Published December 04, 2009
Editor's Note: An update was posted at the bottom of this story on Friday, Dec. 4.
The United Nations, which has been telling the world that it must cut back dramatically on its greenhouse gas emissions, has finally decided to practice what it preaches. But the world body isn't coming clean on the full costs of its self-greening effort with the member states who foot the bill.
After Fox News began asking questions about a pilot project that aims to start that process, the documentation concerning the greening effort abruptly disappeared from the U.N. Web site where it had been stored.
The greening effort is an issue with some urgency, since the U.N. — and the world — are on the eve of the much-touted Copenhagen meeting on greenhouse gas emissions, which begins Dec. 7 and ends Dec. 18. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been leading an unprecedented lobbying effort by the ostensibly neutral world organization to pressure member states into signing a drastic, multitrillion-dollar deal that would dramatically reshape the world economy.
The U.N. pilot project is called Greening as One, a response to a demand by Secretary General Ban that the organization lead from the front while it is espousing the hugely expensive and world-altering measures to combat "climate change."
It's a bid to make all U.N. offices around the world "climate neutral," and to turn U.N. outposts in the developing world into local proponents and users of "sustainable management practices" — including the buying and selling of local "sustainable" building goods and the setting of environmentally approved building and material standards.
The U.N. pilot project has another purpose: it involves a low-profile, grass-roots campaign to steer powerful government bureaucracies in the countries where the U.N. operates into adopting the same green agenda and thus make dramatic changes in the way local governments behave — with or without a global climate deal in Copenhagen.
The Greening as One document specifically tells U.N. offices in the pilot countries to identify "3-5 public organizations, which have the capacity and interest to act as champions on sustainable operations management in the country."
The climate neutrality effort, now in the early stages of a five-year roll-out, is being coordinated by the United Nations Environmental Program, the world organization's Nairobi-based environmental agency. It apparently was endorsed last month by a committee of a powerful U.N. internal body known as the United Nations Development Group (UNDG), which brings together 32 U.N. agencies, funds, programs and other institutions involved with economic development.
Documents concerning the green effort were stored on the UNDG website — at least until Fox News asked about them.
Greening as One builds on a U.N. program known as Delivering as One, which also began as a pilot project two years ago and aimed at consolidating various local branches of U.N. agencies around the world to improve their effectiveness, rationalize their costs and structures, and add to their clout.
In effect, Delivering as One aims to greatly concentrate the local profile and impact of the world organization, whose diverse funds, agencies and programs have long been administered separately, and often are located in separate offices and buildings in the same country.
According to U.N. documents obtained by Fox News, the five-year Greening pilot effort is supposed to cost a mere $3.8 million.
But that budget number includes only part of the work to be done in the pilot sample of three small countries — Albania, Cape Verde and Vietnam — plus initial efforts to do climate neutrality assessments in another ten developing nations in preparation for their own green U.N. centers.
Low-balling pilot project rollouts is a familiar exercise at the U.N., especially when it faces resistance from skeptical or cost-conscious member states who pay its bills. The pilots are often the thin edge of a spending wedge that widens rapidly as the pilot project enlarges beyond its original boundaries.
If the Greening as One roll-out is successful, it would eventually be expected to expand to at least 160 developing countries, if not the entire U.N. membership, raising the future costs drastically.
The Greening as One documents even illustrate exactly how that process worked with the Delivering as One initiative that was its precursor.
Delivering as One began as a pilot project in 2007 in eight countries, including the three involved in the launch of the Greening effort. But U.N. offices in other countries quietly joined in a parallel effort with the pilot project — also consolidating and rationalizing their operations in new, centralized facilities.
The upshot: an annex to the U.N.'s Greening proposal shows that only two years after the Delivering as One pilot project began, the number of countries involved had ballooned to 36 and the cost had soared past $204 million. That whopping total does not include the costs in 13 of the 36 cases, which were listed as "not available."
In the case of the U.N.'s pilot Greening as One effort, one sign that much bigger bills can be expected in the near future is that the $3.8 million original budget skips almost entirely over the costs of actually building or renovating new U.N. offices along the strict environmentalist lines that are the project's aim.
