'We won!' Interview with Greening the Blue team

Fri, 28/10/16

System-wide efforts to 'green the blue' were recognised this week in UN Secretary General's Staff Awards.

The team behind Greening the Blue, including the Sustainable United Nations (SUN) team and the Issue Management Group (IMG) on Environmental Sustainability Management, won the Secretary General's award for Greening in the UN.

In a series of Questions and Answers the SUN explains what the award means to them and the work they've been involved with.


What is the Sustainable UN initiative? How did it start?

The Sustainable United Nations team was established in 2009 to coordinate a UN-system wide response to the UN Climate Neutral Strategy, which committed all UN agencies to measure, reduce and then offset their greenhouse gas emissions. Since then the strategy has been expanded to include other environmental aspects such as waste, water and staff engagement.

How many UN Programmes and Agencies are participating?

A total of 66 UN entities have reported their greenhouse gas emissions for 2015.

Who are the people behind Sustainable UN?

The Sustainable United Team (SUN) is coordinated by Isabella Marras, based in Geneva. Isabella is supported by a team of staff and consultants who work from Geneva, Nairobi, London and New York.

The role of the SUN team is to provide support and guidance to the UN-wide Issue Management Group (IMG) on Environmental Sustainability Management, which is made up of representatives from almost all UN organizations. The IMG meet on an annual basis to agree the methodology for measuring, reporting and reducing the UN’s environmental footprint.

What have been Sustainable UN’s biggest accomplishments to date?

The SUN team has had many achievements over the last eight years, but our most recent one was winning the Secretary-General’s award for best greening effort within the UN along with the entire IMG. It seems appropriate that this should be the final UN21 award from greening from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as he was the Secretary-General responsible for initiating the UN’s work on becoming more sustainable.

What is coming next?

For the UN system the focus on the coming years will be water and staff engagement, building on our work in measuring greenhouse gas emissions, reducing and offsetting as well as waste management. We are planning an online conference for UN staff who want to learn more about greening in the UN and plan to do more work on green meetings, remote conferencing and waste.

How do you think winning the 2016 Secretary-General Award for Greening the UN will help?

The award goes a long way in recognizing the work of IMG Focal Points across the UN, both as pioneers in their own organizations, and as collaborators who have really shown what can be achieved when we work as ‘One UN’. The prize will also raise awareness of on-going efforts to ‘Green the Blue’ and might encourage staff who weren’t yet aware of the initiative to get involved.

What are the challenges you’ve faced getting people to walk the talk?

There are many challenges when it comes to changing behaviours, let alone fiddling with the systems and processes that people have got used to. Whether it’s a new way of doing recycling, or an updated budgeting system that takes into account environmental impacts, the biggest challenge is showing the long-term benefits that will result from short-term pain.

What’s your favorite success story?

There are many too choose from, but a recent one we came across is from the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA. They found a way to turn waste vehicle oil into heating fuel. The solutions tackles both environmental and occupational safety issues, saves money and is a great example for other UN field missions.

So, be honest, how happy are you with the level of engagement in sustainable behavior by UN Staff?

We’ve been surprised and delighted at the enthusiastic response we’ve received to our campaign to ‘Green the Blue’. We regularly hear about initiatives that we weren’t aware of previously, in countries we’ve never visited. The message and the branding have spread far and wide, particularly with younger staff, and it has been a joy to see the support from staff for efforts to make our organization more environmentally sustainable.

What can we each do at work to make a difference? What about at home?

There are many things you can do at work to make a difference. Almost half of the UN’s greenhouse gas emissions come from air travel, so where possible, opt to take the train, or travel economy class or arrange meetings in places where fewer delegates need to fly to get to. The same applies outside of working hours — though our campaign is primarily concerned with behaviours in the workplace.

What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a team in this task?

The biggest challenges are: a) changing the culture of an organization and b) explaining to management that while the largest impact of UN operations is external, ‘walking the talk’ internally has meaning, motivates people and shows what we stand for.

What did you do the moment you learnt that you had won this award?

By pure coincidence we heard about the award on the one day of the year that the SUN team was together with the IMG for our annual meeting. So there were many celebrations, both in the meeting and afterwards.

Categories: Staff Engagement

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