Blue and Green: Making UN Peacekeeping Operations More Sustainable

Only three years ago, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon recognized “an historic opportunity for governments to address the threat [of climate change] and put the world on a safer, healthier, more equitable and sustainable path;” and in doing so, he reminded us of the UN’s “own contribution” to these global efforts. However, this same report recognized that “the work on creating a more sustainable UN is still in its early stages and the UN has to improve on several fronts” [1]. A front that requires the most drastic improvements is peacekeeping.

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Peacekeeping operations are increasingly becoming a large and urban endeavour, consequently shedding more light on the developmental and environmental issues associated with them. The urban and asymmetric warfare that characterizes the conflicts in which UN peacekeeping operations intervene results in greater danger to civilians, infrastructure, and basic services. As a consequence, there have been a number of initiatives that try to ameliorate problems related such warfare. This includes the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPAS), the lack of access to conflict zones by humanitarian actors, the increasing difficulties of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs, and the protection of civilians [2]. Methods frequently used in urban conflicts – often specific to the use of particular weapons, targeting of essential infrastructure, and scorched-earth techniques – have devastating consequences on the environment and the quality of life of individuals already impacted by conflict [3]. These lists merely address the direct environmental and developmental consequences of the actions of war, however, the presence of peacekeeping forces has another set of consequences.

There is an increasing recognition for the need to address environmental concerns in conflict, and specifically in regards to ongoing peacekeeping missions. UN peacekeeping operations have been assessed to account for over half of the total climate footprint of the UN, which itself has a carbon output equivalent to that of the entire city of London [4]. Therefore, not only is addressing the sustainability of peacekeeping operations important for the purposes of assisting the peace process and humanitarian situation within a mission, but the output of peacekeeping plays a large role in the environmental sustainability of the entire UN system.

This environmental footprint is so high due to the large expansion of the scope of peacekeeping operations, which are becoming increasingly multidimensional. The first peacekeeping operations, established in the 1950s and 60s, were often staffed by only a small number of personnel and operated out of small observation posts. This was because they had simple mandates, which were to monitor and report on negotiated ceasefires and demilitarized areas. These missions, such as the operations in Lebanon, Pakistan, and Cyprus (including UNTSO, UNIFIL, UNMOGIP, and UNFICYP), stand in stark contrast to modern operations. It was after the 2000s that missions began to grow in size. They now implement large scale infrastructure projects in regions and states where domestic infrastructure is often lacking [5]. The need to impose large infrastructure projects to support these expansive missions has environmental impacts that often result in long-lasting consequences for the local community.


Environmental initiatives

A number of reforms across the UN system are relevant to issues of sustainability in the specific context of peacekeeping. One can consider two streams of reforms: one related to peacekeeping, and the other related to the environment. Although these reforms began in separate silos, the larger structural and cultural reforms of the entire UN system have made the interoperability and consideration of each separate silo of initiatives more relevant to the other. To begin, the UN launched its efforts to evaluate and reduce its environmental footprint in 2007, launching efforts to move “towards a climate neutral UN,” and to focus on how their output contributes to the effects of climate change [6].

Furthermore, there is an explicit recognition that environmental degradation is a powerful driver of conflict. In 2009, there was a report released on Protecting the Environment During Armed Conflict, and the start of a program by UN Environment, known as “Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding” [7]. These evidence the efforts to address climate degradation within the context of conflict, focusing on the impact that violence itself has on the environment as well as the important role that it plays in post-conflict circumstances.

In regards to UN peacekeeping operations, there is a recognition of the large impact that the efforts to implement and support these missions have on the environment. Reports have been conducted on the environmental footprint of the entire UN, and they indicate the massive contribution that peacekeeping departments have in relation to all other bodies within the UN. The total emissions of the Department of Field Support (DFS), the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) – which together constitute the offices of peace and security at the UN – stand at over 1.1 million, while the next largest emitter is the International Monetary Fund (the IMF), whose total emissions are a mere fraction, approximately 76,000 [8].

