U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres makes his closing statement at the end of the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at U.N. headquarters in New York City. Photo by: REUTERS / Lucas Jackson

SAN FRANCISCO — The United Nations “is committed to walking the talk” on climate action,  according to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

Guterres outlined the U.N.’s own goals for the next decade in his closing remarks at the Climate Action Summit held during the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

United Nations: A Tipping Point

This is part of our series, United Nations: A Tipping Point, examining whether the U.N. can successfully revamp its work to match the world’s toughest challenges.

The U.N. Secretariat, the executive arm of the U.N. that represents 58% of reported greenhouse gas emissions from the entire U.N. system, has committed to reduce GHG emissions by 25% by 2025 and 45% by 2030[a]. It will also source 40% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2025 and 80% by 2030, Guterres said.

Guterres called on leaders to come to New York with concrete plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but he provided few details on how the U.N. will implement its own plans to reduce its carbon footprint.

The U.N. Secretariat’s Climate Action Plan is not the first time the U.N. has committed to sustainability within the U.N. system. In 2007, under the leadership of former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. launched its Climate Neutral Strategy, with the goal of climate neutrality by 2020. The most recent “Greening the Blue” report, which details the U.N. system’s environmental footprint and efforts to reduce it, notes the U.N. Secretariat is climate neutral ahead of the 2020 deadline, but only by using the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s certified carbon credits.

The U.N. will need to take a hard look at business travel and diesel-powered generators, among other things, in order to meet the ambitious new targets outlined by Guterres, according to experts within and outside the U.N. system.

Reducing GHG emissions

U.N. organizations, programs, and agencies have been working together on a common approach to GHG since 2007, and now the question is whether fresh commitment at the highest level will lead to a more concerted effort across the U.N.

The U.N. Environment Programme, for example, has reduced 30% of its total GHG emissions since 2010, according to Andrew Morton, energy and engineering program manager for the UNEP Post Conflict and Disaster Management Branch.

Air travel accounts for more than 80% of the agency’s global emissions, and the organization is working to reduce travel, Morton said. He also highlighted efforts by the program to mainstream sustainability in the facilities where they operate, calling its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya “a landmark in sustainably designed facilities.”

But Nairobi-based Rebekah Shirley, chief research officer at Power for All, a coalition of organizations focused on ending energy poverty, noted how the UNEP fleet often comprises large “gasoline-guzzling” sport utility vehicles.

“If we’re talking about climate solutions for sub-Saharan Africa, transportation is one of the major sectors you have to look at, because fuels for transportation are one of the major contributors to emissions,” she said.

The U.N. Secretariat, meanwhile, is expected to respond to the growing number of humanitarian crises, which in turn causes climate commitments to receive less prioritization, according to Glada Lahn, a senior research fellow at Chatham House's Energy, environment and resources department.

“The whole system has been under distress because of the upsurge in crises,” Lahn said.

The U.N. Secretariat has not yet made its Climate Action Plan public, but shared early details with Devex. The largest contributors to the Secretariat carbon emissions are diesel for electric generators, non-commercial air travel and transportation, and commercial air travel, explained a spokesperson for the Secretariat. He said the plan is based on three types of interventions: intensifying current efforts to reduce energy demand and improve energy efficiency, piloting and scaling up new technologies and encouraging investment from third parties in new climate smart infrastructure, and transforming organizational culture through communication and outreach.

“The biggest challenge and opportunity to reach the 45% reduction target will be to transition power supplies from on-site diesel generation to renewable energy, mainly from off-site power grids which currently do not exist,” the spokesperson said. “Realizing this opportunity will require considerable external investments in establishing renewable energy infrastructure in fragile, post-conflict environments, and new partnership models with a broad range of partners, as well as an operational change.”

The first step that organizations seeking to reduce their carbon footprint need to take is to understand how much they are consuming, what purposes they are using energy for, and how much they are paying for it — but data collection on energy use is not easy to find within the U.N. system, Lahn explained.

UNEP’s Morton said that while he cannot speak for other U.N. entities, he sees four clear priorities for action: energy conservation campaigns, optimization of business travel, increased energy efficiency, and efficient cooling — with a particular focus on upgrading the more than 40,000 air conditions in field locations located in tropical countries where the U.N. and its partners rely on diesel generation.

“The crosscutting positive factor in virtually all of the identified practical interventions is that they will reduce waste and operational costs, improving our cost-efficiency and focus in parallel with reducing emissions,” he said.

But Morton also acknowledged the hurdles, including culture, fragmentation of the UN system, technical capacity, and funding, both in terms of scale and manner, since annual budgets do not provide the space for the medium-term investments that will be needed to meet the goals outlined by Guterres.

Moving from diesel to renewables

A new report highlights the opportunities and challenges of reaching the climate goals Guterres laid out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has been host to one of the largest peacekeeping missions since 1999.

“Renewable Energy and U.N. Peacekeeping: Untapped Potential in the DRC” is the start of a series of reports that will focus on poorly electrified countries where the U.N. has peacekeeping operations.

Typically, U.N. peacekeeping operations have relied on diesel-powered generators, but the report on the DRC highlights opportunities to connect to hydropower and solar power.

Making this shift from diesel to renewable energy would save the peacekeeping mission money, support local renewable energy development and energy access, and further peacebuilding goals, said David Mozersky, co-founder and president of Energy Peace Partners, which leverages climate solutions to promote peace in fragile contexts and is behind the report.

It would also mitigate some of the negative externalities that can come from reliance on diesel, particularly in areas where it is sold on the black market.

“In order to fully meet the 2030 targets, the U.N. needs to substitute 75% of the diesel generation with renewable energy,” Morton said. “This is the single most difficult challenge for the entire energy and climate transition of the U.N.”

The U.N. cannot and should not achieve this transition by purchasing and installing solar panels or wind towers within its compounds, he said.

“The preferred alternative is to purchase electricity from external private sector renewable energy developers,” Morton explained. This will mean the U.N. has to navigate public-private partnerships in remote and often unstable locations, but it also presents a sustainable development opportunity, as the solar plant and wind farms built for the U.N. can also support host countries, he said.

“U.N. Electric” is the label the U.N. is using to capture its current thinking on ways to transition U.N. field energy from diesel power generation to renewable energy hybrids.

“This new commitment made by the Secretary-General is really important to provide a north star against which U.N. missions can now navigate,” Mozersky said.

This also presents an opening for more groups to hold the U.N. accountable to deliver on its promise, he said.

“There are a lot of committed individuals and actors inside the U.N. system as well who are pushing for this and hopefully this new commitment also helps to empower those ongoing efforts within the U.N. system that up to now might not have had the same momentum behind them,” Mozersky said.

Update, October 11: This story has been updated to include new details from the U.N. Secretariat on the Climate Action Plan that were provided after publication and to clarify comments by Rebekah Shirley.

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.