The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is engaged in a drive to make its travel policies more sustainable and reduce their climate footprint. Several of the steps it has taken on this front date back to 2006, and it continues to look for more ways to encourage staff to travel less, choose more environmentally friendly modes of transport and generally be more considerate about their travel habits.
Travel constitutes the single largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the UNFPA, representing 49% of its total GHG in 2008. While air travel is essential to the organization's operations, a policy review is seeking ways to cut down on it where possible.
Staff are required to travel by train for distances less than 400 km (250 miles) where high speed trains are available. No more than three people from the same office or unit may travel on the same mission without detailed justification. All travel authorizations must be approved by project managers and their line managers, and are also monitored by the Travel Office.
UN personnel frequently have to travel to several meetings in one region over a short period of time, so UNFPA has introduced a system of ‘bridge days’ to encourage staff to 'bundle' these missions, rather than going back and forth to their duty station. They can now use three 'bridge days' between each such mission, allowing them to stay longer on one before going on to the next, and thereby reducing the need for long-haul flights.
Travel from UNFPA headquarters in New York is only approved if mission goals cannot be achieved by local staff or local consultants. This decision is made jointly by the person who is to make the trip and the person who approves it. Should it be considered necessary, the back-to-office mission report must indicate the results, and will then be assessed by the line manager of the local service, to confirm that the trip out from headquarters really was necessary.
Finally, anyone travelling on a mission must first consider whether it could be done by videoconference or teleconference. A staff member who cannot use any other means of communication still needs special authorization to travel, in the form of a signature on the Travel Authorization form confirming that the trip is absolutely necessary and that there is no acceptable alternative. UNFPA has recently upgraded the videoconferencing facilities at its New York headquarters to make the use of this means of communication more appealing.
One of the main challenges for UNFPA's sustainable travel initiatives, and indeed one of their biggest achievements, has been to convince staff of their importance. With UN travel rules unchanged for quite some time, many people had become set in their ways. Rather than just imposing new rules, educating staff about the impact of their travel on the environment has been vital in changing their behaviour - persuading them to travel less, to use more environmentally friendly modes of transport and to adopt more considerate travel habits.
These measures have been proposed and adopted from the outset as low or no cost initiatives, as part of the UNFPA's moves to make all its operations greener and more environmentally friendly. Planning and implementing them has generated no particular identifiable costs beyond the organization's regular support resources for its personnel and operations.
The main immediate benefit is that staff are becoming increasingly thoughtful about their travel habits. More of them use high speed trains, and there is greater use of local staff at country offices. Videoconferencing has been encouraged as an alternative to travel. The bundling of missions reduces both their environmental impact and the travel stress for the staff involved, improving their working life.
In the great scheme of things, however, UNFPA facilities management specialist Oliver Buhler stresses what really motivates him in this initiative. “UN staff need to lead by example”, he says. “To ensure that our children and future generations have a planet with the opportunities and the diversity we enjoy today, we have to invest in a more sustainable way of living and working now.”