UNESCO measured and offset all carbon emissions generated by its operations and facilities for the first time last year, receiving the label of “carbon neutral” in the 2020 UN Greening the Blue report. The report, published by the UN Environment Programme on 10 December, tracks the performance of all UN Agencies in the area of environmental management.
The initiative collects UN System-wide data on greenhouse gas emissions, waste generation, and water consumption, and makes the report publicly available. This year’s report is the first to be published since the adoption of the UN Sustainability Strategy 2020-2030, Phase I: Environmental Sustainability in the Area of Management. It analyses the 2019 environmental data provided by close to 60 participating UN entities, covering over 310,000 staff members worldwide.
A total of 2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent was produced by the UN System in 2019, continuing the overall downward trend since 2010. UNESCO was slightly above the UN average of 6.5 tonnes with 7.1 tonnes of CO2eq produced per staff member. This is the result of the high volume of air travel (49% of UNESCO’s total emissions), including the travel of conference participants sponsored by UNESCO.
To achieve carbon neutrality, UNESCO offset these emissions through the purchase of Certified Emission Reductions, partially from the UN Adaptation Fund, and partially by investing in four specific emission-reduction projects: a wind power project in Guatemala, a clean cookstove project in Malawi, a biogas farm in Thailand, and a hydropower dam in Fiji. All projects are UN-certified through the Clean Development Mechanism.
Regarding waste generation, UNESCO Offices produced on average 200kg of waste per person, which was below the UN System average of 227kg per person (excluding Peacekeeping operations). More than half of the waste generated in UNESCO Offices was sorted and processed into recycling circuits.
As highlighted in the report, UNESCO is also one of the five additional Agencies that have recently started to establish an Environmental Management System (EMS) as the key framework for addressing the Organization’s long-term environmental performance. The EMS enables UNESCO to structurally plan, control and continually improve its impact on the environment while increasing operational efficiency. This has already resulted in concrete changes over the past year, such as:
an internal carbon tax on air travel to incentivize other modes of transportation and finance emission-reduction measures;
various actions to improve waste management at Headquarters;
the creation of a biodiversity and vegetable garden at UNESCO in Paris, France; the integration of environmental criteria into catering services; an initiative to reduce paper in work processes and a partnership to consolidate a virtual meeting culture; and different staff awareness and engagement campaigns, such as the 2020 World Cleanup Day.
In the future, UNESCO will further elaborate on measures to improve the environmental footprint of its facilities and operations, such as through energy efficiency measures, switching to renewable energy sources, adopting a sustainable procurement policy, incentivizing green mobility, and reducing air travel. Revisiting work and travel modalities could help UNESCO, and the UN System as a whole, come closer to the ambitious targets set by the organization to accomplish by 2030 in its Sustainability Strategy, notably regarding a 45% reduction of emissions when compared to 2010.