The building costs of engineering features such as solar cells and wind generators, improving insulation, rain water recycling, banning "unsustainably harvested" wood and giving preference to recycled materials will be presented in a later phase of the pilot project for each country.
The big exception is Vietnam, where a government-donated building and independently donated funding have pushed forward the agenda to the point where the U.N.'s new Green One U.N House, sheltering 16 organizations that formerly were in 10 locations across Hanoi, is supposed to open its doors in 2010 — as the rest of the greening initiative is still beginning. More than 50 percent of the cost of the new environmentally correct building came from countries such as Norway, Britain, Ireland, Australia and Finland, with the rest coming from the occupying U.N. agencies.
Rather than sustainable bricks and recycled mortar, almost all of the $3.8 million in the Greening as One budget appears to go to funding squads of analysts, advisors, consultants and coordinators to carry out assessments, set up benchmarks, devise strategies for raising money, advise procurement bureaucracies, share information and coordinate between U.N. organizations, and write reams of reports, listed in the Greening as One documents as the "outputs" of the pilot phase.
The document hints that a number of the coordinators and advisors may be U.N. staffers — including, perhaps, an International Project Coordinator who would cost $750,000 over five years — or may be other U.N. organizations, such as the United Nations Development Program, which would still be funded out of the pilot budget.
And over and above all that, UNEP, as the overall agency in charge, would add an administrative fee of 13 percent of all gross costs to the pilot budget — worth $442,000. The dollar value of the administrative fee would expand proportionately as the Greening initiative expanded.
Even though the actual construction costs for its Greening project come later, the U.N.'s Greening as One document tries hard to make the case that its radical environmental overhaul will not necessarily be all that more expensive than regular construction. As the report puts it, in a lengthy annex, "Green Buildings can be built with little or no capital cost premium" — and may indeed save enough money to justify the extra expense over less than a decade.
The document also argues that the Greening program will provide other benefits — "some of which are difficult to quantify" — like "an improved public image."
Some of the additional benefits the document argues green construction will bring seem speculative, such as an assertion in one chart that green buildings lead to "increased employee satisfaction and productivity: up to 25% annually."
No matter how much reengineering the U.N. puts into Greening as One, the world organization is still not sure its sustainable real estate empire will be truly carbon-neutral.
But then the proposal unveils a secret weapon: carbon trading. In cases where it cannot become truly neutral in the production of greenhouse gases, the U.N. says it will purchase "high quality carbon offsets" — unspecified — to bring its greenhouse ratings down to zero.
"To avoid genuine criticisms," the document notes, "offsetting should be done only after sincere efforts to minimize an entity's own GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions."
The rules on when and how to do that, the document indicates, have not yet been "elaborated" by the U.N.'s top environmental managers.
By the time this article was published, UNDG officials had not responded to a series of questions asked by Fox News to confirm details of the project approval, how many other countries might be added later, and if so, how soon that might happen.
UNDG also had not answered questions about which local bureaucracies were being approached in pilot countries as green "champions," the involvement of other U.N. agencies in the effort, and whether there were any projections available of the future costs of the full program.
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News.
Hours after this story first appeared, a UNDG official emailed Fox News in reply to questions asked four days earlier, and declared that the documents attached to our story had been online at the UNDG web site "throughout the week," and thus had not disappeared as our story described. Fox News stands by its description of the documents' original disappearance after questions were raised with UNDG about Greening as One.
Additionally, the documents now reached via a link provided by UNDG are different in significant respects from those originally obtained by Fox News. Among other things, $600,000 in new construction costs have been added to the project. Additionally, the administrative fee charged by UNDP for the pilot project has been revised sharply downward, from 13 percent to 8 percent of the gross total, thus bringing UNDG's administrative fee down to $320,000 from $442,000. Meantime, the cost of the project increased to $4.3 million from the original $3.8 million.
In reply to other questions about the eventual cost of the project and the number of countries that might be involved, UNDG declared that it was "too early" to make such estimates. On the questions of what bureaucracies in host countries had been approached to adopt similar sustainable practices as the Green UN initiative, UNDG said the initiative "is for UN premises. The usual discussions with host countries on UN premises will ensue."