Greening the way: CSW explores government progress on sustainability targets

The government has attempted to demonstrate the path to a greener future through its Greening Government Commitments. How far has it got?
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By Mark Rowe

30 Oct 2023

For the best part of a decade, the civil service has sought to set the national tone on sustainability with its in-house actions. Through a series of targets known as the Greening Government Commitments, 22 governmental departments and their arms-length bodies are aiming to reduce environmental impacts from water consumption, landfill waste and business flights and increase carbon-cutting measures across the civil estate, from offices to warehouses and prisons.

The GGCs are part of the government’s 25-year plan to improve the environment and achieve net zero by 2050. This is something of a challenge: with more than 400,000 staff across the UK and producing almost 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year, the civil service’s carbon footprint is similar to that of Sheffield’s. NHS emissions alone are equivalent to 4% of England’s total carbon footprint.

Targets running up to 2021 were set by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, the department which had overall responsibility for net zero, in negotiation with departments. But responsibility for the GGC framework, which includes overall and departmental targets, sits with Defra. Just to keep everyone on their toes, departmental performance league tables are published annually. The Office of Government Property runs the Cross-Government Sustainability Board, where GGC best practice is shared.

The most recent data, for 2020-21, were published this spring. Defra says figures are not wholly representative of government performance because Covid-19 involved re-purposing office space and redeploying staff. However, it’s worth noting that reporting compliance was far from universal before the pandemic. In 2018-19, only nine of 21 departments fully met all the emissions elements of the Treasury’s mandatory sustainability reporting requirements. A spokesperson for the NAO, which monitors GGC performance, said that “while most central government bodies were measuring some of their emissions, full compliance with the emissions elements of HM Treasury’s sustainability reporting requirements was low”.

They added that even in 2022 there were “areas of central government that had not been granted exemptions by Defra [but] had not reported data for the GGCs.” Three departments – Cabinet Office, DHSC and Department for Education - did not disclose any data in 2019-20 nor 20-21. Defra says it is in the process of reviewing exemption records in order to close these reporting gaps and it maintains that, even allowing for fewer transport emissions as people worked from home for extended periods, GGC data are still meaningful (they confirmed that work from home data was not factored into the GGC report but could not say why this was the case).

Defra was unable to specify when the 2021-22 data would be published, only that this would be “later this year”. Philip Dunne, chair of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, says GGC reports should be published more speedily: “The two-year delay between the end of the reporting year and publication may indicate that compliance and reporting are not a high priority for government.” He suggested that establishing a board- or ministerial-level champion for the Commitments, with a remit to demand accountability and drive improvement, “might be the best incentive for improving performance”.

Target progress

Headline achievements for 2020-21 include an overall 51% reduction in waste going to landfill compared to 19/20; and government reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 57% from the baseline year of 2009/10, exceeding a 43% reduction target. Collectively, GGCs saved an estimated £193m in 20-21. A Defra spokesperson acknowledged that it was “unclear whether all the reduction in emissions is wholly attributable to action [UK government departments have taken]. It is possible that Covid-19 restrictions also reduced building energy use”.

The proportion of total emissions generated by each department in 20-21 remains similar to previous financial years. The Ministry of Defence (53.7%) and Ministry of Justice (20.8%) collectively accounted for most GHG emissions, followed by Department for Transport (5.8%) and Department for Work and Pensions (5.2%). The biggest volume reduction was achieved by the MoD, which used 700,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) in 20-21 compared to 1.4m tonnes in 09/10. Due to lockdowns, domestic flight use dropped significantly – by 96% – in 20-21 compared to the 09-10 baseline.

Defra argues that, since this exceeded the 30% reduction target against 09-10, genuine reductions were made within departments. Just three departments failed to reduce flights by at least 90%: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (70 %), the Law Officers’ Department (81%) and the National Crime Agency (50%). The NCA accounted for 26% of all departmental business flights. A Defra spokesperson said this was explained by the NCA’s “greater need for essential in-person working”.

Departments collectively cut paper use by 80% against the baseline year, exceeding the 50% reduction target; all 19 of the departments that reported exceeded this 50% target. Before merging with the FCO, the Department for International Development had effectively achieved paperless status, recording a 100% reduction, having used 16,000 A4 equivalent reams of paper in 09-10. The shift to cleaner vehicles in the government fleet, however, continues to hit bumps in the road. The target of 25% of the fleet to be ultra-low emissions vehicles (ULEVs) by 2022 – rising to 100% by 2027 – was comfortably missed, the collective 20-21 figure being 12.5% (up from 7.6% in 19-20). “We are unable to make predictions about whether the UK government will collectively meet the target,” admitted a Defra spokesperson.

More positively, 18 out of 21 departments met the target of reducing waste to 10% against the 09-10 baseline and they collectively sent just 8% of waste to landfill. While seven departments sent no waste to landfill, the MoJ, Defra and DfT missed the target. Defra says 95% of its landfill waste comes from treated national park timber and old fencing for which no recycling option is available. The MoJ figures were affected by the closure of prison industry waste recycling facilities during the pandemic.

