Over the past five years it has often been repeated that the current government is aiming to be the UK’s greenest government ever. Over the same period we have seen a focus on austerity result in cuts to public sector budgets and jobs, which has directly impacted on the amount of resource and support available for improving environmental performance.
So where has this left the public sector in its own drive for sustainability? And are they playing their part in helping to meet the UK’s ambitions on reducing carbon emissions, tackling climate change, and addressing the challenges of resource scarcity?
There are reasons to be optimistic that the public sector is doing better than ever before. A survey of delegates at the Carbon Trust’s Public Sector Conference, held in association with GE Lighting at the Barbican last week, found that 87 percent of public sector sustainability professionals believe their organisation is more environmentally sustainable today than it was five years ago, with 40 percent saying it is a lot more sustainable. Support levels remain high as well, with more than two-thirds of respondents saying their organisation is more committed to sustainability.
The event was the 11th annual Public Sector Conference and interest is at an all-time high. With over 220 different public sector organisations attending – including local authorities, NHS bodies, universities, emergency services, and central government departments – it was the largest gathering of its kind ever hosted by the Carbon Trust.
Perhaps more significantly – unlike the first few conferences we hosted – almost all the organisations attending have staff with specific responsibility for sustainability, long term carbon management plans in place, and a number of environmentally beneficial projects underway.
Without a doubt we have come a long way in the past decade. But this positive news needs to be greeted with a note of caution.
We know from the Carbon Trust’s own experience that the fact things are still continuing in the right direction is a testament to the dedication and capability of public sector sustainability professionals. Alongside challenging conditions many have found ways of doing more with less, maintaining momentum to follow through with existing five-year carbon management plans.
However at the same time a lack of resource is preventing a number of high quality invest-to-save projects from being implemented, as the focus is maintained on delivering frontline services and reducing administrative burdens. This means that some compelling opportunities to make our public sector more efficient are being missed.
Since 2001 the Carbon Trust has worked with over 3,000 British public sector bodies to identify more than £2.8 billion in lifetime savings through carbon reduction projects with positive paybacks and making use of proven technologies. Over £700 million in savings has been achieved so far, but there is a lot further to go.
Unsurprisingly in an era of austerity, issues related to budget and internal sign-off continue to be the biggest obstacles to projects that can improve environmental performance. The majority of respondents to our survey put these as the greatest barriers to progress. In addition a quarter of respondents felt that a lack of internal knowledge and skills was also a major issue.
The incoming government in May could accelerate the progress that is being made in public sector by helping to unlock the value in sustainability. This can be done by refining policy and increasing the amount of public resource dedicated to improving efficiency and reducing waste.
For example, we know that mandatory carbon reporting requirements and the new Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme are already proving to be effective in driving energy efficiency in the private sector. These could be extended to the public sector to drive progress and delivery similar improvements.
Similarly we know that Display Energy Certificates are currently doing a lot of good in keeping energy efficiency as a priority in public buildings. The current government consultation looking into loosening these requirements risks undermining current progress.
We need to make sure that the current trends in public sector sustainability remain on an upward trajectory over the long term. The action we are seeing today is the result of ongoing momentum built up over many years, which may slow down or slip back downhill unless incentives and support mechanisms are stepped up.
The new DECC Heat Network Delivery Unit, set up to help local authorities develop cost and carbon saving district energy schemes, is a very good example of how government can effectively support public sector sustainability and catalyse action.
We probably do have our greenest public sector ever, but it is absolutely critical for the incoming government, whoever it may be, to keep things going in the right direction and at the right pace. This will allow us to create a UK public sector that is more efficient to the taxpayer and better for the planet.