A practical approach to net zero targets in the public sector

Setting and achieving the net zero targets set by the Scottish and UK governments is an ongoing journey, and the clock is ticking. Daniel Botterill, chief executive of Rio ESG, sheds light on how to take the first, crucial steps
Credit: Rio ESG

A sense of urgency to act on the world's climate crisis lingers after COP26. The new and renewed commitments to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions announced at the climate change conference in Glasgow are beacons of hope, but only that. For the first time since the Paris agreement, pledges to end deforestation, slash methane by 30% from 2020 levels, and phase out coal-fired power can potentially keep global heating below two degrees Celsius in the next 20 years.

Certainly, addressing the sustainability challenge is imperative for the UK. Host of the landmark climate summit, the Scottish and UK governments have been central to sustainability debates, setting up policy and targets of achieving net zero emissions by 2045 and 2050, respectively. However, it's less clear how businesses and public sector organisations up and down the country will go about achieving net zero in this time frame.

There are many reasons for the lack of clarity about the roadmap to net zero. One is that policy and guidance addressing the targets are relatively new or continuously developed and reviewed. This changing landscape makes it difficult for leaders in business and public bodies to understand where to begin, what to monitor and how to report progress. The ever-growing range of sustainability acronyms and jargon doesn't make it any easier.

The reality and fear of greenwashing also casts a shadow on Scotland’s and the UK’s ambitions for climate action. Governments have raised the flag of sustainability with bold commitments and plans to meet the net-zero targets. However, the journey is unknown territory and travel can become bumpy, without a roadmap built on quality data to make informed decisions along the way. But regardless of the challenges, we can’t afford not to reach the destination.

There’s no easy fix to solving the climate crisis, and there’s no recipe for becoming more sustainable overnight. At Rio, we believe that everyone has a job to do when it comes to saving our planet, and that democratising sustainability knowledge is the approach that will help us do it better.

The state of play

Is the UK in a good position to realise its net zero targets? The latest statistics released by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy indicate that annual greenhouse gas emissions in the country have fallen by 48% over the past three decades. Pace of change has been speeding up, with emissions falling by 14% from 1990 to 2005, and then by 35% from 2005 to 2019 when emissions declined to 454.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent.

Moreover, the UK has achieved more significant CO2 emission reductions than many other countries globally. In all, the data suggest that the UK is halfway to meeting its 2050 net zero emissions target.

But what does this data mean to you? Although promising, these numbers convey very little to the single burning question that professionals in the civil service ask themselves: what can I do?

Reporting net zero targets

The civil service is equivalent to a small city. Civil Service World has reported that, with more than 400,000 staff across the country, the civil service produces almost two million tonnes of CO2 a year. In the wider public sector, the NHS alone is responsible for around 4% of England's total carbon footprint. However, the NHS was among the first organisations in the public sector to produce a carbon reduction strategy 10 years ago, and it has been measuring emissions since 2007.

Measuring, monitoring and reporting on energy and carbon reduction targets in public sector organisations are not 'nice-to-have' initiatives but duties enshrined in the Greening Government Commitments (GGC), a policy paper in place since 2014.

The latest update to the GGC was released a couple of days before the start of Cop26 with significant changes in four core areas: the baseline year is now 2017 to 2018; there are new measures on biodiversity, climate adaptation and food waste; transparent reporting requirements are integrated into the core GGC targets; and targets are now organised into headline and sub-commitments.

In Scotland, the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, with its 2019 amendment, imposes a duty on public bodies to contribute to the delivery of the emissions reduction targets. Organisations and public sector leaders that don't comply with the Act could be challenged by judicial review in the Court of Session.

The GGC and the 2009 Act are to the civil service what Environment, Social, Governance (ESG) standards are to corporations. The latter provides a snapshot of the impact of the business in key areas, and the former paints a picture of the efficiency and sustainability of the government estate.

However, GGC and ESG differ in that the focus of the GGC is not only on departments’ operations but also on how public bodies interact with citizens and businesses. For example, new procurement legislation ensures that prospective suppliers bidding for government contracts above £5m per year must have committed to the UK government's net zero target with a published carbon reduction plan.

Reporting to drive action

Tackling sustainability reporting can be daunting, and the compulsory element adds pressure. In the civil service, operational targets are reported quarterly, and procurement and transparency commitments on an annual basis. Achieving the net zero target by 2050 has been incorporated into obligations, and permanent secretaries and chief executives are accountable for their delivery, and for compliance with performance management and reporting requirements. Naturally, the publication of departmental performance league tables keeps everyone on their toes. But what should you track and how?

According to management thinker Peter Drucker, you can't know whether you are making progress unless milestones and targets are defined and tracked. When it comes to monitoring your carbon footprint, everything from water and energy consumption to the plastic cutlery, printing output, commute and retrofitting energy-hungry buildings should be on the radar.

A practical approach

As public sector organisations strive to keep on track and accountable about their contribution to net zero targets, accurate and verifiable sustainability reporting is essential. At Rio, we believe that net zero strategy, carbon reporting, and target setting should be straightforward and powered by quality sustainability data. And we believe that democratising this best practice process is possible with our intelligent and accessible sustainability software.

Achieving net zero targets set by the Scottish and UK governments is an ongoing journey, and the clock is ticking. The first steps are the toughest, and they must be fit for purpose. We’re committed to working with suppliers and end-users to improve the quality of sustainability data so that everyone can make informed decisions and develop effective strategies.

Our technology has been built with transparency as a cornerstone.  Making it clear how data points are calculated and how they inform conclusions and recommendations. This approach combats greenwashing – we believe the illusion of sustainability without concrete strategies or accountability is deceptive to citizens and hinders progress.

We also believe that learning is fundamental to sustainability and that quality educational materials are a powerful tool to drive positive change. Building on our experience with helping hundreds of organisations to track sustainability data, report on ESG, manage systems and policies, and learn to become more sustainable, we have created a 10-step guide to walk you through the practical, actionable steps to get started on the path to becoming net zero.

Download 10 Steps to Net Zero.

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