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Transformative Minds are the key for greening UNESCO


Miriam Tereick is the Environmental Sustainability Officer housed in UNESCO’s Administration and Management sector (ADM). This new, recently created post puts Miriam in coordination of improving UNESCO’s environmental profile in the framework of UNESCO’s Environmental Management System (EMS). This involves initiation and coordination of change across all areas, communication, and staff engagement, as well as collaboration with other UN agencies via various inter-Agency working groups, peer reviews and formal procedures for harmonization and exchange of good practice – like the “Greening the Blue” initiative.

Where there is a will, there is a way

The push for a new environmental initiative within UNESCO came from several quarters – from the Director General, Member States and ADM, as well as many motivated UNESCO staff. The global push from young people has also made a big impact on people’s mindsets more broadly; the Fridays for Future movement, and Greta Thunberg’s determination, captured global attention and helped cement the importance of mainstreaming environmental sustainability in UNESCO.

“What is great is that there is now the will to take action. And it is very important to seize this momentum to mainstream sustainability systematically across the Organization, and create change that lasts,” Miriam says.

She estimates that at this stage, UNESCO is around the halfway point in terms of establishing and implementing EMS – much of the groundwork is done, but wider incorporation in Headquarters and the field network, and across policies and programme activities, is ongoing.

Greening UNESCO will be a continuous process and never finished in the strictest sense. What is important now is that UNESCO has the key ingredients for change: the will and the people to back it up

Miriam Tereick

As a coordinator, Miriam is able to design and direct initiatives, but she says it is a truly collaborative process involving staff across the House that help these initiatives find their feet. In this sense, the team working on environmental sustainability at UNESCO is actually very large.

“I can initiate and advise, but implementation needs the active participation of the respective colleagues and services. For example, at Headquarters the Buildings Section is essential for all changes that address facilities, such as the bike parking, energy efficiency or waste management. The travel policy needs to be revised together with the Travel Officer, sustainable procurement can only be addressed in collaboration with the Procurement Officer, and so on” says Miriam.”

UNESCO is ready for bold change

To be in line with the UN Strategy for Sustainability Management 2020-2030 and the goals of the Paris Agreement, UNESCO will need to drastically reduce its Greenhouse Gas emissions over the coming years. This can, for example, be done through energy efficiency measures as well as by moving to renewable energy sources. Ultimately, the key area that must be addressed is travel, which constitutes 45% of UNESCO’s emissions.

“This will be a longer-term process that will require a very serious change of mindset. COVID-19 restrictions have given staff a taste of what this may entail, like reducing unnecessary face-to-face meetings, and embracing UNESCO’s digital transformation. While UNESCO’s emissions can be offset – in 2019, UNESCO will have been “carbon neutral” – purchasing compensation credits is not an excuse for complacency. What is vital is staff engagement in the process, and ownership of future measures,” Miriam explains.

“Hand-in-hand with staff engagement, the other key step,” she reiterated, “is mainstreaming of environmental sustainability. In this area, support from Member States is also very important in maintaining the drive for change, particularly in terms of sustainability integration, allocating budget, and actual implementation of sustainability measures – even those as simple as not providing individual water bottles at meetings.”

Placing Sustainability at the top of the agenda

The main victory is that these issues are now high on the agenda.

“They are prioritized by the Director General and reinforced by Member States, and the recent 2030 staff survey results indicate a very strong support from UNESCO staff more broadly. This support has also been reflected in staff engagement. While COVID-19 has to some degree been a barrier to sustained involvement, many staff follow the initiative’s internal articles, and there is a lot of love for the vegetable garden!” Miriam explains.

One key success worth mentioning – beyond the expectation that UNESCO will be able to claim climate neutrality for the first time for 2019 – is that this year all UNESCO offices and Category 1 Institutes across the globe reported their data for the annual UN Environmental Inventory in all categories (travel/transport, energy consumption, water usage, and waste management). This level of engagement is vital for the ongoing success of UNESCO’s green transformation: collecting comprehensive data and being able to measure are prerequisites for emission reduction.

COVID-19 situation set some limits to progress

This reliance on adequate and accurate measurement reveals some challenges – water and energy consumption, for instance, will require an intensive audit so that UNESCO’s footprint can be more comprehensively measured.

“One issue is that, because of the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, we will not be able to get an accurate measurement of our progress by comparing 2020 with 2019, which we had set as a baseline. We will need to compare 2019 with 2021.” Miriam explains.

Another issue is budget; currently, funding is pulled from multiple areas. While there will soon be income from the new institutional carbon tax, ultimately, for the green transformation to be long-term and credible, a dedicated budget is required. This could realistically include funding directed from Member States who support the direction the transformation is taking, but in the end, Miriam says, environmental sustainability should be incorporated into UNESCO’s regular budget.

A change of mindset leads to a change of culture

While budget is often the first concern for these kinds of projects, in this case the main issue is one of culture transformation. According to Miriam, the biggest challenge is the change in mindset – getting everyone onboard and making it a long-term engagement.

“Most people care about the issues in question, but baulk when they need to alter their behaviors. In this sense transformation needs to come from both ends – staff, and senior management – and while the awareness exists now, it will take some time to filter through”, Miriam thinks.

COVID-19 circumstances have been both a problem and an opportunity for this process.  While there has been an increase in, for example, the use of wasteful single-use products, there has also been a reduction in printing, and an uptake in online meetings replacing travel-dependent face-to-face ones.

“As a result,” says Miriam, “people are beginning to understand what kind of environmentally damaging behaviors might be unnecessary.”

Why is this change so important for UNESCO?

“At the end of the day, a green transformation of UNESCO is not a choice, but a must,” says Miriam, “because we need to practice what we teach.”

UNESCO needs to reshape its behavior to be in line with the values it espouses, and the resources and technical support it provides to educate others in sustainable development practices .  In this sense, as in so many others, UNESCO should be a global example of good practice. The organization’s mandate has a clear prerogative for environmental sustainability and climate action.

UNESCO must engage meaningfully and can start at home. This process needs to be pushed from the top and the bottom, and it has to be institutionalized. I think we are on the right track, but if we want UNESCO to become a leader in internal climate action, we need to make sure that everyone is on board, in a long-term joint effort.