UN bolsters environmental governance, training to reduce footprint

United Nations entities strengthened their environmental governance and training for staff in 2021, signaling another year of steady progress towards improving the organization’s environmental sustainability, according to a new report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

As the UN continues to combat the effects of the triple planetary crisis, it is also intensifying its efforts to improve environmental and social sustainability of its facilities and operations. Strengthening internal environmental sustainability and reducing environmental impact is critical to demonstrating strong leadership, according to the Secretary-General of the UN.

According to the 2022 edition of Greening the Blue Report, an annual publication that highlights the environmental impact of over 307,000 UN personnel in 53 reporting entities, this approach has led to progress at both the system-wide level and among individual UN entities.

Strategy for Sustainability

The UN system has set a target in its Strategy for Sustainability to implement environmental management systems (EMS) within all entities by 2025. An EMS provides a structured approach to continuously improve environmental performance.

In 2021, the number of UN entities that had environmental management systems doubled compared to 2020 levels. Thirty-three per cent of entities now meet or approach the requirements for implementing these systems. Furthermore, UN entities that have or are implementing policies, standards and procedures to identify and mitigate environmental and social issues also rose to 56 per cent.

Training increased, with 46 per cent of the UN system now offering environmental training to staff. An additional 9 per cent of UN organizations made this training mandatory for all personnel, while entities offering voluntary training increased by 6 per cent.

Greening facilities and operations

The UN system’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 decreased to approximately 1.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from around 1.5 million tonnes. Per capita emissions dropped to 4 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, a 1 tonne reduction from 2020. Facilities accounted for 56 per cent of the UN systems’ emissions, with air travel making up 29 per cent and other travel comprising 15 per cent.

Average waste generation decreased by 80 kilograms per person to 316 kilograms. These decreases from previous years are likely due to restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These improvements are encouraging and show that the UN system is on the right track,” says Ligia Noronha, Head of UNEP’s New York Office. “However, continued efforts are required to reach the UN’s target of ensuring that all entities have an environmental management system in 2025. The UN system must continue to show strong leadership and align its environmental performance with the principles that it has pioneered internationally.”

Greening the Blue Report has been published annually by UNEP since 2009. Each edition provides the previous year’s data and shows the UN system’s progress in implementing the environmental impact area and management functions identified in the Strategy for Sustainability Management in the United Nations System 2020-2030, Phase I: Environmental Sustainability in the Area of Management (Sustainability Strategy I). The 2009 to 2015 editions were titled, Moving Towards a Climate Neutral UN – The UN system’s footprint and efforts to reduce it. The Report, its supporting documents and previous editions are available online at greeningtheblue.org/gtb_reports. Each Greening the Blue community entity has a dedicated webpage on greeningtheblue.org that provides its entity-specific data.

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