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More than 1,000 United Nations Employees Calls for Global Body to Reduce its Carbon Footprint

The United Nations calls climate change the "defining issue of our time" and is hosting a New York summit on it next week

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United Nations, Employees, Global Body
Thousands of protesters, many of them school students, gather in Sydney, Sept. 20, 2019, calling for action against climate change. VOA

More than 1,000 United Nations employees have called for the global body to reduce its carbon footprint, including through curbs on their own diplomatic perks like business-class flights and travel handouts, a letter obtained by Reuters showed.

The United Nations calls climate change the “defining issue of our time” and is hosting a New York summit on it next week.

But reformers within say in the letter addressed to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that it needs more radical change to get its own house in order.

“Our commitments need to be more ambitious and at least as concrete as those of the UN Member States and non-party stakeholders attending the UN Climate Action Summit,” said the letter, signed by more than 1,000 employees. It was organized by a group called Young UN, an internal network committed to ensuring the organization embodies the principles it stands for.

United Nations, Employees, Global Body
Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg testifies at a Climate Crisis Committee joint hearing on “Voices Leading the Next Generation on the Global Climate Crisis,” on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Sept. 18, 2019. VOA

“As Greta Thunberg just sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and young people across the world continue to strike every Friday, let us look at our own impact and take bold steps to address the climate emergency,” the letter said, referring to the Swedish teenager who has inspired global climate strikes.

The United Nations, a 75-year-old institution employing 44,000 people in more than 60 countries, emitted 1.86 million tones of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2017, its own data show.

That equates to a carbon footprint larger than several of its member states, including Malta and Liberia, according to statistics from the Global Carbon Atlas for the same period.

Among 10 issues identified by Young UN are travel allowances, which the letter said needed to be cut or scrapped “in order to disincentivize travel by UN employees and UN meeting participants motivated by financial gain”.

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Allowances, or per diem as they are known internally, are intended to cover travel costs including food and accommodation, and can exceed $400 a day for some locations such as New York, according to the International Civil Service Commission website.

The letter also suggested that staff should be rewarded for downgrading from business class, where a spacious seat generates several times the emissions of an economy class ticket.

Travel accounts for nearly half the United Nations’ emissions, its data show. Last year, under pressure from member states, the head of the U.N. Environment Program, Erik Solheim, stepped down amid criticism of his travels. Other reforms recommended in the letter include a complete divestment of the more than $60 billion U.N. pension fund from fossil fuels and creating offices run entirely on renewable energy. Young UN did not respond to requests for comment.

‘UN needs to lead’

United Nations, Employees, Global Body
More than 1,000 United Nations employees have called for the global body to reduce its carbon footprint, including through curbs on their own diplomatic perks. Pixabay

Guterres is seeking to combat climate change from within in order to boost sustainability. A spokesman for his office was not immediately available for comment.

The letter welcomed Guterres’ internal strategy but said it “misses the urgency of the crisis we are facing” The United Nations has also launched a “Greening the Blue” initiative which measures the U.N. system’s greenhouse gas emissions, waste disposal, fresh-water use, and environmental management. According to its latest report, 43 of its entities or just over a third were carbon-neutral in 2017.

But the letter raises doubts about U.N. offset mechanisms, a method that works through purchases of U.N.-certified carbon credits from approved green projects and is widely used by organizations and businesses to tout their green credentials.

This echoes criticism from NGOs about the contribution of offsets to sustainable development.

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Isabella Marras, Sustainable UN Coordinator, whose team produces the Greening the Blue report and was a signatory to the letter, said she saw scope for the United Nations to give even greater attention to environmental considerations.

“What we are missing is the aggressive integration of environmental issues into our programs like the UN has done for women,” she told Reuters. But she stressed some of the pragmatic challenges in regions where environmental standards are less strong than in Western countries.

Marie-Claire Graf, a 23-year-old Swiss climate activist visiting the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva, said the number of U.N. vehicles in vast car parks overlooking the lake and mountains was surprising.

“The UN is doing some amazing things on environment but I am shocked by so many SUVs and the amount of travel,” said Graf, who was selected along with 100 young climate leaders to attend the U.N. Youth Climate Summit on 21 September.

“The UN needs to lead on this transformation.” (VOA)

Next Story

Small Business Owners Start Wellness Programs

Small Businesses Embrace Wellness to Help Retain Staffers

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Business
Many small business owners are starting wellness programs to help employees be healthier, happier and more likely to stay. Pixabay

Every month, the 30 staffers at Chris Boehlke’s public relations firm each get $100 to pay for anything that contributes to their wellness. And not just for typical expenditures like gym memberships or yoga classes.

“You can get nails done, anything you feel is helping your overall well being,” says Boehlke, co-owner of San Francisco-based Bospar. The company also has flex time and a generous time off policy including 17 paid holidays each year.

As a result, Boehlke says, the 5-year-old company has lost only two staffers.

Many small business owners or startups are starting wellness programs to help employees be healthier, happier and more likely to stay.

