7 March 2023 From laggard to leader: UNESCO is making progress in the EMS process

In 2022, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has achieved impressive results, ranking among the four organizations (seven per cent of the total) that met the environmental criteria. This is particularly noteworthy because, according to Greening the Blue Report 2021, UNESCO was among the group of entities that did not meet the criteria.

These accomplishments were preceded by a long, arduous effort and tireless work from UNESCO personnel. The first steps toward internal sustainability were taken by a voluntary staff initiative called ‘Greening UNESCO’ which brought together dedicated staff, consultants and volunteers interested in environmental management changes. Individual departments within UNESCO were also involved in the environmental impact by incorporating environmental criteria in their daily work. Despite these concrete steps, UNESCO lacked an overall systematic approach.

The appointment of a new Director General Ms. Audrey Azoulay who advocated for greater internal sustainability, the Publication of UN Sustainability Management Strategy 2020-2030, Youth for Climate strikes and UNESCO's blank spaces on governance and on carbon neutrality reflected in Greening the Blue Report 2019 led to a dramatic transformation of the entity’s environmental agenda in 2018/2019.

It took three years of productive work to develop a roadmap and policy documents, launch environmental review, build technical capacity, increase staff awareness, and finally adopt the Environmental Sustainability and Management Policy . The policy became a new milestone in the process to integrate sustainability practices into operational activities. Another important achievement for UNESCO is the publication of its first public Environmental Sustainability Report 2022 which highlights the results of the work done by the entity to reduce its environmental footprint.

UNESCO has also set specific environmental objectives and targets. The overall target is to reduce its total greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 as compared to 2010, or by 31 per cent as compared to 2019.

Commenting on these ambitious targets, Miriam Tereick, Environmental Sustainability Officer, Sector for Administration and Management, UNESCO, has this to say:

“I often get asked how we got management to agree to cut air travel by 35 per cent. The key argument was we have already committed to this. UNESCO has approved the UN Sustainability Management Strategy that says we need to reduce by 45 per cent and that cutting air travel is the only way to get there. That was our key argumentation to get all the sub-targets approved by our Senior Management”.

There are also obstacles on UNESCO's path to internal sustainability, e.g., time and budget constraints, lacking interest from part of middle management as well as more urgent programmatic priorities.  To address these challenges the organization tries to refer to its mandate and existing commitments, e.g., UN Strategies and adhere to a balanced combination of concrete steps and formal actions.

A key role in the greening of UNESCO is played by a collaboration of concerned and motivated personnel and the support of top management and Member States.

Ms. Miriam Tereick also shared her opinion on what inspires her entity to move forward:

“It is very important to get the motivation up with dedicated communication efforts. What worked well is that, beyond the formal EMS Working Group, we have set up little Greening working groups on specific topics, specifically on carbon offsetting, greening meetings and communication and on travel that generate many ideas and help us advance. Finally, I think it is important to get inspiration from other UN entities via the Greening the Blue community”.

Ms. Miriam Tereick presented UNESCO’s EMS work at the GtB Report 2022 session on February 9, 2023 you may watch the event recording and review the presentation slides here.


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