Guest Article #40

Greening the UN System: The Significance of a Footprint

Exactly 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. That is what the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the United Nations system amounted to in 2008, according to an exercise undertaken in response to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's determination to move the world's biggest international body towards climate neutrality.

The ambitious exercise, coordinated by the UN's Environment Management Group (EMG), was presented by Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme and Chair of the EMG, during the UN climate convention meeting in Copenhagen last year.

But why does a carbon footprint of 1.7 million tonnes matter when it incidentally represents an emissions profile equal to only 3.3% of that produced by New York City—the UN's host metropolis?

The footprint matters first and foremost because it signifies that the UN system is determined to lead by example and be part of the climate solution.

Also, every little drop matters in the effort to halt global warming, which, together with other forms of environmental change, now poses an unprecedented threat to human well-being, especially for the poor and vulnerable groups in society.

At the root of the challenge is the sheer scale and complexity of the interaction between homo sapiens and this dominant species' environment—an interaction that is driven by an increasingly globalized, industrialized and inter-connected society fuelled by expanding flows of goods, services, capital, people, technologies, information, ideas and labor.

The solution for society is in principle to internalize risks—such as climate change—and the opportunities—such as ecosystem services—into social and economic processes. It is the latter that has proven to be an Achilles' heel for the efforts to date, hampering progress.

The UN system as the prime forum for cooperation across national boarders is—with its many specialized bodies, funds and programmes—also a forum for cooperation across sectoral boundaries.

So the footprint matters because it demonstrates what can be achieved through cooperation between nearly 50 UN and Bretton Woods entities with diverse expertise and perspectives yet a shared vision to achieve climate neutrality.

The footprint was the result of a painstakingly detailed inventory across the UN system, set out in Moving Towards a Climate Neutral UN: The UN system's footprint and efforts to reduce it. In its own small way the process illustrates the institutional obstacles that can be encountered in getting on with the job of halting climate change.

A common methodology for calculating GHG emissions had to be agreed and developed so as to allow for aggregation and comparison of data, as well as the development of benchmarks for emission reductions and offsets.

Identifying the emissions from air travel, which represent on average 50% of the UN's total footprint, required the collection of thousands of data elements. To help solve the challenge, ICAO—the UN body that governs international civil aviation—prepared a specially-tailored UN Carbon Calculator.

Similarly, the UN Department for Field Support—whose peacekeeping operations represent approximately 60% of the UN's footprint—helped develop the UN calculator for other emission sources.

The footprint is in a sense a marker of a renewed spirit of environmental cooperation at the interagency level and a practical example of UN reform. The lessons learned and cost savings of working together have spurred the UN system to move towards sustainable management practices more broadly.

Joint work is also under way on issues such as land degradation, the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity, and the green economy—an issue that is on the agenda of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012.

The reinvigorated spirit of cooperation has caught the eye of governments, who at the 11th special session of the UNEP Governing Council called on contributions from EMG to a ministerial consultation on the broader reform of the international environmental governance system.

On the reform agenda is the need to further inter-agency cooperation in the UN system. The joint ‘climate footprinting' effort of the UN gives important directions as to how this can be achieved.

Respect, trust, due process, information technology and economy of scale are core ingredients in the recipe for crosscutting cooperation. Applied in the right mix, they can help generate the institutional efficiency, resilience, innovation and adaptability required to address environmental change. Ultimately, public international institutions such as the UN system need to help create the enabling conditions across multiple sectors that allow the private sector, households and individuals to act and reduce their own footprints.

The UN's experience in this regard could serve as a blue-print for governments to diverse, multi-nationals, also keen to manage their emissions down as part of a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient, 21st century Green Economy.