Stronger leadership needed to support public-sector emissions work, says NAO

Lack of central guidance partly to blame for inconsistencies in how greenhouse gas emissions are reported, watchdog says
Government has committed to reducing greenhouse gases to net zero by 2050. Photo: Adobe Stock

By Tevye Markson

15 Jun 2022

Central government needs to provide better leadership to help public bodies report on their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the public spending watchdog has warned.

There are inconsistencies and a risk of duplication in how departments and their partner organisations measure and report on reductions in emissions because of a lack of a single central source of guidance, according to the National Audit Office.

Improving this will require active leadership from the centre of government to strengthen the management of the regime, an NAO's report on measuring and reporting public sector greenhouse gas emissions found.

While public bodies have made progress in reducing their emissions – with government reporting a 50% overall drop in greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 to 2020 – inconsistencies in how progress is reported mean public bodies may not be making the best value-for-money decisions, the NAO said.

NAO head Gareth Davies said the situation is at odds with government’s ambitions for the public sector to lead by example during the transition to net zero.

“Public bodies face the challenge of navigating various greenhouse gas emissions reporting frameworks without a central source of government guidance,” he said. “Government now needs to strengthen its leadership and establish a clear standard for the entire public sector to meet.”

Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier said the report shows a worrying lack of central direction over how public sector bodies should report their emissions.

“Guidance is muddled and confusing, and the lack of clarity means reporting is a real mixed bag,” Hillier said.

“Good data leads to good decisions, yet some public sector bodies are not using the information to understand the true cost of decarbonising. Without it, they can’t know how to get the most bang for their buck.

“The path to net zero will be difficult enough, so government needs to better light the way.”

The government has committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But no single department is responsible for the framework for measuring and reporting progress in reducing public-sector emissions.

Currently, government departments and their partner organisations agree targets with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to reduce their emissions through Greening Government Commitments.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has responsibility for GGCs, while BEIS leads on net zero and emissions-related aspects of the commitments.

The Treasury meanwhile sets sustainability reporting requirements for annual reports and accounts. The Cabinet Office also publishes guidance, adding further layers of reporting methods.

Some public bodies have found the range of guidance challenging to navigate, leading to significant variation in how they have measured and reported emissions, the NAO said.

It said there are also inconsistencies in which bodies are and are not reporting within the GGC framework, and added that compliance with the Treasury’s Sustainability Reporting Guidance is patchy.

In 2018-19, only nine of 21 government departments fully met HMT's reporting requirements in their annual report and accounts.

The watchdog said the inconsistencies “mirror a lack of coherence in the oversight and support provided by the centre of government” on the measurement and reporting of public sector emissions.

Public sector bodies need better and more consistent data to understand the likely costs of delivering their decarbonisation targets and effectively prioritise action and investment focused on reducing emissions, the report said.

BEIS, Defra and the Treasury should work together to streamline measurement and reporting guidance, it added.

A government spokesperson said: “The NAO themselves recognise the progress we’ve made in cutting emissions from the central government estate in half since 2010, but we agree there is always more to do.

“That’s why we are awarding £2.5bn to help cut emissions from public buildings such as schools and hospitals, as we make a strong and concerted effort to reduce emissions from all public buildings by 75% by 2037.

“This is on top of our wider efforts to increase our use of home-grown energy such as renewables, increasing our energy security while meeting our net-zero ambitions.”

The government said it has committed to providing clear guidance to public bodies on measuring and reporting on emissions, but did not give a date for when this will happen.

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