By Mark Rowe

22 Nov 2019

Leading the way on combatting climate change could easily be an all-consuming task for the civil service, in the absence of other priorities. In the first of a two-part feature, Mark Rowe looks at how departments are getting their own houses in order

The Extinction Rebellion protests that paralysed parts of central London this autumn drew on frustration with the perception that the government was not taking climate change seriously. In stopping traffic flow around Whitehall, however, it could be said they were taking aim at the wrong target. For it is fair to say that the civil service, by and large, is leading by example.

Under an initiative launched in 2014, known as Greening Government Commitments (GGC), everything from departments’ number of flights and water consumption to plastic cutlery, paperless operations and retrofitting beautiful Grade I listed – but energy-hungry – buildings has come under the spotlight.

Energy and carbon-reduction targets apply to 22 central government departments and non-ministerial departments and their arm’s length bodies. Operational targets – for greenhouse gases, flights, waste, water and paper – are reported quarterly; procurement and transparency commitments on an annual basis. In an indication of the seriousness with which the GGC are taken, permanent secretaries and chief executives are accountable for their delivery and for compliance with performance management and reporting requirements. Just to keep everyone on their toes, departmental performance league tables are published annually.


The challenge was – and remains – substantial. With more than 400,000 staff across the UK, and producing almost two million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, the civil service’s collective energy use is equivalent to that of a small city or Heathrow Airport.

The latest data indicates that the need to reduce, re-use and recycle has been taken on board. The first emissions reduction targets, set against a 2009-2010 baseline, were met three years early, in 2016-2017. Mindful of the charge that these targets involved too much low-hanging fruit (getting staff to walk upstairs rather than using the lift; turning off lights and computers when leaving the office), the GGC were beefed up by a cross-departmental approach led by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Cabinet Office.

According to Defra, more stretching targets now aim to collectively reduce emissions against the 2009-2010 baseline by 43% by 2020. This includes: a reduction in the number of domestic business flights by at least 30%; all departments to operate at least 25% of their vehicles as zero or low emissions by 2022; reducing the amount of waste going to landfill to less than 10%; cutting government paper use by at least 50% by 2020; and, says Defra, the aim of “achieving the best long-term overall value for money for society”.

Further targets require “a majority of departments” to have a specific sustainable procurement policy and for this to be subjected to supply-chain scrutiny. They must also report publicly on steps they take towards providing sustainable food and catering, and sustainable construction.

The Government Digital Service, with its drive for more paperless operations and greater efficiency, forms part of this wider picture of greening efforts. A Defra-chaired Sustainable Technology Advice and Reporting (STAR) team owns and delivers the Greening Government ICT Strategy and associated reporting. The use of e-conferencing and unified audio and data communications are intended to reduce paper, travel and greenhouse gas emissions.

In this context, Defra’s latest annual report, published in May and covering the year 2017-2018, makes encouraging reading for most departments. Overall, government reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 39% and waste by 40% compared to the 2009-10 baseline. Departments took 28% fewer domestic flights and used 10% less water. They recycled 60% of waste and diverted 87% of all waste from landfill.

The combined savings from reduced energy consumption, waste and water were £150m. Fourteen departments have made reductions in emissions of 50% or more since 2009-10.

So which departments have achieved the greatest emissions reductions and which remain too gas-guzzling for comfort? The May 2019 report shows that the Treasury reduced its emissions by 75% against the 2009-2010 baseline; followed by the Food Standards Agency (69%) and the Law Officers’ Department (also 69%). Other departmental reductions include the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (60%), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (57%), Cabinet Office (51%), the Department for International Development (50%) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (49%).

Towards the bottom of the table were the Home Office (44%), Defra (41%) and the Department for Transport (35%). Two departments account for 70% of all government emissions: the MoD (942,000 tonnes of CO2 annually, or 50% of all emissions) and the Ministry of Justice (371,000 tonnes, or 20% of all emissions).

However, on flights, progress has been mixed, with 11 out of the 22 departments performing worse in 2018-2019 than in 2016-17. Five departments (DCMS, DfID, the Foreign Office, the National Crime Agency and the Office for National Statistics) reported more domestic flights than in the baseline year. For BEIS, the figures were even more embarrassing: officials took more than 4,500 domestic business flights in the last financial year, according to its annual report. The number of flights taken the year before was fewer than 2,700. BEIS says that the department’s total greenhouse gas emissions, including flights, fell below 22,700 tonnes of carbon in the last financial year, down from more than 30,300 tonnes the year before.

