UK public sector sustainability priorities for 2017

As we come up towards our annual Public Sector Conference, I usually take a moment to reflect on the year gone by and the progress made in in the UK, as well as the challenges that will exist in the coming year.

There is no doubt that 2017 is going to be an interesting year. There is a sense of upheaval, where the established way of doing things is being shaken up. There have been grand decisions and momentous changes, both within the UK and around the world. The knock-on consequences from these have become the subject of considerable debate, but essentially remain uncertain. However, that has not changed the case for continuing to drive sustainability through the UK’s public sector.

First the good news. Even in the context of political shifts, the Climate Change Act remains a touchstone for policymakers. It is explicitly enshrined within Britain’s new industrial strategy. The Committee on Climate Change has confirmed that it is in line with obligations under the now-ratified Paris Agreement. The UK’s fifth carbon budget was brought into force, setting goals through to 2032. And the government’s emissions reduction plan to deliver on it is expected by March.

There is also no doubt that there has been really positive progress in delivering emissions reductions over the last few years. Overall UK emissions continue to fall and are now 38 percent below 1990 levels, dropping by an average of 4.5 percent a year since 2012.

But here is where the story gets more complicated. Because those reductions are mostly a result of the transformation of the power sector, particularly the shift away from coal generation. Looking beyond electricity, huge challenges remain in reducing emissions from buildings, putting in place a low carbon transportation infrastructure, and meeting our demand for heat in a clean and sustainable way. And these are all areas where the public sector has a significant role to play.

In some areas there are clear indications that the public sector is doing well (or at least better than others). One clear example is the fact that public sector buildings appear to be considerably more efficient in their energy use than commercial counterparts.

Public sector organisations are also demonstrating bold ambition on sustainability. For example, higher education institutions in England are making admirable progress towards their collective 38 percent emissions reduction goal between 2005 and 2020, as coordinated by HEFCE. And 17 out of 22 central government departments met or exceeded the Greening the Government targets set under the coalition, helping to cut emissions from their estate and business-related transport by 22 percent between 2010 and 2015.

But now onto some of the bad news. There is a big question about whether there has been some backsliding on the progress we have made to date. Although more than a third of UK councils are signed up to the Local Government Association’s Climate Local initiative – encouraging emissions reductions and greater resilience to the increased risk of climate-related impacts such as flooding – in March 2016 it was announced that support on these issues would be reduced.

Councils have been instrumental in driving greater domestic energy efficiency and the development of low carbon heat. But between 2013 and 2015 annual rates of cavity wall insulation were down 60 percent from where they were in 2008 to 2012. Over the same period loft insulation rates fell by 90 percent. And heat pumps and district heating schemes met less than half a percent of the UK’s total heat demand in 2015.

So what needs to be done? In simple terms it is a matter of shifting investment. Because major public sector decisions often have an impact that lasts for decades. So high carbon finance needs to slow, while low carbon finance needs to flow. Practically this means that local governments, universities and other public bodies need to get better at making the case for investment into the low carbon transition. They need to clearly understand how it can directly benefit the people, communities and businesses they serve.

One part of this is getting better at communicating in a post-truth world, showing why alternative facts are not necessarily the real story. Explaining that the shift to low carbon transportation systems leads to cleaner air and healthier children. That insulation schemes and minimum energy efficiency standards are a key part of creating warmer, better homes that take families out of fuel poverty. That the low carbon transition drives inward investment from the industries of the future, such as the thousands of new jobs created in deprived areas of the North East thanks to the development of offshore wind farms. Or that new, low carbon energy and heat schemes can create a secure long-term source of revenue to benefit communities over decades.

It also goes without saying that the public sector will need to be instrumental in helping us to adapt to the physical risks posed by climate change, especially local authorities and the NHS. Globally 2016 was by some distance the warmest year on record, and the government’s recent UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 highlights the challenges in detail. Organisations will need to be prepared to address issues like increased incidents of flooding, or the health and wellbeing impacts that can be caused by heatwaves. This is an emerging area where many have not yet put in place a clear local strategy. But this will become increasing important, as people begin to viscerally experience the effects more frequently in years to come.

Taking everything into account, significant swathes of the public sector have performed admirably on sustainability over the past few years, often operating under conditions that have been less than ideal. However, with public sector resources becoming stretched and a focus put on delivering short-term priorities – not least the exit from the European Union – sustainability seems to be getting pushed further down the agenda.

Organisations can and should be doing more. Levels of actions are still well below what is needed to achieve what the best available science tells us will be needed to meet the environmental challenges we face, both as a country and a planet. And there are still plenty of win-win actions where environmental improvements go hand-in-hand with efficiency savings or better service delivery. The priority for 2017 needs to be keeping sustainability a priority, alongside everything else happening in what will doubtless be a historic year.