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Environmental sustainability at UNESCO


In the face of climate change, loss of biodiversity and environmental pollution, UNESCO and the United Nations are calling for unprecedented, concrete and immediate action for the environment. A broad range of UNESCO programmes specifically support Member States to address environmental sustainability and take climate action, for example via the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, the Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems Programme (LINKS) and through Education for Sustainable Development.

In the framework of the Strategic Transformation and in line with the UN Strategy for Sustainability Management 2020-2030, UNESCO has also been putting a strong emphasis on making its own facilities, operations and programme activities more environmentally-friendly, and on integrating environmental issues into policies and guidelines. We would like to present you some of the recent progress achieved, which has been led by the Sector of Administration and Management in close collaboration with all other Sectors. Member States have been involved inter alia through the Headquarters Committee, the Executive Board and the Strategic Transformation.

Establishing a certified Environmental Management System (EMS)

UNESCO has committed to setting up and implementing an Environmental Management System (EMS) in line with ISO14001 standard as the key framework for addressing the organization’s long-term environmental performance. This way, UNESCO will be able to structurally plan, control and continually improve its impacts on the environment while increasing operational efficiency. We are aiming to receive ISO certification in 2021.

Reducing carbon emissions: towards climate neutrality

A key objective of UNESCO’s environmental actions is to substantially cut carbon emissions: in line with the targets of the UN Strategy, we need to achieve a 45% reduction by 2030. In addition, all emissions which cannot be reduced will be compensated by purchasing offset credits. To finance these measures – and to raise further awareness on the environmental cost of air travel – UNESCO is establishing an internal carbon tax (from September/October 2020, tbc): a small levy on all flight tickets purchased, across Offices. This way, UNESCO will be able to claim carbon neutrality as of this year.

Waste: reducing, recycling, and eliminating single-use plastics

In June this year, new waste recycling stations were put in place in at Headquarters. They collect paper, plastic and other residual waste and can be found centrally on every floor. Individual office bins have been removed: This shall ensure better awareness and encourage sorting and reduction of waste by staff. The Miollis and Bonvin buildings will follow later this year.

In addition, we are gradually banning single-use plastics from all UNESCO premises. At Headquarters, new water dispensers – producing both cold and hot water – shall help refrain from purchasing single-use plastic bottles. The longer-term plan is to integrate a ‘plastic ban’ into UNESCO’s procurement policy.

Several Field Offices, such as Bangkok, Lima and Nairobi, have already adopted similar waste and plastic reduction policies. Bangkok is even leading a #BeatPlasticPollution campaign in across Asia-Pacific – you can find out more here.

Protecting biodiversity and promoting urban agriculture

Shortly before the lockdown we were able to inaugurate the first vegetable garden at Headquarters, managed by Noocity. Staff can now sign up for regular vegetable baskets and gardening workshops.

During the summer, a second eco-responsible garden, set up in collaboration with the French National Commission, has also seen the light. It will offer on-site educational workshops and side-events on sustainable development, focusing on life sciences education, sustainable food, sustainable cities, biodiversity and climate change. 

The Headquarters Committee had been fully involved in the planning of these two projects.

The two gardens represent a coherent spatial entity and send a strong symbolic message about UNESCO’s commitment to biodiversity and sustainable development in a context of climate change and ecological transition. Events, workshops and other activities are planned throughout the year; the full programme will probably be presented in September.

Many Field Offices also have or are planning to start their own gardens, such as in Ha Noi, New Delhi and Tashkent.

Creating awareness and involving staff

A crucial factor for the success of environmental management is the awareness and participation of staff. This is why effective communication around the EMS, behavioural change campaigns, surveys and staff action days at global level are key. The current telecommuting situation still limits the scope of what we can do, but for now, an intranet page and a monthly newsletter have already been set up. More systematic action campaigns will follow, which will also involve and target other tenants of UNESCO buildings, such as Permanent Delegations at Headquarters.

In the framework of the establishment of the EMS, many other measures – for example with respect to the reduction of energy and water consumption; organization of sustainable meetings – are part of the roadmap. This page will be updated regularly. For further information, please contact: environment(at)unesco.org