With significant travel restrictions and large portions of personnel working from home in 2020, the UN system generated approximately 25 per cent fewer greenhouse emissions than in the year before. 

That’s one of the key points to emerge from the Greening the Blue Report 2021, the first study to reveal the impact that COVID-19 has had on the UN system’s environmental footprint. 

Addressing the report, the UN Secretary-General remembered that the world still faces a triple emergency – a climate crisis, a nature crisis and a pollution crisis – that demands “urgent and determined action from everyone, everywhere.” 

“The United Nations is committed to lead by example in reducing our carbon and environmental footprint in all our operations around the globe. Together, let’s achieve a sustainable, net zero and resilient world for all”, António Guterres said.  

Less waste and emissions 

The report focuses on the overall environmental impact of over 315,000 personnel in Headquarters, field offices and operations on the ground, across the world. Data from 56 UN system entities is included.  

In 2020, the system produced approximately 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, known as CO2eq, a unit based on the global warming potential of different greenhouse gases. Per capita emissions were around 5 tonnes CO2eq. 

Buildings were the main factor for emissions, accounting for 55 per cent of the total, followed by air travel, at 32 per cent, and 12 per cent from other forms of travel.  

Of the reported emissions, 99 per cent were offset, a way to compensate for the emissions by funding an equivalent carbon dioxide saving elsewhere.  


The report also includes, for the first time, emissions trendlines, between 2016 and 2020. 

Overall, a reduction was already occurring across the UN system, prior to the  changes that occurred due to the pandemic.  

In terms of waste, the average generated in 2020 was 396 kg per person, including Peacekeeping and Special Political Missions, where staff are stationed full time. If they are excluded, the average waste was 184 kg per person.  

These numbers represent a reduction of 61 kg per person and 43 kg per person, respectively, from 2019.   

For 2020, the average water consumption was 38 m3 per UN staffer, per year, an 11 m3 reduction from the year before. 

Impacts of COVID-19 

Overall, the report notes, there was still a substantial amount of work that could only be delivered in-person and required physical facilities and physical technologies. 

According to the publication, the pandemic “highlighted the opportunity the UN system has to revisit its working and travel modalities and come closer to the ambitious emissions reductions’ targets that it has set for itself for 2030.”  

The annual report provides data on the environmental impact areas and management functions identified in the Strategy for Sustainability Management in the United Nations System 2020-2030, Phase I: Environmental Sustainability in the Area of Management. 

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