The problem of the environment first came on the radar of the peace and security offices of the UN – the DFS and DPKO – in 2013, when the Security Council mandated the UN peacekeeping operation in Mali (MINUSMA) to consider the environmental impact of the mission [9]. In the years following, a number of environmental initiatives and programs were created by peacekeeping bodies within the UN. The DFS first adopted a Waste Management Policy for UN Field Missions before launching its broader DFS Environmental Policy the following year, in 2016. These were adopted largely due to the efforts of the Under Secretary-General Atul Share, who considered these issues to be of utmost importance and put them on the agenda of reform [10]. These reforms were supplemented by structural changes, such as the creation of an Environment Section with the DFS itself, and the deployment of Environment Officers to peacekeeping missions [11].


Peacekeeping reform

Reforms specifically targeting the environment, and the impact of peacekeeping operations on it, have been varied and somewhat disjointed. The reforms that address the UN at large have the goal of joining separate initiatives and creating efficiency within the UN system. The most recent iteration of UN reforms was launched by the current Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in 2017, consisting of management reform within the secretariat, reform of the coherence of the development system, and a review of the peace and security architecture of the UN – most notably through the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) reform [12].

In addition, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an overarching and widely known initiative, and as a result it is frequently integrated into tangential reform programs. Notably, one of these programs is the Environmental Program by the DFS, which is linked to a number of SDGs, including (6) clean water and sanitation; (7) affordable and clean energy; (12) responsible consumption and production; (13) climate action; (15) life on land; (16) peace, justice, and strong institutions [13].

Reform of peace and security has operated on a higher level than environmental policy, seeking to change conceptions and approaches to conducting and planning peacekeeping operations. Such initiatives have shifted the focus of peacekeeping away from a security-focus on military-solutions, instead emphasizing concepts of peacebuilding and political solutions. Peacebuilding and sustaining peace seek to address the root causes of conflict in order to ensure long lasting settlements. By addressing concerns outside of the immediate security dilemma of peacekeepers, there is room to address larger concerns for the environment and the development impacts that this has on local populations. This shift will, likewise, support increasing efforts for implementing local solutions and transferring the ownership to stable domestic initiatives upon the transition at the inevitable end of the peacekeeping operations [14].

As previously mentioned, there is an increasing recognition of the influence that environmental issues have as drivers of conflict; the fact that these reforms seek to increase focus on addressing drivers of conflict indicates a strong potential to increase focus on the measures the DPKO and others can take to address their impact and in turn, help find solutions to conflict.



An important aspect of the environmental impact of peacekeeping that has not yet been adequately addressed is the role that infrastructure plays. The majority of environmental degradation comes from the mere physical presence of the UN peacekeeping operation. The impact that the operation has on the environment increases as the size of the mission increases. As a result of increasing attacks on peacekeepers, the UN has taken to constructing large and fortified safe areas for staff such as “bases, camps, super-camps, headquarters, logistics hubs, and airfields;” all of these are necessary to support the actions of large missions, which often aim to support peace talks and protect civilians [15].

The role that these large compounds play in the environmental impact of peacekeeping operations has seen the innovative intersection of a large number of sectors which are, inter alia, architecture, military engineering, and landscaping [16]. The possibility of implementing architectural solutions specifically has been explored through reports, such as BLUE, based on an architectural exhibition by the Netherlands, which investigates the power of architecture in improving people’s environments and their well being. Such perspectives highlight the importance of effective architecture planning – especially now that the majority of modern peacekeeping operations are taking place in urban areas [17].

Other intersections are considered more ideological, such as those between architecture, human rights, and activism [18]. Such combinations are indicative of the influence of the Dutch ‘3D’ approach of defense, diplomacy, and development. Research is being supported to encourage solutions in these innovative and less widely regarded areas to improve the living environment in local communities and to encourage cultural and community interaction in these spaces – decreasing the drivers of conflict and providing critical spaces for locally-driven conflict mediation [19]. In these cases, such spaces will be able to be used after peacekeeping operations have left areas of conflict, reducing the damage and waste left behind, while contributing to positive environmental- and social-sustainability.


