Reducing carbon emissions in the UN system:voluntary or mandatory measures?

18 January 2013
ITC News

Scientists agree that climate change is 'unequivocal' and induced by man’s activity. The UN's Environment Programme reported in November 2012 that greenhouse gases are 14% above where they need to be in 2020 for temperature rises to remain below 2C – the level at which catastrophic climate change could be avoided.

One question for the UN is whether a voluntary approach to reducing its own emissions reductions is sufficient to make the cuts required to 'bridge' this gap. Experience would suggest that mandatory approaches are likely to be more effective than the voluntary regime governed by its Climate Neutral Initiative (CNI).

Under this scheme, UN organizations are requested “to undertake efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the greatest extent possible” (UNEP; p9). In response, UN organizations have prepared mitigation strategies and initiatives to reduce emissions from their operations. The International Trade Centre has fulfilled its commitment to the Initiative, publishing in 2011 a Strategy for Reducing Emissions in Greenhouse Gases as well as a Staff Guide for Greening ITC.

The strategy reports that 85% of ITC’s total carbon emissions are from official travel (mostly by air). The Guide sets out measures that staff and the organization can take to reduce emissions in three areas: travel, commuting and buildings.

Ideas for reducing travel-related emissions include a shift towards greater use of technology. Tools such as video conferences, online platforms and databases, and webinars have helped avoid travel in the delivery of technical assistance. Other suggestions included choosing to travel economy class instead of business class and greater use of regional experts. Mitigation in the area of travel is a priority as this graph illustrates. The emissions from printing paper and lighting the building are tiny compared to average staff travel.

This year’s survey of emissions will show if there has been a reduction in emissions or not. We know that in the previous two years the carbon intensity of expenditure in the organization remained the same.

Emissions reductions have been made in the area of buildings and facilities. These are areas where there was a clear business case for investing in energy efficient heating, lighting, printing and servers. The facilities and IT managers had incentives to pay for new technologies due to their short pay-back periods.

As reported in the UN SUN report, the incentive structure is not so encouraging when it comes to travel. The UN does not set limits for travel expenditure or targets for reduction. Staff Rules allow for business class travel over 9 hours (although soon to be increased to 12 hours). According to IATA, using business class has a 50% higher footprint than economy. The incentives for travel are strong. It affords the opportunity to supervise aid delivery, create partnerships, assess needs directly and so on.

Unfortunately, altruism alone is not sufficient to ensure that society produces fewer emissions. Paul Krugman provides a clear perspective on why:

“In a cap-and-trade world, acts of individual virtue do not contribute to social goals. If you choose to drive a hybrid car or buy a house with a small carbon footprint, all you are doing is freeing up emissions permits for someone else, which means that you have done nothing to reduce the threat of climate change....altruism cannot effectively deal with climate change. Any serious solution must rely mainly on creating a system that gives everyone a self-interested reason to produce fewer emissions. It’s a shame, but climate altruism must take a back seat to the task of getting such a system in place."

ITC’s Staff Guide sets out the green technologies and good practices we have at our disposal. What are needed are prices and incentives to make it in everyone’s “self-interest” to adopt them and so reduce emissions to levels that mean we avoid catastrophic climate change.
This blog post was first published in the UN’s Greening the Blue website in December 2012.

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