Signing up to become climate neutral, and starting with a 'green' global conference, is like learning to swim by diving in the deep end. But that didn't deter the secretariat of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). The challenge of 'greening' the biennial Global Platform of Disaster Risk Reduction in June 2009 was the first major initiative picked out by its 'green team' in response to the UN Secretary-General’s call for the whole United Nations system to move towards climate neutrality.
Good environmental practice is fundamental to UNISDR's mission, as Margareta Wahlström, Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, explains. “UNISDR is the focal point in the UN’s efforts to reduce disaster risks, including for climate change adaptation. This requires dealing with the root causes of vulnerability and risks in society, including climate change. Accordingly, UNISDR is actively working toward reducing its emissions, in association with UN-wide efforts.” Its 2008 internal policy note specifies that it must “lead by example” in respect of its environmental footprint, and provide a basis for raising awareness among similar organizations, the governments it works with, and its own staff and partners.
The green team was set up that same year to pursue this awareness-raising role among UNISIDR staff, and to identify and advise the secretariat on potential sustainability initiatives. This quickly led to the decision to focus on making the Global Platform a green meeting. The starting point was to estimate a figure for its total emissions – calculated on the basis of the previous session, held at the same Geneva venue in 2007, and the air travel of the participants. Unfortunately the venue organisers were not able to provide any estimates on paper, water and energy use during such meetings, and there were similar difficulties with local hotels, so the calculations had to be based just on the travel figures.
Having established that 1000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2eq) was the amount which needed to be offset, the next step for UNISDR was to decide on, and purchase, the appropriate carbon credits. UNISDR's criteria were that they should be certified emissions reductions (CERs) from a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project under the Kyoto Protocol, preferably from projects in Least Developed Countries (LDC) or Small Islands Developing States (SIDS), using energy efficiency and renewable energies. The ideal project also had to have a strong risk reduction component. In the event, however, UNISDR found that no CERs had actually been produced from projects fulfilling all these criteria; in the end it selected a wind-power generation project in India as the closest match.
The effort to green the Global Platform did not begin and end with offsetting; it also included a drive to minimize the meeting's emissions and environmental impact, and to create awareness among conference participants. Among the steps taken were:
• measures taken to cut water and electricity consumption
• all printing done on recycled paper
• recycling bins provided throughout the venue
• almost all food locally sourced and organic
• participants encouraged to use public transport to reach the conference venue
Leading this effort was green team member Carolin Schaerpf, who was also in charge of calculating the entire UNISDR secretariat's 2009 carbon footprint for inclusion in the UN-wide greenhouse gas inventory. UNISDR is now evaluating options for offsetting all its air travel and the emissions from its operations at its headquarters in Geneva and its regional offices.
The purchase of the 1000 CERs, at a cost of approximately USD 30,000, was paid out of the budget for the meeting, and there were no additional costs for the other elements of this initiative. Its principal direct benefits were raising awareness and encouraging participants to be environmentally friendly, and of course contributing to sustainable development in India by supporting the CDM project there. In the wider context, making the Global Platform meeting climate neutral is of direct relevance to UNISDR's mandate to reduce the risk of disasters and climate change.