Looking to the future

There are a number of relatively disconnected initiatives to make both the entire UN system and UN peacekeeping more sustainable, and many of these have been functioning in parallel for decades. More recent reforms have begun to merge the silos in which these initiatives have been operating. By emphasizing aspects of peacekeeping such as conflict drivers, peacebuilding, sustainable peace, and transition planning, there is the potential for a greater focus on environmental issues in peacekeeping missions. This new approach can facilitate the augmentation and further implementation of existing programs, from both the UN Environment office and the UN Peacekeeping and Security offices.

While these efforts are setting the stage for future changes, ideologically and institutionally, there is still much to be done to realize environmentally sustainable peacekeeping. The real changes will only be possible when the programs, initiatives, and departments are empowered to implement real changes on the ground. This in turn, can only be done through effective funding – having adequate financial and human resources is a non-starter that must be taken seriously by both the UN secretariat and its Member States [20].

There are clearly efforts to understand the changing nature and locality of peacekeeping missions, and an increasing awareness of the intersection of approaches needed to produce long lasting and sustainable solutions to conflict and to the environmental problems that peacekeeping contributes to. In order to begin enacting real changes, and implementing the goals of UN reforms vis-a-vis peacekeeping and the environment, there is a dire need for strong political will and resources to ensure that the blue helmets of the UN conduct their work in a way that does not degrade the environment, and sets up innovative solutions that can contribute to peacebuilding [21].




[1] UN Environment Programme. (2015). Moving Towards a Climate Neutral UN. New York, NY. (p. 2). Retrieved from

[2] Sharp, D., & Sucuoglu, G. (2017, April 6). Sustaining Peace in an Urban World. Our World UN University. Retrieved from

[3] UN Environment. Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding. Retrieved from

[4] United Nations Environment Programme. (2012). Greening the Blue Helmets: Environment, Natural Resources and UN Peacekeeping Operations. Nairobi, Kenya. Retrived from

[5] International Peace Institute. (2018). Greening Peacekeeping: The Environmental Impact of UN Peace Operations. New York, NY: Maertens, L., & Shoshan, M. Retrieved from

[6] UN Environment Programme. (2015). Moving Towards a Climate Neutral UN. New York, NY. Retrieved from

[7] UN Environment. Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding. Retrieved from

[8] International Peace Institute. (2018). Greening Peacekeeping: The Environmental Impact of UN Peace Operations. New York, NY: Maertens, L., & Shoshan, M.

[9] Ibid. (p. 1).

[10] Ibid. (p. 9).

[11] Ibid. (p. 1).

[12] The Urg Team. (2017, October 31). The UN Secretary General’s Reform Agenda. Universal Rights Group. Retrieved from

[13] Mead, L. (2016, December 6). UN Peacekeeping Operations to Reduce Environmental Impact. IISD SDG Knowledge Hub. Retrieved from

[14] Sharp, D., & Sucuoglu, G. (2017, April 6). Sustaining Peace in an Urban World. Our World UN University. Retrieved from

[15] International Peace Institute. (2018). Greening Peacekeeping: The Environmental Impact of UN Peace Operations. New York, NY: Maertens, L., & Shoshan, M. (p. 2).

[16] Ibid. (p. 2).

[17] Het Nieuwe Instituut. (2016). BLUE: Architecture of Peacekeeping Operations. Volume/Archis: Netherlands.

[18] Ibid. (p. 6).

[19] Ibid. (p.6).

[20] ] International Peace Institute. (2018). Greening Peacekeeping: The Environmental Impact of UN Peace Operations. New York, NY: Maertens, L., & Shoshan, M.

[21] Sharp, D., & Sucuoglu, G. (2017, April 6). Sustaining Peace in an Urban World. Our World UN University. Retrieved from


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