Offsetting in the UN


The UN Climate Neutral Strategy commits all UN agencies to minimise their impact on climate change by following a three-part strategy to achieve climate neutrality. Organisations must first measure their emissions according to the UN agreed boundary, then take steps to reduce them. The final stage is to offset any unavoidable emissions. Only when an organisation has successfully offset all of its reported greenhouse gas emissions can it be declared 'climate neutral'.

At the September 2014 Climate Summit, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon issued a call for the UN system to be climate neutral by 2020. Measuring, reducing and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions will all be required to achieve this goal.

In 2019 the UN offset 95% of its total reported 2018 greenhouse gas emissions. You can see more about each UN entity's progress on offsetting here.


What is offsetting?


Whilst the UN is working hard to reduce its emissions, some are unavoidable. Offsetting is the process whereby organizations take responsibility for their remaining emissions by purchasing carbon credits from projects that are achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of an equivalent amount. Example projects include installing new renewable energy facilities, restoring forests, delivering clean cook-stoves or improving energy efficiency in homes.


Carbon credits and CERs


Carbon credits are created and issued to projects that can prove their activities are reducing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, either today (through capturing carbon dioxide) or in the future (through reducing or replacing the use of fossil fuels). A reduction of one tonne of carbon dioxide equals one credit. The project must demonstrate that the financing gained from the sale of the credits is a vital income stream, without which the emission reduction would not happen. This is known as 'additionality' and makes sure that offsetting schemes have a tangible impact on atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases.

Certified Emission Reductions (CERs) are carbon credits issued by projects that are part of the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism. There is a 2% levy on CDM projects which goes into the UNFCCC’s Adaptation Fund to finance projects that help developing countries build resilience and adapt to climate change.


How does the UN buy its offsets?


The carbon credits purchased by the UN are secured either via UNFCCC’s Adaptation Fund, via UNOPS or using external brokers.

Offsets are purchased using core funds or extra-budgetary resources. In some cases, such as for offsetting specific events, funding is provided by external sponsors - for example, individual governments or private foundations. In these cases, the UN is not always the direct buyer.  A more systematic approach is to finance offsets at the point where the greenhouse gas emissions are generated, eg, charging to the travel budget, without compensation, the costs of offsetting emissions from official travel.  In this way, the budget available for travel is effectively reduced, as are travel-related emissions, and the overall cost is budget-neutral. At the same time, staff are sensitized to the climate impact of travel. Find answers to some common questions about offsetting in the offsetting FAQs.