Signs of life in 'greening government' initiative

The decade-long effort to engage Whitehall in the environmental agenda stepped up a gear last year. The Green Ministers' annual report provides a much clearer picture of Departments' resource consumption and environmental management efforts, progress has been made and a new drive on green procurement is in the offing. But there is still a huge variation in Departments' performance - with the Treasury among the laggards.

The "greening government" initiative dates back to the early 1990s, but for many years was more rhetoric than action. Most Departments failed to conduct environmental appraisals of their policies and publish progress reports, environmental management systems were established at a snail's pace, and green housekeeping targets were routinely missed.

Efforts to breathe fresh life into the initiative were under way a year ago when they received a major impetus after Greenpeace exposed a comprehensive breach of the Government's sustainable timber procurement policy in the refurbishment of the Cabinet Office (ENDS Report 327, p 34 ). The revelation was a serious embarrassment for the Prime Minister, who had claimed credit for launching the policy at a G8 summit two years earlier.

Last summer, the Government responded with a new "sustainable development framework". This set the first of a series of new green housekeeping targets which are due to be completed by next July, as well as more binding commitments on Departments to formulate environmental strategies and report on progress.

Another new factor in the equation was the requirement imposed on Departments by the Treasury to submit sustainable development reports in support of their bids for last year's comprehensive spending review. The effectiveness of this process is unknown because it is shrouded in secrecy, but the patchy evidence available suggests that it raised at least some Departments' awareness of the environmental dimensions of their policies.

A further project which will be felt beyond Whitehall is a high-level review of how to bring together the Government's sustainability and procurement objectives. Due to report shortly, this will make recommendations on how to overcome official inertia on the green procurement front.

In his foreword to the first "sustainable development in Government" report, published at the end of last year, Environment Minister Michael Meacher points out that "the scale of central government procurement, estimated at £13 billion per year, means that it has a huge potential to contribute to the Government's sustainable development objectives."

The report is by far the most comprehensive yet, with reams of statistics on Departments' performance and their responses to a wide-ranging questionnaire about their environmental policies and practices. Highlights include:

  • Environmental management systems: Last summer's framework set a new target for 80% of the Government estate to be covered by EMSs by 2006, with all main offices to have them by March 2004.

    During the year, the number of Departments with one or buildings covered by EMSs increased from 10 to 14. However, most are a long way from the target, with just four having more than half their staff covered by EMSs, and only one main Department - Work & Pensions - together with the NHS Purchasing & Supply Agency (PASA) with more than half their staff under EMSs certified to the international standard ISO14001.

    The report also reveals major differences in Departments' engagement with environmental management. Some, like the Treasury and Ministry of Defence, carry out no monitoring of staff awareness of environmental issues. Training ranges from a commitment by the Department of Health to have all staff in its largest building attend an environmental course to the Home Office's disclosure that one civil servant has attended a sustainable development course.

  • Energy: The Government fell short of its original target to reduce its energy use by 20% from 1990/01 levels by March 2000. The reduction achieved was 17%. It subsequently set a revised target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions associated with energy use in buildings by 1% per year.

    The target was met in both the last two years, with improvements of 3% and 7% against the 1999/2000 baseline. However, the overall totals mask a wide variation in performance, with ten of the civil Departments recording increases in CO2 emissions of up to 28% in 2001/02 - including DEFRA, with a 17% increase - while 12 achieved reductions.

    Another target is for all Departments to be obtaining at least 5% of their electricity from renewable sources by March 2003, rising to 10% by 2008. A dozen are now purchasing renewable energy, with the Department of Health and PASA leading the way with almost 100% coverage. The Treasury stands out in reporting no plans to increase its renewables consumption.

  • Waste: A target was set in 1999 for Departments to recover 40% of their office waste by March 2001. However, only seven Departments collected adequate data by the deadline, and of these just three met the target.

    Data collection has since improved, with 13 Departments providing detailed statistics for this year's report. However, only five of the 10 providing adequate data achieved a recovery rate of 40% or more in 2001/02, with Health and PASA top of the league with 81%. New targets are to be set this year.

  • Water: Eight Departments met the annual water consumption target of 11m3 per head by the March 2002 deadline. Despite cutting its water use by 56% in 2001/02, the Treasury remained Whitehall's most profligate user of water, at 14.9m3 per head.

    Most Departments are some way from the target to reduce water use to 7.7m3 per head by March 2004. The report suggests that not enough are acting on consumption data provided by the Watermark benchmarking service.

    Things have moved slowly at the Ministry of Defence. It has yet to join Watermark, despite a critical report by the National Audit Office in 1997 which found scope for savings of 59% on water bills at a sample of ten of its sites. The MoD plans to let contracts over the next two years to assist with water asset management.

  • Procurement: On the sensitive issue of timber, earlier official assurances about purchasing practices have been undermined by improved data collection.

    For 2000/01, seven Departments reported total timber purchases of £5.5 million, of which 87% was claimed to have come from certified or other sustainable sources. Thirteen reported for 2001/02, and although the data are still incomplete they show that spending on timber amounted to £19.6 million, of which 71% is claimed to have come from certified or other sustainable sources. The Treasury, which spent £0.2 million on timber, was again unable to provide data on the sources of its purchases.

    The Government's presumption against the use of HFCs, which are powerful greenhouse gases, was disregarded by five Departments - including the Cabinet Office - which used them in air conditioning systems installed last year.

    Two central contracts have been set up to enable Departments to buy recycled paper, but use of this facility has been modest.

    There appears to have been more progress on purchasing of energy-efficient products. 15 Departments reported that they used the EU energy labelling scheme as a decision aid for procurement.

  • Policy appraisal: The report acknowledges that Whitehall's record in carrying out environmental appraisals of policy has been "disappointing". Indeed, not one Department prepared a free-standing appraisal last year, and few keep logs of them. The commitment to produce them seems likely to lapse, with some Departments claiming that appraisals are now an intrinsic part of the policy-making process and impossible to separate out.

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