Greening Government Commitments: How is Defra getting on?

Up-to-date data showing progress with the Greening Government Commitments is currently only available for one department, Defra. CSW takes a look at what headway it has made
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By Tevye Markson

19 Apr 2024

The latest State of the Estate report, published today by the Cabinet Office, shows progress has been made in several areas towards reducing the government’s environmental impact.

But the report contains only limited information on progress with the Greening Government Commitments. Several targets are missing from the report and no department-by-department data is provided. Only one department has continued to publish its progress: the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. So, how is the department doing?

Firstly, what are the Greening Government Commitments and why is Defra the only one who has published its performance?

Through a series of targets known as the Greening Government Commitments, 22 government departments and their arms-length bodies are aiming to reduce environmental impacts across the civil service estate from activities such as water consumption, greenhouse-gas emissions, waste and business flights.

The latest framework sets aims for each department for 2021-2025, with organisations being asked to make improvements against their baseline in 2017-18.

However, reporting on progress with these targets is way behind schedule – the most recent government-wide update was published in March 2023 and is for 2020-21, the last year of the previous Greening Government Commitments Framework.

Defra is in charge of publishing annual reports on whole-of-government progress, which include department-by-department data. It has blamed Covid-19 disruption for this and says the 2021-22 report will land in the first half of 2024 and the 2022-23 report will also be published later this year.

Meanwhile, Defra has continued to give regular updates on its own progress with the sustainability commitments, meaning it is currently the only organisation whose progress can be tracked. Its latest update, published last week, shows its performance from January to December 2023.

So, how is it doing?

Defra’s latest update on its progress in achieving environmental targets reveals a mixed picture, with some commitments on track, some going in the wrong direction and others looking difficult to achieve by the March 2025 target date.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions reductions is the headline target, with two commitments set for departments: direct and total emissions. Defra has reduced its direct emissions by 13%, which is not far off its target of 15%.

But its total overall emissions – which includes transport emissions and emissions from grid electricity use in addition to direct emissions from the estate and operations – have only gone down by 27%, way off the target of 50%.

Waste

The department has made significant progress in reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfill and increasing the amount that is recycled.

Around 7% of waste is now going to landfill, compared to 13% in 2017-18. There is still some way to go to reach the target of less than 5% of waste ending up in landfill.

And Defra’s recycle rate is now 67% – not far short of its 70% goal. In 2017-18, its recycling rate was 52%.

Despite this, its total waste has increased by 44% against a targeted reduction of 15%.

Changes to how waste is calculated have contributed to the rise: in 2017 the baseline figure didn't include waste removed from rivers as part of Defra's operational maintenance, but current figures do include this type of waste, in a bid to provide a more complete picture.

There was also a general increase in waste post pandemic due to increased staff numbers and increased visitor numbers to national parks, forests and Kew Gardens, while waste has also risen at Defra’s large laboratories due to increased operational requirements, CSW understands.

Paper, planes and water

Reduction in paper use is one of the biggest successes so far, down by 80% against a target of 50%, while flight emissions are down by 41% compared to a goal of 30%. Water use is also on track, dropping by 20% against a target of 8%.

What role has a rising headcount had on progress?

As well as the aforementioned reasons for waste levels going in the wrong direction, Defra's headcount has grown significantly since 2017-18, which has had an impact on some of the targets.

The department's full-time equivalent headcount has risen from 7,210 in March 2018 to 12,375 in December 2023, an increase of 72%.

The change in the workforce was picked out by a spokesperon for Defra when CSW asked why some targets were off-track.

The Defra spokesperson told CSW: "Our workforce and operational requirement have changed significantly since the Greening Government Commitments Framework was published, but we are committed to building on the substantial progress we have made.

“This includes increasing the use of electric vehicles by Defra staff and heat pumps in our facilities to help us deliver on our environmental targets.”

They added: “We take our environmental responsibilities seriously, and since 2010, have reduced our carbon emissions by 49%, our domestic flights by 32% and our paper use by 69%."

How does this progress compare to the government-wide figures set out in today's 2022-23 State of the Estate report?

Greenhouse gas emissions: The government’s overall greenhouse gas emissions have reduced by 38% compared to the 2017-18 baseline, while direct emissions have reduced by 12%. The government-wide target for this is separate to the GGCs, with the government's net zero strategy setting a goal for the government to reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2032. 

Waste: The government-wide target of reducing total waste by 15% was exceeded, with waste levels decreasing by 16%. The report also states that 15 departments met or exceeded the 15% target. The government also met the target of sending no more than 5% of waste was sent to landfill. Only 51% of government waste was recycled, however, falling short of the 75% target.

Water: The report finds slow government-wide progress in reducing water consumption –it dropped by 5%, falling short of its 8% target. The reductions in water use saved the government an estimated £3 million compared with the 2017-18 baseline, according to report.

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