Sustainability management helps the United Nations to address and manage risks to the natural environments in which it operates, to the health of its staff, to the livelihoods of the people it serves and ultimately to the credibility and reputation of the Organization. At the same time, sustainability management brings about opportunities to generate benefits such as efficiencies in the use of natural resources and finances, and accountability and transparency in how the United Nations manages the delivery of its mandates.
The work on Environment Sustainability is managed mainly by the Environment Management Group (EMG), established in 2001 pursuant to the General Assembly resolution 53/242, paragraph 5, which supported the proposal of the Secretary-General to establish an environmental management group for the purpose of enhancing United Nations system-wide inter-agency coordination related to specific issues in the field of environment and human settlements
The UN system’s environmental footprint and efforts to reduce it are annually reported in the Greening the Blue report.
The 2020-2030 Environmental Sustainability Strategy
Backed from ambitious CEB decisions associated to the UN climate neutral strategy, the work of EMG and UNEP at the level of facilities and operations has been supported through a close collaboration with HLCM. This collaboration enabled the more recent adoption of the UN system 2020-2030 strategy for environmental sustainability management – Phase I by CEB, which renewed and expanded the UN system’s commitments towards environmental sustainability management
- Phase I of the Strategy outlines actions needed to complete the transition of the United Nations system to the sustainable and resilient path envisaged in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It sets the following vision for the United Nations system:
“The United Nations system is a leader in integrating environmental and social sustainability considerations across its work in a systematic and coherent way, practicing the principles that it promotes and leaving a positive legacy”.
Five environmental impact areas (GHG emissions, waste, water, air pollution and biodiversity) and six management functions (procurement, human resources, facilities management, travel, events and ICT) are covered. Indicators are assigned to the eleven aspects, along with commitments and objectives.
- Phase II of the Strategy is currently under elaboration and will concern UN programs and processes. The elaboration and implementation of the strategy is coordinated by EMG and the SUN team.
Sustainability Management: measure, reduce and offset
At the October 2007 meeting of the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination, the Executive Heads of UN agencies, funds and programmes committed to move their respective organizations towards climate neutrality by approving the UN Climate Neutral Strategy (EMG/AM.07/11). In particular, they agreed to:
- Estimate the greenhouse gas emissions of United Nations system organizations consistent with accepted international standards;
- Undertake efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions;
Analyze the cost implications and explore budgetary modalities of purchasing carbon offsets to eventually reach climate neutrality.
The Sustainable UN (SUN) facility in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established in 2008 to provide technical support to EMG by coordinating the internal environmental sustainability efforts in the United Nations system and managing the Greening the Blue initiative and report.
Activities to measure the environmental performance, reduce the environmental impacts and offset the unavoidable GHG emissions from UN facilities and operations have been underway since 2007.
- Measure: Measurement of the UN system’s environmental footprint is well established for GHG emissions (since 2008) and data collection on waste (since 2016) and water (since 2018) has been recently improved through a HLCM-funded project for a shared software-based methodology for monitoring the performance of key environmental indicators. From 2018 onwards, the new software has been allowing multiple users to provide inventory data to a centralized and shared database, which provided a more detailed picture of the United Nations environmental footprint. The software also allows United Nations System offices to compare their data with other offices in their region to understand where improvements can be made.
- Reduce: In 2013, CEB committed to implement Environmental Management Systems (EMS) in each organization, through a gradual, voluntary and flexible process, focusing on low-investment and high-return initiatives. In addition, they committed to mainstream EMS in programming and planning processes. In an effort to reduce their emissions and overall environmental footprint, more than 20 UN entities have either implemented or are in the process of developing an environmental management system.
- Offset: In 2015, heads of United Nations system organizations committed to become climate neutral by 2020 through a combination of emission reduction actions and offsetting, and to include environmental sustainability goals in the programming of facilities and operations. Progress towards the goal of climate neutrality by 2020 is noteworthy, not least because at the time of the original commitment UN entities were yet to explore cost implications and budgetary modalities. A total of 55 UN entities are climate neutral for 2018, representing 95% of the System's reported greenhouse gas emissions.