The UN says that nearly all of its operations are climate neutral, but an investigation by The New Humanitarian and Mongabay has found that millions of the UN’s carbon offset credits may not reduce global greenhouse emissions to the extent they claim.

The investigation also found that at least 14 carbon offsetting projects that the UN bought into – including the Okhla waste-to-energy plant in India and Teles Pires hydropower plant in Brazil – were linked to claims of environmental damage, forced displacement, or health problems.

Other UN credits – more than 2.3 million – came from wind and hydropower plants, which climate experts told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay, a US-based environmental news outlet, were unlikely to reduce global emissions because they offer little to no “additionality”, meaning the projects would have been built despite not needing revenue from carbon credit sales.

David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment, called the findings “very troubling” and urged the UN to commission an independent investigation of its carbon offset investments. He also called on the UN to make any results public. 

“To the extent that any of the previous UN carbon offset investments don’t meet human rights and environmental standards, the UN should acknowledge that these offsets are not acceptable and should not be counted towards the commitment to achieve climate neutrality,” Boyd, a Canadian lawyer who has specialised in environmental law and policy, told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay. 

The New Humanitarian and Mongabay’s eight-month investigation is one of the first to document hundreds of UN-subsidised carbon offset projects. The findings raise questions of transparency, accountability, and the effectiveness of carbon offsetting – one of many measures being used to slow the Earth’s rising temperatures. 

Of the 48 UN entities contacted by The New Humanitarian and Mongabay, 31 said they purchased a total of some 5.3 million credits from more than 550 projects for more than $8.2 million. Nearly all of these credits were purchased to offset emissions between 2015 and 2021 – representing nearly 60% of the 8.6 million credits the UN bought during the same period. Wind and hydropower account for more than 40% of the 5.3 million credits, while more than half of the credits are from projects considered “high risk” by experts who developed the Carbon Offset Guide

Seventeen UN entities failed to respond or declined to share information about their carbon credit purchases, saying they did not keep transaction records or considered them to be confidential. 

The UN’s total carbon footprint is already murky. Not all UN entities include indirect emissions, greenhouse gases produced by supply chain transactions, waste management, and other indirect activities, in their calculations. Without knowing the UN’s total emissions, experts say it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of measures being taken to reduce emissions. 

Buying into questionable carbon offset projects – and failing to disclose all of the projects – raises further questions about the UN’s claim to be “climate neutral”, a goal that requires organisations to either reduce their greenhouse gas emissions directly by cutting or changing their operations, or to reach “net zero” by investing in offset projects designed to reduce emissions elsewhere. 

Climate experts and accountability advocates say that given the UN’s considerable power – it has been a key player in several international climate treaties and pressed governments and companies to take urgent action to reduce emissions – it should be setting an example when it comes to offset credit purchases.

UN entities have been trying to “go green since 2007, when leaders agreed to reduce their emissions “to the extent possible”. In 2021, roughly 22 percent of the UN’s operations were using renewable energy

While the UN has managed to cut its direct emissions from more than 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2015 to 1.2 million in 2021, according to its annual emissions reports, these reductions are largely attributed to travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the two years before the pandemic, direct UN emissions were still above 2 million tonnes per year.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has led repeated calls for drastic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, warning in March: “Every year of insufficient action to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius drives us closer to the brink, increasing systemic risks and reducing our resilience against climate catastrophe.”

But the world body says some of its life-saving humanitarian, development, and peacekeeping operations around the globe produce unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions, which need to be balanced by purchasing offset credits. 

Between 2018 and 2021, for example, UN operations emitted nearly 7 million tonnes of greenhouse gases – roughly equal to the annual emissions of 1.5 million gasoline-powered cars – yet in each of those years, it claimed to be almost entirely “climate neutral”, largely through offsetting. 

Data on UN emissions for 2022 is expected to be published later this year. 

“The UN’s neutrality claim lacks credibility and is particularly inappropriate coming from an agency overseeing global efforts to combat climate change,” Lindsay Otis, policy expert on global carbon markets at Carbon Market Watch, told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay after reviewing some 550 offset projects in the UN’s portfolio. 

Projects linked to abuses

More than 350,000 credits from at least 14 projects in the UN’s partial portfolio have been linked to allegations of environmental destruction, forced displacement, human rights abuses, or health problems in communities near the projects. UN entities spent more than $200,000 on these credits.

For example, the UN Secretariat – the administrative arm of the UN, headed by Guterres – bought nearly 4,000 credits from the Okhla waste-to-energy plant, an Indian project that has sparked environmental and health concerns.

Located in New Delhi’s Sukhdev Vihar neighbourhood, it claims to reduce emissions by burning waste to heat pressure boilers that drive steam turbines and generate electricity.

Community residents, however, have challenged the project in courts for more than a decade, claiming that the plant’s incinerators emit toxic pollution near their homes. 

Air pollution tests conducted by the Indian government confirmed emissions of harmful particles well above the permissible limit, according to research by the New Delhi-based Centre for Financial Accountability.

Dr. Chanchal Pal, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at the Apollo 24/7 hospital, located around 200 metres from the Okhla plant, said she believes cases of bronchitis, lung diseases, asthma, nasal polyps, and sinus problems among people living in the area are linked to pollution from the plant.

“When plastics are burnt, it has carcinogenic effects on human health – this is a scientific fact, Dr. Pal told The New Humanitarian and Mongabay.

Residents have also pointed out that the plant’s 40-metre proximity to some homes violates government guidelines requiring landfills to be at least 500 metres from residential areas. Devraj said locals live in fear of boiler explosions that could flatten their homes and claim lives.

“It is an environmental disaster in the making because this plant is supposed to be some sort of flagship for a policy of incinerating waste in India,” said Ranjit Devraj, a Sukhdev Vihar resident and former member of a Supreme Court committee on waste management in Delhi. 

The project is currently being reviewed by India’s Supreme Court. A decision is expected in the coming months.