that they adhere to the same principles that they promote. It is fundamental for maintaining both their reputation and integrity.

Sustainable development is a core objective for the United Nations family. Through their many and varied activities, all UN organizations contribute to sustainable development in one way or another—through economic development, poverty alleviation, healthcare, peacebuilding, infrastructure support, or environmental protection.

To lead by example is, therefore, critical for the United Nations system as it embarks on a journey to move towards resource efficient management and climate neutrality. There are other benefits to be realized as well, including better risk management, preparing the organization for a resource and carbon-constrained future, improving staff morale, and cutting costs.

The work to move the United Nations towards climate neutrality began on 5 June 2007, World Environment Day, when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made public his ambition to make the organization more efficient in its operations. Later that year, the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination approved the United Nations Climate Neutral Strategy, which committed the Executive Heads of UN agencies, funds, and programmes to move their organizations towards climate neutrality. In particular, they agreed to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions of UN system organizations, undertake efforts to reduce them, and analyze the cost implications and budgetary modalities of purchasing carbon offsets.

Moving an international organization with scores of agencies working in hundreds of locations around the world towards climate neutrality is not an easy task. It has required coordination on a scale never before seen in the United Nations. Responsibility for this was given to the United Nations Environment Management Group (EMG), which I chair in my capacity as Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

More specific day-to-day work is handled by the Issue Management Group (IMG) on Environmental Sustainability Management, a network under the EMG which is made up of representatives from 54 United Nations organizations, nominated by their head of organization, and supported by the Sustainable United Nations (SUN) facility.

The first task assigned to the IMG was to develop an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions from the United Nations system for its 2008 operations. After a year of collecting and collating data, the first inventory was published in December 2009 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen. Since then, two further inventories have been published in reports entitled "Moving Towards a Climate Neutral UN."

The most recent inventory was published in April 2012. It shows that the total greenhouse gas emissions from the UN in 2010 were 1.8 million tonnes CO2eq in total or 8.2 tonnes CO2eq per person. This is equivalent to the carbon sequestered annually by over 384,000 acres of pine forest. These figures are similar in magnitude to the results for 2008 and 2009. Although comparing emissions from one year to another remains complex, this is something that SUN is aiming to address.

Emissions from travel, particularly air travel, are the largest contributing factor to overall UN carbon emissions. Air travel alone accounts for half of total emissions. In 2010, per capita air travel emissions were 4.2 tonnes CO2eq for 2010, with a few agencies reporting figures over 10 tonnes. Facilities, particularly the energy used to run UN buildings, are the second largest contributor, emitting at an intensity of around 100 kg CO2eq per square metre.

The work of measuring emissions is critical, but reducing emissions is the raison d'être for the UN climate neutral strategy and it is here that imagination, ingenuity, and leadership come to the fore.

UN agencies are in the process of developing Emission Reduction Strategies and 34 have already been received. In them, we see a clear focus of activity around travel, facilities, and events, mirroring the work taking place at the system-wide level, including SUN's work with inter-agency groups to develop guidance materials and policy suggestions.

Activities at the agency level vary in their ambition and scope, but we are already seeing some excellent initiatives that are testament to the determination and ingenuity of colleagues across the system.

UNEP is a case in point. Last year, its headquarters moved into a new building in Nairobi. This purpose-built office is a good example of how new technologies can be combined with old to deliver more efficient buildings while challenging the myth that such developments are only for the developed world.

The aim was to produce a building that would be capable of being energy neutral. This means that the building is designed to generate as much energy as the 1,000 occupants and facility operations consume, thanks to measures for reducing energy demand, promoting energy efficiency, and the installation of a solar photovoltaic system.

The building design followed key principles for environmentally conscious architecture and put a number of green technologies to work. The structure not only allows for better penetration of natural light, but motion sensors, photo sensors, and timers control the artificial lighting according to occupancy, daylight availability, and the time of the day. Improved natural ventilation has resulted in a comfortable interior temperature, removing the need for expensive air conditioning. It is a beautiful building and an example of how meeting the challenge of sustainability can enhance our lives as well as our environment.

