Why Scotland’s public sector needs to rise to the carbon challenge


Scotland is setting an example to the rest of the world when it comes to commitment to action on climate change and resource efficiency. But if you have ambitious goals then sometimes you have to take the leap and do the big, difficult things that will help you reach those goals. Action and leadership by the public sector will be the key to unlocking the scale of transformation required to create a sustainable Scotland by the middle of this century.

The whole of Scotland should be rightly proud of how much the country has already achieved in terms of making firm and visible commitments on climate change. There is a legally binding world-leading commitment to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 42% by 2020 compared to 1990, and then 80% by 2050, with annual targets legislated through to 2027. Scotland also leads the UK in renewable power, with 36% of electricity consumption met from renewable energy.

Real progress is still being made as well. The launch of the Resource Efficient Scotland programme aims to help businesses and the public sector deliver over £2 billion of annual savings in energy, water and raw material use. The Scottish Government has recently put forward a proposal to fit every street light in the country with LED lamps. Edinburgh will even host the headquarters of the new Green Investment Bank.

The public sector has been at the vanguard of Scotland’s commitment to cutting carbon and delivering national targets. It directly employs almost a quarter of the Scottish workforce – over half a million people. It also has a huge potential influence over buildings, infrastructure, the private sector and local communities, both directly and indirectly.

At the Carbon Trust we have worked with 150 public sector bodies in Scotland to develop carbon management plans. This includes all 32 local authorities, NHS Health Boards, universities and colleges the length and breadth of the country and all the emergency services. We estimate that these 150 organisations represent between them around 95% of all public sector emissions (approximately 3.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year).

These carbon management plans all include a series of recommendations for projects and activities that will help to lower emissions. In the early stages these tend to be measures that will have immediate or relatively short payback opportunities. For example Aberdeen City Council was one of the first to get involved with the Carbon Trust’s public sector programmes in 2003. By 2006 the council had exceeded its 25% reduction target set for 2015 through using renewable energy for street lighting and building improvements. When they went through the programme a second time in 2009 they set far more ambitious targets, aiming to reduce carbon emissions by a further 42% by 2020.

The most cost-effective reductions are offered through behaviour change, where low and no cost measures can result in immediate savings. Turning down thermostats or switching off unused equipment has a very real and easily quantifiable financial benefit, which becomes even more compelling as energy prices continue to rise. But there are serious long-term benefits to be gained through investment in upgrading heating and cooling equipment, refitting buildings, and investing in renewables.

Now is the time for serious commitment and investment into implementing the projects that will create a low carbon, sustainable Scotland. In fact around £200 million of capital expenditure could deliver £260 million of lifetime financial savings.

But although a lot of the projects with overwhelmingly compelling paybacks have been completed, around two-thirds of the recommended measures have not been implemented yet. In a recent report for the Scottish Government the Carbon Trust identified the major barriers to implementation of carbon management plans. These included senior leadership not being sufficiently engaged and incentivised, a lack of availability of project finance, a shortage of appropriately skilled staff and resource, and split incentives (especially in schools and tenanted buildings), where the people most able to reduce emissions do not benefit from doing so.

Politically it is not easy to make serious spending commitments during a time of public austerity, despite the strong business case and returns on investment. Scotland remains committed to finding capital to roll out necessary measures, but has to look at creating new financing mechanisms in order to invest to save. The Green Investment Bank could prove to be very useful in providing this access to capital for the public sector.

Practically it is not easy to make major and disruptive changes to buildings, these can be complicated projects requiring operational engagement from across a number of parties. And despite clear commitment, climate change is not viewed as a priority at the moment, with the economy and the independence debate dominating headlines and politicians thoughts.

Big strategic decisions also need to be made sooner rather than later. Meeting long term carbon reduction targets to 2050 will take more than just some insulation and efficient boilers. New ways will have to be found for using space, reforming procurement, and delivering services to the public. Major retrofits will have to be made to the public estate, and areas could be transformed with on-site renewables, decentralised energy and district heating networks.

The public sector has been at the core of creating a more sustainable Scotland so far. They deserve a lot of praise for what has already been accomplished over the past decade, though they need to keep it up. With the right drive, investment and support over the coming decades Scotland will become a true low carbon leader, a net exporter of energy, and could end up with one of the most efficient and modern public sectors in the world.

See more on our public sector advice service and Carbon Trust Scotland.