“Targets pose different challenges to different departments, depending on their operations and scale. A balance is struck in having challenging yet achievable targets” Defra spokesperson

Defra says that an increase in headcount explains its increase but that it has now implemented a group-wide policy to cut flights, with a staff member appointed to champion the policy.

“The GGC take into account the fact that targets pose different challenges to different departments, depending on their operations and scale,” says a spokesperson for Defra, which oversees the greenhouse gas emissions reports.

“Some departments will deliver reductions more quickly than others. In creating the targets, a balance is struck in having challenging yet achievable targets for the government as a whole.”

The reason why the MoD and MoJ have such high emissions is, the spokesperson says, that they have the largest estates – the MoD data includes barracks, airfields, naval bases and ports; the MoJ’s includes 117 prisons. Elsewhere, other mitigating factors, they say, are that much of DfID’s operations are based in Scotland so require related travel; and that HMRC’s flight record takes into account a need for face-to-face meetings in both Northern Ireland and the mainland.

It is easy to underestimate the difficulty of achieving meaningful behavioural change. Within the walls of Whitehall, the GGC and its various previous incarnations have derisively been referred to as “SOGE” (pronounced “soggy”) targets, the acronym representing Sustainable Operations on the Government Estate.

Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, recalls how, during her time at Defra, a recycling drive meant bins were removed from underneath people’s desks. “It was the climate change staff at Defra who protested the most,” she says. “They thought this was somehow beneath them.”

Best practice is being shared between departments. The Foreign Office established a baseline of its single-use plastics waste (3.45m items a year) and has reduced its use of avoidable single-use plastic in the UK by more than 90% by sourcing biodegradable alternatives to plastic cutlery and food containers. Other measures widely implemented across most departments include motion sensors for meeting room lights; removing all single-side printing; and using green-default features for PCs, monitors, faxes and printers. Some departments have appointed energy wardens to disseminate best practice.

Defra points to the Reuse of Government Assets pilot scheme as an example of cross-departmental co-operation. The scheme, which went live in April 2016, enabled a number of departments and agencies to manage surplus office furniture and equipment sustainably. This used the digital platform WARP-IT (Waste Action Reuse Portal) to advertise unwanted assets for free. By the end of the pilot scheme, this was estimated to have saved departments more than £103,000 in procurement costs, diverted 26 tonnes from landfill and saved 55 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Several departments continue to use WARP-IT to prevent usable items going to waste.

Heating and the general efficiency of older buildings is more problematic. Last year, a Freedom of Information request by the BBC found that four of the 11 offices leased by BEIS received the lowest energy rating – G – under the European energy lable scheme. The Environment Agency has, according to its own submissions to GGC, made sure “heating isn’t on too much” but on a more high-tech level has retrofitted rainwater harvesters, low-flush toilets, waterless urinals, low-flow showers and infra-red activated spray taps in its offices.

The Defra spokesperson points out that for listed buildings, “it was necessary to investigate a range of options that would be cost effective and not negatively impact on the listed status”. The Re:Fit programme – a public sector procurement initiative supported by BEIS – is being used to retrofit buildings, including some listed buildings. This guarantees public bodies financial savings from energy-efficiency. Defra increased the efficiency of its buildings in 2017-18 as part of an energy-performance contract arranged via the Re:Fit programme. At Defra, lighting retrofits in four buildings alone are estimated to be saving the department £78,000 per year, while solar power in nine locations will save an estimated £45,000. Improved building-management systems in four premises will save £26,000. In total, the works will save almost 460 tonnes of CO2 every year.

New builds are less problematic. HMRC’s first regional centre, which opened in Croydon in 2017, has a green roof to ease the burden on drainage (left) and enhance biodiversity, a solar photovoltaic array to provide renewable energy, and heat-recovery systems to recycle and capture heat from other parts of the building.

The targets amount to more than in-house bragging rights, according to the IfG’s Rutter. “Do these targets make a bunch of difference in the real world? Not much,” she says. “But are they helpful? Yes. One of the biggest complaints that government gets is that it doesn’t do as it says. Whenever you are trying to lead by example it is good to have some sort of leverage.”

The in-house response to such initiatives can also inform policy, she adds. “You learn about people’s behaviour, about why they don’t sign up to an idea. League tables are quite powerful. People don’t like being at the bottom of them.” Under-performing departments should be having conversations with the best ones and asking them how they did it. “Even if people don’t care much about the environment,” Rutter says, “you surely want to be efficient as that gives you more spare money for other projects.”

Read the second part of this feature, looking at how government will need a cross government approach on climate change policy to meet ministerial targets, here

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