Water use targets are set internally by departments and collectively they reduced water consumption by 14% from a 2014-15 baseline. Reduction in water use has saved £10.4m compared to volumes used in 09-10. The MoJ was the only department that saw water consumption increase – by two percentage points from 2019-20). A Defra spokesperson attributed this to leaks arising from the prison water infrastructure “occasionally failing”. The MoD and MoJ together account for 93.7% of government water consumption, with the MoD alone guzzling 66%.

Other reporting requirements included procurement and transparency in reporting steps towards climate change adaptation, biodiversity and the natural environment. These could charitably be said to be embryonic. In 20-21, only 11 out of 22 departments reported against the transparency commitment and just six of the 10 departments that reported had a written sustainable procurement policy in place. Again, Defra attributes this to some extent to the reprioritisation of staff during the pandemic. A Defra spokesperson said that permanent secretaries and chief executives were responsible for enforcing compliance but declined to confirm whether or not sanctions or penalties were imposed for failure to report or meet targets.

In a 2022 review of GGCs, the NAO gave the process a mixed report card. While it praised what it called “a broadly stable framework”, it observed that “the government’s GGCs do not provide a complete picture of progress made by the public sector in reducing its emissions.” It also identified “inconsistencies” in which bodies are and are not reporting within the GGC framework, and “patchy compliance” with the Treasury’s reporting guidance. 

A wider ranging challenge, the NAO concluded, is that while prisons are included (under the MOJ), GGCs “do not apply to public sector organisations beyond central government departments and their immediate partner organisations”. Emissions from the wider public sector – for example, hospitals, schools and local authorities – are outside the scope of GGCs and there is no equivalent process in place. 

"We recommend that government ensure that appropriate emissions data is reported from the whole public sector,” said a spokesperson for the NAO, adding that co-ordination at the centre of government should be strengthened on measurement and reporting of emissions, “so that it ensures clear lines of accountability and responsibility to improve this process across the public sector”.

Dunne says, however that any benefits of expanding the remit of GGCs were unclear. “There may well be merit in establishing expectations for sustainability in bodies not directly controlled by central government which are aligned with the Greening Government Commitments,” he said, “but it is important to focus on the overall goal of improvements in sustainability rather than creating administrative burdens which might complicate progress.”

The NAO report added that, while it was for government to decide the scope of particular commitments, “given that it has set decarbonisation goals for public sector as a whole, it should review the adequacy of wider measurement and reporting practices beyond the boundaries of GGC, to ensure that appropriate data is being collected to be able to track progress against these goals”.

At the time of its 2022 review, the spokesperson added, the NAO found that the business department did not know whether the GGC targets would, in aggregate, deliver reductions consistent with a trajectory to achieve net zero by 2050. It also noted that BEIS had made little use of the emissions data reported by public bodies.

The NAO said that greening government reporting and other related accounts data were not being considered by any of the cross-government committees overseeing net zero. To address this, the NAO recommended that the department with responsibility for GCC targets – at that time BEIS – should work with other departments to “ensure that the shorter-term GGC targets are sufficiently aligned with the longer-term decarbonisation goals”.

The current disconnect was also identified by Dunne. “It would be helpful to see a more explicit linkage between the GGCs and the Net Zero Strategy’s objectives and goals,” he said. “This comes back to issues of leadership and example-setting. The commitment to make all government vehicles emission-free by December 2027 is laudable: so why are ministers not telling the public that by that date the government fleet is expected to be 100% ULEVs, well before the 2030 deadline for ending sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles?”

Departments are now working towards new goals outlined in the 2021-2025 GGC Framework (published in December 2022), which recalibrated the baseline to 2017-18 and set out the overarching aim of “mitigating climate change and working towards net zero by 2050” (although when these goals were published BEIS said there was “no expectation” that individual organisations or departments should set themselves a net zero target).

Outcomes include a requirement to reduce emissions from domestic business flights by at least 30% by 2025 from the new baseline; increase the proportion of waste recycled to at least 70%; and reduce water consumption by at least 8%. Targets are more granular, with a requirement to report distances travelled by international business flights.

More complex demands are being imposed, with new measures on biodiversity and climate adaptation. Departments are required to develop and deliver Nature Recovery Plans and integrate biodiversity considerations into all relevant service areas and functions, such as tree planting, woodland cover and pollinator-friendly habitat. They must conduct a Climate Change Risk Assessment across their estates and operations to identify areas that are most exposed – and then produce plans about how they will respond to these risks. For the first time departments must also reduce environmental impacts from ICT and digital services and deliver an annual ICT and digital footprint and best practice data for each department and their partner organisations.

Perhaps learning from experience of previous GGC targets and frameworks, where achievement sometimes appeared to depend on how enthusiastic or committed individuals within departments were, the framework says departments should establish clear lines of accountability for climate adaptation in estates and operations.

The new baselines and targets have been welcomed by Dunne. “The refreshed GGCs for 2021-25 represent a better alignment with the government’s overall ambitions and statutory obligations,” he said. “The strengthening of the GGC framework and the introduction of a specific natural recovery target is welcome – these ought in principle to be stretching, to ensure that the progress made has genuine impact.”

However, Dunne fired a warning shot across all departments, saying that Covid-19 was no longer an excuse for feet dragging: “The initial test will come with the GGC report for 2021-22, which we certainly expect to see published well before April 2024.” 

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