Where next for public sector sustainability in the UK?


Britain’s public sector is facing two major challenges. There is a struggle to find operational efficiencies in delivering services today, a need to do more with less. And there is a need to show leadership and take immediate action on climate change and wider sustainability issues, which will have a big impact on Britain and the rest of the world as this century progresses.

On 18 March, the Carbon Trust hosted our annual Public Sector Conference at the Royal Society. The event brought together sustainability leaders from around 200 public sector organisations, with the opportunity to share their own experiences and solutions.

What emerged from the event is that there will be three big trends in public sector sustainability in the coming year. These are: local area leadership; going from local impact to global impact; and cutting costs through energy and resource efficiency.

Local area leadership

The public sector has an important leadership role in enabling the urgent action needed on climate change and energy use. This is particularly true for local authorities, where the Committee on Climate Change has recognised the crucial part they have to play in influencing emissions in buildings, surface transport and waste, that together represent 40% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions.

But other public bodies also have a key role. NHS trusts in particular have a role to play in encouraging healthier, lower carbon lifestyles for example. And universities and colleges have a huge role to play in terms of developing the skills needed to enable the transition to a low carbon economy, and in encouraging low carbon innovators and start-ups.

More broadly, the public sector sits at the heart of local communities, and should look beyond the impact of its direct operations to the wider picture. Public bodies can help mobilise local residents, community groups, sources of finance, and businesses to enable the implementation of transformational projects such as district heating and enabling low carbon cities.

As owners of public land there are also opportunities to implement renewables energy projects that can generate clean energy and provide community benefits. The Carbon Trust has helped to enable this with one of our enterprises, Partnership for Renewables. For example, Caerphilly council is generating £250,000 for community projects over the lifetime of two wind turbines built at Oakdale Business Park.

Cities such as Glasgow are thinking big, creating the Sustainable Glasgow partnership with local higher education institutions and industry. The partnership aims to deliver economic growth, improve liveability and deal with social issues, such as fuel poverty, through a focus on sustainability. A number of cities are starting to realise the benefits in going green on a city-wide scale, with Bristol already named European Green Capital for 2015 in recognition of these efforts.

Going from local impact to global impact

The world is getting smaller. Links are being forged around the world to share ideas and best practice. This is enabling the innovative application of new technologies, such as networked street lighting, greater knowledge transfer and sharing of best practice, and economies of scale for technology innovation. There is an increasingly prominent role for organisations that act as a broker for this sharing, such as ICLEI and the C40.

Climate change is a global issue, so collaboration between organisations, sectors and states is crucial. Here the UK is recognised as a leader in terms of what it has already achieved on climate change, and the UK experience is being exported around the world. Cities like Leeds and Manchester are already acting as sustainability mentors to foreign cities. The Carbon Trust has also been sharing its experience in UK public sector carbon reduction in emerging economies such as Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Malaysia.

This goes both ways. Lessons are also being learned in the UK from what is being done abroad. For example there has been a recent focus from DECC and local authorities on the potential in decentralised energy and heat networks, which are already commonplace in Scandinavia. And cities such as Vienna have proven to be a model for sustainable urban transport systems around the world, with innovations such as using old electric tram infrastructure to enable and charge electric bus fleets.

Cutting costs through energy and resource efficiency

Despite all the progress that has already been made, there is still an unassailable case for continuing to invest more than ever before in public sector efficiency. The cost of energy, water and waste continue to rise, so reducing spend on these has a direct impact on future service delivery. It’s not a new and exciting trend, but it is of the utmost importance.

There are still a huge number of identified invest-to-save projects with compelling returns on investment that just have not been implemented.

As an example, the Carbon Trust supported Solihull Borough Council to set up a pilot carbon reduction programme in 13 primary and secondary schools. Schools represented 72% of the total emissions from the council’s estate and following a year’s work these schools showed an average of a 24% reduction in energy bills. If that level of saving was rolled out to the entire borough it would mean an annual saving of around £650,000.

Water and waste are also on the agenda. The Scottish Courts Service was the first public sector organisation to achieve the Carbon Trust Water Standard, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office the first to achieve the Carbon Trust Waste Standard.

These are the good public sector cuts – cuts to energy bills, water use, and waste. Through taking a sensible approach to long-term investment in more efficient operations, public bodies can deliver services at lower cost, benefit the community and local economy, and provide greater value to the taxpayer.

Making sustainability a priority

The three trends that we identify above are already being shown to be highly effective by a number of leading public sector organisations. In almost every case the focus on implementing sustainability is resulting in direct or indirect cost-saving, and often long-term revenue generation. With more and more examples of success, over the next year we expect to see the rate of adoption of these measures increasing, as even more public sector bodies become convinced on the business case for sustainability.

There is every reason to make sustainability a priority, as a way to both be more efficient in the short-term and take action on the long-term consequences of climate change and resource scarcity.


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