United Nations peacekeeping operations are complex endeavors that have the potential to radically impact the environments in which they deploy. Missions often generate large environmental footprints that can negatively impact host communities and their ecosystems, including through building temporary and permanent structures in areas with little or no domestic infrastructure; running diesel electrical generators and air conditioners to undertake basic operations and support their personnel; and consuming food, water, fuel, and electricity, across their operations.
The wide disparities in consumption between UN peacekeepers and local communities are made even more problematic by the fact that missions risk depleting scarce reserves in fragile environments already threatened by desertification, over-exploitation of natural resources, and climate variability. Poor environmental practices in peacekeeping operations, exemplified by the 2010 outbreak of cholera in Haiti, can not only damage local ecosystems but also undermine the UN’s mandate implementation and legitimacy with host communities.
The work of an overlooked but influential committee—the UN General Assembly’s Contingent-Owned Equipment (COE) Working Group—could provide an inflection point in UN peacekeeping’s decade-long effort to reduce its environmental footprint and transition to more sustainable environmental practices.
The COE is responsible for setting reimbursement rates for the vast majority of equipment that member states provide to UN peacekeeping operations, thus serving as a pillar of the incentive structure that shapes the capabilities available to UN missions. The triennial negotiations on these reimbursement rates—set out in an official UN document called the COE Manual—will take place in New York from January 16-27.
The UN has spent much of the past decade grappling with environmental issues and charting a new course for peacekeeping operations. Since 2009, the Secretariat has published various strategies, policies, and guidance documents to help “green the blue.” The UN Department of Operational Support’s (DOS) six-year Environment Strategy for Field Missions (2017-2023) constitutes the fulcrum of the Secretariat’s specific environment commitments for UN peacekeeping. These efforts have helped UN peacekeeping better assess its environmental impact and compliance, reduce the risk of waste and wastewater pollution, and cultivate alternative water sources, among other achievements.
However, the UN cannot accomplish its overarching goals without actions by its member states, and COE is one important variable in the formula. In 2020, UN peacekeeping operations accounted for over 44 percent of the UN system’s total carbon emissions—the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions across the entire organization. COE reimbursements constitute approximately 10 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget, reflecting the magnitude of the challenge. According to recent statistics published by the UN Department of Operational Support, COE diesel generators produced about 35 percent of the electricity used in missions in 2020/21, while accounting for about 23 percent of UN peace operations’ greenhouse gas emissions (the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions within field missions).
While the COE Working Group only touched on environment-related issues in their 2011 and 2014 sessions, member states made major headway during the 2017 session: they introduced new equipment categories and financial incentives for energy-efficient generators and renewable energy systems, and included a 5 percent financial premium to reimbursements for accommodations with environmental enhancements, among other technical and compliance changes.
Four categories of environmental issues will likely come under discussion during the 2023 Working Group negotiations.
The most prominent category relates to reimbursement modalities for renewable energy systems. The current incentive framework requires member states to calculate reimbursement for hybrid systems based on percentages of the amount of power these systems produce, and calculate reimbursement for renewable energy systems on a case-by-case basis. This modality presented far too many uncertainties for member states, with only one troop- and police-contributing country (T/PCC)—Bangladesh—deploying a renewable energy system since 2017. The UN Secretariat submitted two issue papers to the Working Group on renewable energy—one to clarify the “benefits and characteristics” of these systems and a second to simplify the reimbursement modalities by providing specific dollar figures for each system. Bangladesh and the United States submitted issue papers on strengthening COE Manual language on renewable energy.
The second category relates to reinforcing accountability for fuel consumption. UN reimbursements for COE are conditional on verifying equipment functionality based on standards outlined in the COE Manual and the memorandum of understanding signed between the UN and the T/PCC. One significant gap relates to fuel consumption: the current COE Manual does not require fuel-consuming COE equipment to have functioning fuel meters, heightening the risk of fuel diversion or over-consumption. The UN Secretariat has proposed modifications that would not only require operational fuel meters in major equipment but also reinforce that T/PCCs are fully accountable for fuel received from the UN. The United States also submitted an issue paper proposing that vehicles be reimbursed according to both operational use as well as serviceability.
A third category relates to scaling-up innovative national practices onto the UN peacekeeping landscape. Italy, a country that has established an international training center for promoting environmentally-sensitive defense practices, has pushed for financial incentives to reduce single-use plastics deployed alongside contingent-owned equipment. Finland submitted an issue paper encouraging further attention to the concept of UN “Smart Camps,” a field-based operational setup that incorporates advanced technologies to accurately monitor resource consumption and improve energy efficiency. This concept was one of the flagships of the Republic of Korea’s contributions at the 2021 UN Peacekeeping Ministerial.
The fourth category relates to improving environmental compliance and standards among all UN member states. The COE Manual includes a template for the memoranda of understanding signed between each T/PCC and the UN Secretariat, which governs the obligations and responsibilities of each party. The Secretariat has proposed technical updates to the MOU template to reflect new UN policy guidance on environmental management and specific proposals for improved wastewater management at temporary operating bases.
Despite broad support among UN membership for improved environmental practices, these negotiations will not be straightforward, as various interests and factors (especially around financial arrangements) will shape the compromises that member states can reach. Previously, COE Working Group negotiations have devolved into zero-sum negotiations between T/PCCs (who want to be paid as much as possible for their equipment) and major financial contributors (who want to pay as little as possible). During the last negotiations, this zero-sum attitude prevented member states from agreeing on an overall rate increase.
While the COE reimbursement framework is a key financial incentive for national contributions to UN peacekeeping, most member states base their contributions to UN peacekeeping on their own domestic military structures and procurement. Only a handful of T/PCCs have mainstreamed renewable energy sources and eco-friendly equipment into their own national practices. The debate in the COE working group thus becomes whether the UN should reimburse member states for the upfront cost of procuring environmentally-friendly equipment that can be used in UN missions and domestically.
There are also strategic implications to the shift toward more sustainable peacekeeping missions in increasingly volatile conflict settings. UN convoys carrying fuel supplies are regularly targeted by asymmetric attacks. Hence, renewable-energy systems contributing to the self-sustainment of camps also benefit the safety, security, and health of UN personnel, a top priority of member states. Reduced fuel consumption will also improve the UN’s operational agility in an era of rising fuel prices and growing fuel shortages.
Environmental issues will constitute only one part of the agenda discussed during the 2023 COE Working Group session. But the session presents a true fork-in-the-road moment for UN peacekeeping’s efforts to advance its environmental goals. Member states have increased their political support for the UN’s environmental goals in recent years, and the COE negotiations are a strategic opportunity for them to back those statements up with financial support.
Daniel Forti is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute (IPI). Emmanuelle Cousin is a Research Intern at IPI.