Greening the Blue

When we talk about global problems, it sometimes seems very hard to see how a simple action by one person -- the proverbial man or woman in the street -- can make a difference. Like if you turn off a computer or a light when they are no longer needed, or take public transportation to work -- how can it help, in the big scheme of things, to address the problem of climate change?

As someone who had been involved in the complex negotiations that led to the adoption, back in 1997, of a landmark environmental accord, the Kyoto Protocol, I often wrestled with this quandary: How do you ask people to make these small changes in their daily lives when it is governments that shoulder the responsibility of taking the big steps that can bring about real change?

Which leads to a related issue. As intergovernmental institutions are urging others to curb their energy wasteful habits, what steps are they taking themselves to achieve that goal? Some answers to this question will be provided this Friday, when on the eve of World Environment Day, the United Nations launches an intriguing initiative as part of its ongoing efforts to make sure it practices what it preaches and acts on the environmental principles that it consistently advocates.

Some background may be in order. On World Environment Day 2007, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly called on all UN agencies, funds and programmes to "go green" and become climate neutral. Since then, progress has been made to move the UN-system towards greater sustainability. Last year, the UN published baseline details of its greenhouse gas emissions for 2008, broken down by organization and activity.

This year, the Organization is taking another step by launching a new public web site,, which records the carbon footprint of just about every UN agency. A joint effort involving the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Organization's system-wide coordinating body, the UN Environment Management Group, the Greening the Blue project aims to shed more light on the UN's internal sustainability performance.

The numbers are quite sobering, although I strongly doubt that there is anything out of line with the UN's greenhouse gas emissions in comparison with other major organizations. The website shows, for example, that the total emissions for the UN system in 2008 amounted to 1,741,413 tons of CO2 equivalent, which translates into 8.4 tons for each staff member. Hitting closer to home, at UN Headquarters in New York, we fared even worse, pumping 10.3 tons CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere.

Clearly, if we want to become climate neutral, we have a long way to go. There are objective reasons, of course, for some of those figures. Air travel, for instance, makes up the largest portion of the UN's greenhouse gas emission, but the United Nations is an international organization and its daily work in peacekeeping, sustainable development and human rights presupposes a considerable need to travel. Other big-ticket items include building heating and cooling and electricity.

Yet the first step in solving a problem is figuring out its true scope and being transparent about it. And for that, Greening the Blue gives us a pretty good idea of where we stand and what needs to be done. In some respects, we are well on our way. The ongoing renovation of the UN Headquarters complex in New York will dramatically reduce energy costs and conserve water. The UN is using far less paper than in the past, posting n the Web, rather than printing, larger numbers of documents. Most agencies are taking a new look at how they can reduce travel by using videoconferencing, and the UN is exploring ways to make its purchasing more sustainable.

Greening the Blue, then, is not simply a catchy slogan. It's a self-critical look at our own record and an attempt to begin change at home. It's also a reminder that there may be some very local ways of helping to solve global problems. So just in case, I'll make sure to turn my computer off today when I leave office.