Ministers press on with greening Government

The second annual report of the Green Ministers Committee was published in November. 1 Many of last year's shortcomings have been addressed and more targets set, but Whitehall still lags in key areas such as policy appraisal and environmental management systems (EMSs).

The greening Government initiative has been running for a decade, but has only recently had an impact. The first report by the 15 green Ministers last year was welcomed as a positive step towards greater openness but was criticised as light on comparable information and exposing failings on reporting and policy appraisal (ENDS Reports 294, p 7  and 302, pp 34-35 ).

This year's report makes a valiant stab at addressing the criticisms. It is packed with tables comparing Departments' performance in areas such as EMSs, policy appraisals, training and green housekeeping, making it possible to identify leaders and laggards. However, little of the data is quantified and the report relies on case studies and examples.

A key role of the Committee is as a forum to disseminate best practice - indeed, it seems to have boosted communication across Whitehall. Over the past year, best practice guides have been prepared covering green transport plans, procurement, policy appraisal, biodiversity and training. Further guidance on how to green private finance work is in the pipeline.

All Departments have drawn up policy statements on greening their operations, based on a model framework by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) (ENDS Report 280, pp 13-14 ). The Department of Trade and Industry has published a sustainable development strategy (ENDS Report 309, p 5 ), and three others are in the process of preparing similar plans.

Yet despite these positive signs, the greening of Whitehall remains an uphill struggle.

  • Policy appraisal: Despite harrying by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, progress on this front has been slow. Departments have been reluctant to reveal when they carry out appraisals and only a handful have been published

    This year's report shows some movement. Fifteen of the 19 Departments claim they have systems in place for policy appraisal, and all have procedures to screen policies for environmental impacts. A major innovation is a list of appraisals published over the last year, revealing that 36 free-standing appraisals were published by six Departments between April 1999 and March 2000. But 27 were carried out by a single Department - the DETR.

    The number is set to increase in the coming months. The DETR's sustainable development unit is now charged with maintaining a database of policy appraisals and, in his foreword to the report, Environment Minister Michael Meacher commits Departments to publishing all free-standing appraisals "unless there are overriding reasons not to do so."

  • Environmental management systems: The Government has promised that 75% of Departments will have at least one site certified by the end of this Parliament. Last year, just five Departments or executive agencies had an externally verified EMS in place - all certified to the standard ISO14001.

    This year's report shows a little improvement. Nine Departments have EMSs certified to ISO14001 but most cover only a very small part of their operations. Another nine claim they have plans to achieve certification.

  • Greening operations: Departments are on track to meet the Government-wide target to improve energy efficiency by 20% against 1990/91 levels, with the latest figures for 1998/99 showing consumption cut by 18.9%. However, as in last year's report, a poor performance by most Departments was rescued by good figures from the Ministry of Defence (MOD). The civil estate as a whole only managed to reduce its consumption by 10.3%, while the MOD cut its consumption by 23.2%.

    Furthermore, the MOD's performance is questionable - its method for calculating consumption excludes new facilities and includes facilities which have shut down. Green Ministers have resisted a call by the Environmental Audit Committee to have its figures validated by the National Audit Office.

    A new energy efficiency target will be introduced next year. Departments will be asked to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 1% year on year, but this target will not include transport emissions - even though the report itself notes an "independent evaluation" of a sample of 70 green transport plans showed weaknesses in setting and monitoring targets.

    The Government has shied away yet again from setting a target for reducing water consumption but 15 Departments now provide water consumption data, and 11 have reduction targets. The Treasury has released £750,000 to fund a central water and effluent monitoring service. This should fill the data gap which is one of the obstacles to a Government-wide target.

  • Procurement: The Government is looking into requiring Departments to purchase recycled goods where feasible and may expand a trial with copier paper to other products.

    Eight Departments buy some of their electricity from renewable sources, while a further eight have plans to do so. The Committee may set a target for Departments to purchase renewable energy, but is worried about outstripping supply. As a result it may introduce a series of staged increases over a number of years to allow suppliers time to adjust to demand.

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