1. Home
  2. Global

UN defends questionable offsetting practices in new emissions report

Despite evidence to the contrary, the world body claims to have offset 92% of last year’s emissions.

00-header-carbon-offsetting.jpg Xabi Oregi/Pixabay

The UN continues to make questionable climate neutrality claims based on purchases of carbon credits that many climate experts say do not actually reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere.

In its latest annual Greening the Blue report outlining UN efforts to reduce its environmental impacts – released today, on 21 December – the world body claims to have offset 92% of last year’s emissions.

Despite not calculating all of its indirect emissions, which are emitted up and down its supply chain, and questions about the quality of its offsets, the UN claims to have been upwards of 90% climate neutral every year since 2018. 

In an investigation published in September, The New Humanitarian revealed that millions of offset credits purchased by the UN between 2012 and 2022 are among the least likely to achieve real emission reductions. The investigation traced more than 6 million of the UN’s credits to some 700 offsetting projects certified by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – a UN-run offsetting system has been called into question by climate experts for more than a decade.

“There’s been many published criticisms of the [Clean Development] Mechanism – the offsets are not considered to be real,” Joseph Romm, senior research fellow at the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media, said at a recent online panel event hosted by The New Humanitarian. “That is to say, either they would have happened anyway, or they have been over-counted. They’re not permanent.”

More than half of the UN’s credits came from projects categorised by the Carbon Offset Guide as “high risk” – or unlikely to achieve real emission reductions. More than 40% of UN-purchased credits came from renewable energy projects, which many experts consider to be among the least likely types of projects to achieve real reductions.

Critics say the UN’s offsetting practices undermine its leadership on efforts to slow the pace of global warming. In addition to overseeing climate treaties, the UN also organises the annual COP conferences and stewards governments towards meeting their climate commitments.

The New Humanitarian’s investigation also identified 13 CDM projects that have been linked to reports of environmental damage, displacement, or health problems among surrounding communities.

Despite these findings, which The New Humanitarian published more than two months before the Greening the Blue report’s deadline for collecting UN entities’ offsetting data, this year’s report includes a defence of the CDM not included last year. It states that the quality of each CDM project is “verified and guaranteed in a process defined under the Kyoto Protocol”, an international climate treaty overseen by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It also states that the use of carbon offsets to claim climate neutrality is required by UN-wide commitments made in 2015 and 2019.

Asked whether the investigation’s findings had prompted any changes in the UN’s offsetting practices, a spokesperson for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) told The New Humanitarian in early December: “The commitment to offset the residual emissions remains unchanged, and the UN System has continued to utilise Clean Development Mechanism [credits] for offsetting.”

UNEP publishes the annual Greening the Blue reports.

However, at least one UN entity said the revelations about questionable CDM credits in the UN’s portfolio may lead to a change in practice.

“UNHCR acknowledges and has taken note of the concerns raised in [The New Humanitarian’s] article published in September 2023,” Nono Louise Elisabeth Harhoff, senior business analyst at the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), said in early December.

“We are assessing our carbon offsetting initiatives and have actively consulted with UNFCCC in recent months,” she said, adding that the agency would “likely have to rely on the expertise of UNFCCC to some extent in the future” due to a lack of in-house offsetting expertise.

‘A year of transition’

The Greening the Blue report describes 2022 as “a year of transition”, noting that the UN’s emissions grew compared to last year due to the removal of pandemic-related operational restrictions, but didn’t bounce back to pre-pandemic levels.

The UN attributes its growing environmental footprint to the lifting of COVID-19 measures, such as remote working and air travel bans. Flight emissions alone increased by almost 50% in 2022 compared to the previous year, but remain lower than in 2018 and 2019.

UN emissions rose from 1.25 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2021 to 1.4 million tonnes in 2022. Emissions per capita among UN staffers rose from 4.1 to 4.6 tonnes. Before the pandemic, the UN’s emissions hovered around 2 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide every year from 2014 to 2019.


UN facilities’ emissions have steadily decreased for the past five years, the report points out.

UN offices are also increasingly using renewable electricity: almost a third of the UN’s electricity was produced by renewables in 2022. In 2020, by comparison, renewable energy represented only about a fifth of the organisation’s energy mix.

“It was a time of transition during 2022 as various restrictions were lifted and many personnel returned to the office, to conferences, in-person negotiations and other missions,” the report says, adding: “It is critical that the UN system reflects upon the valuable lessons learned during COVID-19 operational restrictions.”

Jacob Goldberg reported from Bangkok, Thailand. Léopold Salzenstein reported from Toulouse, France. Edited by Andrew Gully.

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.