The United Nations is getting a grip on the greenhouse gases (GHG) it generates. In an unprecedented joint effort, the whole UN system has compiled an inventory of its annual emissions. The total – the equivalent of 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2009 – is an enormous one, as it would be for any organization or business whose operations are global in scope. But the knowledge contained in this inventory is empowering rather than just daunting. It is a crucial step in developing plans to reduce the UN's emissions, and meeting the UN's commitment to become climate neutral.
It was UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who launched that commitment. Back in June 2007, on World Environment Day, he called on all UN agencies, funds and programmes to 'go green'. Seeking to become climate neutral, he realized, was the best way for the UN system to show the world that it recognized the social and environmental challenges it must face in the 21st century. Setting the example, 'walking the talk', would raise public awareness of the need for more sustainable patterns of consumption. The Secretary-General's historic call was echoed by the Chief Executives Board (CEB) four months later when the Climate Neutral Strategy was approved: “We, the Heads of the United Nations agencies, funds and programmes, hereby commit ourselves to moving our respective organizations towards climate neutrality in our headquarters and United Nations centres for our facility operations and travel.”
Across the UN system, the preparations began. A network of climate neutral focal points was set up in 2008 in the various agencies, funds and programmes. This group met several times, in person or via videoconference, to learn the ins and outs of accounting for travel and building-related emissions.
In the 2009 inventory process, GHG emissions data was collected from 50 UN agencies, funds and programmes. It covered 206,954 personnel across the entire UN, including peacekeeping operations. Collecting and analysing the data, on top of the normal workload, sometimes proved to be beyond the capacity of the designated staff – an important lesson for next time, that enough staff time must be allocated, or a specific post (or consultant) assigned to it, with more detailed training.
The GHG inventory is designed in two parts. The first is air travel, where emissions are quantified using a special version of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) carbon calculator, provided by ICAO expressly for use by UN organizations. The second, accounting for broadly half the total, is emissions from building-related operations (heating, cooling and electricity consumption) and overland travel on trains and buses and by car. A separate calculator was developed and made available to all the UN agencies for this section of the inventory. Emissions from such things as staff commuting to and from work are not included, nor is waste or the printing of publications – although there is an option for organizations who already have emissions-related data on these issues to report and share it.
The inventory report also contains information on emissions reduction efforts, plans and offsetting initiatives already in place. Five UN organizations declared themselves climate neutral or carbon neutral, and another six were able to declare that specific high-profile events or meetings were entirely or partially climate neutral, by offsetting the carbon emissions they generated.
While the inventory process involved only minor costs for some of the smaller agencies, others could only manage this time-consuming exercise by assigning full-time staff to it for a month or more. This was particularly the case for organizations with many field offices around the world; the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, for instance, dedicated someone to it for several months. The whole operation was only made possible by inter-agency partnerships, with all the participants contributing support and facilities. Some agencies hired consultants to help them prepare the inventory, monitor and supervise data collection and quality check the results. An external consultancy also provided a GHG helpdesk for the UN Environment Management Group (EMG) to support all the agencies, as well as preparing the final report. A budget of around USD 160,000 was set aside for the EMG secretariat, in addition to its regular staff costs, for software development, consultancy services and meetings.
As the inventory becomes established as an annual exercise, the staff involved will gain expertise and establish more efficient practices, so the whole thing becomes less time-consuming in future. To improve data quality, in particular from field offices, a systematic approach will be developed to make sure reporting is done more consistently across the UN system and that data gaps are identified as clearly as possible.
It remains a substantial investment of staff time. Its benefits will become clear at the next stage, when the inventory points the way to opportunities for big cuts in emissions, and measures are developed to achieve those cuts.
In other words, compiling the inventory - innovative, exacting and purposeful though it is - is not a goal in itself, but a means to an end. Achim Steiner, who chairs the EMG and is Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), places the work in its proper context: “It is incumbent on every country and every organization including the UN to first measure, and then to measure down, its environmental impact. The UN, under the leadership of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is determined to be part of the solution. This first ever inventory is just a stepping stone towards supporting the kind of goals that scientists deem necessary to combat climate change, while realizing a low carbon UN as part of a transition to a 21st century resource-efficient international body."