The UN takes further steps towards sustainability

Fri, 20/09/19

The latest edition of the UN’s annual Greening the Blue report, which provides a snapshot of the UN System’s environmental impacts throughout 2018 and the activities underway to reduce them, shows that the UN emitted 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2eq) in 2018 – or 7 tCO2eq per capita.

Introducing the report in the run up to the UN Climate Action Summit on 23rd September, UN Secretary-General, António Guterres said: “As the world mobilizes to address the climate emergency, the United Nations must walk the talk. We are taking decisive action to lower our greenhouse gas emissions, reduce energy use across our facilities and operations, transition to cleaner energy sources and improve waste management systems.”


The report is being published just months after the leaders of the UN System approved the first comprehensive UN System-wide sustainability strategy. The strategy sets out ambitious plans for the UN system to improve its performance across five environmental impact areas (greenhouse gas emissions, waste, water, air pollution and biodiversity) and six management functions (procurement, human resources, facilities management, travel, events and ICT) between 2020 and 2030.
The annual Greening the Blue report provides information on the UN’s environmental impacts over the previous year. This year’s report includes 2018 data on greenhouse gas emissions, waste, water and environmental management from over 60 entities across the UN System, representing approximately 290,000 personnel.

What the data tells us: greenhouse gas emissions

  • The approximately 290,000 UN System personnel covered by this report emitted 2 million tCO2eq (tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2018 – or 7 tCO2eq per capita
  • 45% of the UN’s greenhouse gas impact was from its facilities (headquarter offices, field offices, warehouses etc.), 42% from air travel, and 13% from other modes of travel
  • 47 headquarter offices purchased more than 95% of their electricity from renewable sources in 2018. This number represents the majority of UN System headquarter offices (71%) and is evidence of the UN’s efforts to reduce its environmental impact. Many field offices are following suit in obtaining their energy from renewable sources.
  • A total of 55 UN entities are climate neutral for 2018, representing 95% of the System's reported greenhouse gas emissions.
  • This is a substantial accomplishment for the UN System. The amount of offset emissions has more than doubled over 2017 figures. In 2017, 43 entities were climate neutral; this represented 39 % of the System’s reported emissions.

What the data tells us: waste generation and management

  • A total of 58 UN entities provided quantitative waste data for 2018, revealing that average per capita waste generation throughout the year was 614 kilograms. This figure includes Field Missions personnel, who reside on UN premises 24/7.
  • With regards to the management of waste, 24% was reused, recycled, composted or recovered for energy in 2018.

What the data tells us: water consumption

  • 58 entities provided water data, indicating that the UN used 59 m3 (59,000 litres) of water per capita last year.

What the data tells us: environmental management systems

  • The UN System is committed to becoming more sustainable via the adoption of systematic approaches that require each organisation to develop an internal environmental action plan with clear objectives and devote the necessary resources.
  • In an effort to reduce their emissions and overall environmental footprint, 25 UN entities have either implemented or are in the process of developing an environmental management system.

Responding to the sustainability crisis

The Secretary-General is committed to scaling-up and accelerating sustainability efforts across the UN system in response to the growing evidence about the environmental emergency: “The United Nations is on course to be climate neutral by 2020, and I am strongly committed to ensuring that the Organization continues to lead by example by pursuing efforts in all areas of environmental sustainability.”

Delivering the UN’s new sustainability strategy will entail mainstreaming energy efficiency and sourcing electricity from renewables for all major UN buildings; adapting transport policies and practices to encourage and reward cleaner choices; making all procurement sustainable; and reducing the consumption of resources – including single-use plastics - whilst disposing of waste responsibly.

With a focus on five environmental impact areas and six core management functions, the strategy is designed to enable the UN to achieve ambitious environmental goals including reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in line with IPCC recommendations for keeping temperature increases below 1.5°C.

Oversight of sustainability management in the UN

In 2007, the Executive Heads of the UN’s agencies, funds and programmes committed to move the UN system towards climate neutrality and environmentally sustainability. Work to achieve this is coordinated by the UN Environment Management Group, with technical support provided by UNEP via the Sustainable United Nations (SUN) facility. Established in 2008, SUN assists UN entities to measure and reduce their environmental impacts and offset their unavoidable emissions.

SUN manages the Greening the Blue initiative that aims to raise awareness among UN staff around the world on the need for greater sustainability in the organization. In this context, the annual Greening the Blue report presents the UN system’s greenhouse gas emissions, waste disposal, fresh-water use, and environmental management. SUN’s stream of work also includes developing system-wide harmonized approaches, providing technical assistant and capacity building to UN entities and coordinating a network of over 60 UN entities and several international organizations; all in view of promoting the UN system’s internal environmental sustainability.


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