Other agencies are delivering similarly bold projects. For example, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in Bratislava has been climate neutral since December 2011, thanks to persistent emission reduction efforts and solar panels installed on its roof, while the World Bank has achieved Gold Standard Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for two of its offices in Washington.

UNEP's Regional Office for North America has also won because of the standards it set for its new offices, and the eco-friendly building practices employed to implement them. These included salvaging most of the construction debris from its old office. Glass panels were recovered and carefully placed to enhance the design of the new space, where partially frosted panels provide privacy to perimeter offices while allowing natural light to filter into corridors and interior work areas.

Almost all of the existing furniture was reinstalled in the new offices. Recycled, sustainably sourced, and locally manufactured products were also used wherever possible. The floor, for example, is made from recycled plastic bottles, the desks from compressed wheat straw, and the doors from wood that is sourced from sustainable forests, as certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Likewise, many agencies are introducing policies to promote train travel over air travel.

Another strategy for delivering change is to use the purchasing power of the agency to encourage suppliers to deliver products with a higher value that are resource efficient and produced under fair labour conditions. Procurement is highlighted by many UN agencies in their emissions reduction strategies; the High Level Committee on Management's Procurement Network has included sustainable procurement among its strategic priorities; and the SUN team, in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Product Services, the International Labour Organization, and the High Level Committee on Management Procurement Network, has developed a support pack to assist UN agencies in this area. The impact of such green procurement policies by public bodies and governments cannot be underestimated.

By some estimates, if public spending in an economy is over around 23 per cent and that spending is greened -- purchasing certified products such as wood or fish or clean sources of energy -- it can be enough to tip the whole economy into the sustainability space. One reason is that some Governments have been looking to green procurement as a big ticket outcome for the Rio+20 Summit in June.

No matter how far we go in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, there will always remain some that are unavoidable and these will need to be offset. UN specific guidance has been developed for offsetting corporate emissions, as well as emissions from events and meetings. Several UN organizations are now in the habit of procuring high quality carbon offsets.

Moving the UN towards climate neutrality is an exercise in change management. It is critical that UN staff understand what is happening and how it affects them. In 2010, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched a campaign, Greening the Blue, to do exactly that -- explain to staff what's going on and how they can get involved. It also provides a platform for sharing best practice beyond the UN. Last year, the campaign won an international award for Best Public Sector website, and it continues to capture the imagination of UN agencies, staff, and other stakeholders through an array of activities including competitions, events, stories, and social networking.

The best resource we have for moving towards environmental sustainability is our people -- United Nations staff who are committed to help shift the organization on to a footing fit for the twenty-first century. For some, sustainability is a part of their paid job. For others, the greening work is something they undertake on a voluntary basis. There are currently over 15 Green Groups, 50 Focal Points and 100 Green Champions across the UN and they are all busy launching greening initiatives in offices around the world, many of which can be seen on the Greening the Blue website.

Over the last few years there has been significant progress in moving towards a climate neutral UN. However, several barriers remain that must be overcome if the UN is to be a true beacon of sustainability. These include securing a clear mandate, ensuring leadership on sustainability, and managing conflicting priorities, budgeting, and economic pressures. Work is underway on all these fronts and we hope to be able to report progress in each area next year.

Rio+20 comes two decades after the Earth Summit of 1992 where several of the major agreements were signed including treaties on climate change, biodiversity, and desertification. It built on the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment of 1972 in Stockholm which, among many achievements, set the stage for the establishment of UNEP later that year.

The challenge and the opportunity for Rio+20 is to find the pathway towards implementing sustainable development under the theme of a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

The work towards a sustainable UN underlines that a transition to a green economy is happening within public institutions and in countries, cities, communities, and companies across the globe.

Rio+20 does not need to reinvent the wheel but to oil the wheels towards a sustainable twenty-first century and, in doing so, scale-up and accelerate the transformations that may allow seven billion people, rising to over nine billion by 2050, to prosper and find decent employment in a way that keeps humanity's footprint within planetary limits.