The UN’s climate-change hypocrisy

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A recent United Nations report admonished the world for not becoming “climate neutral” fast enough to avoid the “catastrophic consequences” of climate change. It’s an odd complaint for the U.N. to make, considering that the international body has failed to reduce its own greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The average human generates 4.637 metric tons of GHGs each year, not including the air he exhales. U.N. workers emit an average of over 8.2 metric tons of GHGs each year — just in the course of their professional lives.

There are over 215,000 workers at 54 U.N. agencies scattered in 530 duty stations around the globe. In 2008, these U.N. workers emitted 1.741 million metric tons of GHGs. Air travel contributed 4.02 metric tons per worker, 48% of the total. By 2010, emissions had risen to 1.766 million metric tons, with air travel accounting for 51% of emissions.

While the U.N. urges the rest of us to take the bus, public transportation accounts for less than 1% of its emissions. It spends over $300 million a year acquiring new vehicles. Its fleet now accounts for 13% of its emissions.

This hypocrisy isn’t surprising. The U.N. World Food Program still uses Freon in 80% of its air conditioning systems, in violation of the Montreal Protocol, a U.N. treaty in force since the 1980s.

The U.N.’s plan for reaching climate-neutral nirvana includes a miserly commitment to reduce GHGs “4% by 2013 compared to 2009,” to replace plastic water bottles with drinking fountains, and to increase recycling from 45% to 60%.

The 950 workers at the U.N.’s Vienna Ecological Center use 400,000 sheets of paper each workday, or 100 million sheets a year. It’s progress, by U.N. standards, if this office switches to two-sided printing, reducing its volume by half, to 50 million sheets annually.

Ironically, the worst offenders are the U.N. environmental agencies.

“Reducing our emissions is our priority, as it should be for all organisations around the world, and we will continue to lead by example,” stated a representative of the U.N.’s Environment Programme (UNEP). Yet, UNEP’s greenhouse gas emissions are increasing: The average UNEP worker emitted 11.2 metric tons of GHGs in 2010, up from 9.56 metric tons in 2008, a whopping 17% rise in just two years.

Air travel accounted for 94% of the UNEP’s emissions in 2010, up 9.3% from 2008.

The 95 workers at the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity measured in at a shocking 36.1 metric tons per worker in 2010, 45% from air travel.

The biggest surprise comes from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the office responsible for the treaty tasked with reducing man’s production of GHGs. Its workers clocked in at 10.2 metric tons each in 2010. Air travel accounted for an astounding 97% of the agency’s emissions.

Ignoring its commitment to videoconferencing, the UNFCCC convened 43 climate-change conferences in 2012, more than twice 2007’s 19 meetings. The agency made sure to hold its 2012 conferences in nice places, including California, New Zealand, Morocco, Ireland, Spain, and Bali.

On average, each of the UNFCCC’s 500 climate-change workers (up from 376 in 2008) traveled almost halfway around the globe in 2010, urging people to reduce GHGs even as their air travel emissions reached 9.9 metric tons each.

Who knew that reducing CO2 required this much CO2?

“It is clear that any meaningful reduction in the U.N. climate footprint will require reducing current air travel, and whenever possible, replacing it with a sustainable alternative,” opined the U.N. as it embraced a meager 5% reduction in air travel from 2008 to 2013, a goal it will miss by a mile.

Our solution: Require the U.N. to reduce its travel miles by 50%, a goal that it could easily reach by holding fewer meetings and taking advantage of videoconferencing. This would reduce CO2 emissions at the U.N. and also at the tens of thousands of “green” nonprofits where fighting climate change is a good excuse for a GHG-spewing junket to a U.N. conference. It would also save taxpayers money.

According to the U.N., reducing travel miles is good for the planet. A 50% travel reduction would show that the U.N. is serious.

Teresa Platt is the director of the National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environment and Enterprise Institute.

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