Wellness efforts encompass a wide range of benefits and services, including gym subsidies, stipends for classes and activities and apps that help motivate staffers to exercise and take care of themselves.

Owners are aware that many big companies have wellness programs, an advantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining staffers.

Rob Wilson sees interest in wellness programs growing among his small business clients, and his company, human resources provider Employco, is focusing more on these programs.

Business
Brent Frederick, founder of Jester Concepts, a restaurant group in Minneapolis poses at P.S. Steak. Frederick puts a 3% voluntary surcharge on guest checks to help pay for health insurance and mental health services and says almost all guests agree to pay it. VOA

“A lot of it so far has been online classes and health coaching, also a lot of online tools right now that employees can access anywhere to help them keep track of what they’re doing,” says Wilson, whose company is based in Westmont, Illinois.

“The companies doing it are really interested in keeping their employees,” he says.

Work can take a toll

They also want to care for staffers who can be sacrificing good health habits by working long and hard hours. At MonetizeMore, an advertising technology company, CEO Kean Graham has sensed that the sedentary lifestyle of his more than 100 staffers has taken a toll. He’s seen extended absences and depression, and staffers have said that they’ve gained weight.

“We came up with a steps program that measures everybody’s number of steps per month via their smart watches or apps on their phones,” says Graham, whose company is based in Victoria, British Columbia. After several months, he saw an improvement in absenteeism and spirits.

The 100 employees at Birch Coffee get stipends toward a variety of wellness activities, and the company pays for monthly massages at its 14 New York stores. Birch is trying to offset the physical and mental stress staffers encounter, co-founder Jeremy Lyman says.

“Each barista engages with hundreds of people every day,” Lyman says. “Mentally, it can take its toll, and you’re standing on your feet for seven hours.”

Encourage good health

Some owners sign up with companies that run structured wellness programs. These can include encouraging staffers to take care of their health with weight-loss and smoking cessation aids, health screening and coaching and apps to track steps, calories and other metrics. Some businesses have point systems and competitions to reward staffers.

Nearly all the 86 employees at Connor & Gallagher OneSource take part in its program created by a wellness software company, says Kayla Roeske, the director of client wellness at the Lisle, Illinois-based human resources and employee benefits firm. She finds that staffers are more likely to participate fully when the program is presented to them in a positive way, rather than the company coming across as “Big Brother” trying to control them. The company doesn’t get individual data but instead “we can see aggregate data from an organizational standpoint that tells us where we are year to year,” she says.

Avoid cheerleading 

Owners need to steer clear of being overbearing and negative about employees’ health. While a boss might be happier if staffers didn’t smoke or if they lost weight, if the company comes across as intrusive, it could lose good employees.

“If you start to push decision-making and judgment on these things, that’s where you may begin to cross the line,” says David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, an HR provider based in Norwalk, Connecticut. He advises that owners offer education and make tools available, but avoid too much cheerleading.

“If you say, `we want you to live a better life,’ to some extent employees are going to take that, but they’ll be skeptical if it’s syrupy,” Lewis says. He suggests owners speak to staffers about realities, like the need to lower health insurance costs.

Owners may need to be creative about funding their wellness efforts, especially when they include health insurance, a benefit many small businesses can’t afford. Brent Frederick, founder of Jester Concepts, a Minneapolis restaurant operator, includes a voluntary 3% surcharge on guest checks to pay for health and mental health insurance.

Business
A line item shows an example of how the charge that Brent Frederick, founder of Jester Concepts, a restaurant group in Minneapolis uses as a 3% voluntary surcharge on guest checks to help pay for health insurance and mental health services and says almost all guests agree to pay it. VOA

‘A better business’

Frederick has 250 employees among his four establishments, which include restaurants, a food truck and a sports arena concession. Even the part-timers get coverage. That has made Jester Concepts a more competitive employer.

“We’ve been able to retain employees and be a better business in the community,” Frederick says.

The majority of Jester Concepts’ customers are willing to pay the 3% surcharge, which amounts to $3 on a $100 check. Some question it, but Frederick estimates that no more than once a month at each location does a guest ask to have it taken off their bill. Customers can look at the surcharge as proof that the company is concerned about its staffers’ well-being.

Owners who want healthier employees may have to set a good example, and even make some changes to office routine and policies.

A boss who likes to keep cola and other highly sugared beverages in the break room fridge may need to stop stocking it.  And at companies where the culture is for everyone to work through lunch at their desks, there may need to be a new normal — staffers have to break away.

At Hoppier, an Ottawa, Ontario-based company that delivers snacks and supplies to businesses, “we don’t let anyone eat behind their computer screens. We think that everyone deserves a proper break, so we ask them to eat somewhere that doesn’t require any work,” CEO Cassy Aite says.

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Aite used to work at a consulting firm and eat at his desk; it’s what people did. His next job was at a German company, where he learned a very different approach — talking 90 minutes away from the office each day for lunch.

“It’s an amazing way to break up the day,” says Aite. (VOA)