Government’s own green performance improves

Whitehall is likely to meet most of its sustainable operations targets except carbon emissions and energy from combined heat and power, but departmental performance remains variable.

The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) has given a more positive assessment of environmental performance across government departments, awarding four out of five stars compared with three last year.

But the latest annual report from the government’s chief advisers on sustainable development, published in December, also shows the government estate is not on track to meet its targets for cutting carbon emissions from offices and increasing use of combined heat and power (CHP).1

The findings of the Sustainable Development in Government report on performance in 2007/08 are far better than previous years. Last year the SDC called for "urgent and radical action" while the year before saw government performance labelled as hugely disappointing (ENDS Report 398, pp 5-6 ).

Even office carbon emissions and use of CHP, the two areas not on target, showed improvement. Carbon emissions fell by 6.3% from a 1999/2000 baseline, which is a further 2.3% drop from the 2006/2007 figure, but are still short of the target for a 12.5% cut by 2010/11. The government estate obtained 8.7% of its energy from CHP, up on 2006/07’s 5.8%, but still short of the 15% 2010 target.

A second report, published by the government’s Office of Government Commerce (OGC), forecasts the government will meet the 2010-11 targets to cut office carbon emissions.2 The OGC bases its prediction on planned initiatives from July 2008 such as encouraging civil servants to turn off computers at night.

Progress in cutting carbon emissions from government vehicles was impressive, with a 10.3% reduction from a 2005/06 baseline. In 2006/07, these emissions were 1.5% above the baseline. It is now on track to meet the 15% reduction target for 2010/11. But the Department for Children, Schools and Families bucked the trend recording a 16.3% increase in vehicle emissions on 2005/06.

Results for reducing water use and waste were also strong, with 17.8% and 28.8% reductions respectively compared with 2004/05. The government is now set to meet its 25% by 2020 target for water. A similar 2020 target for waste has already been exceeded. But the proportion of waste recycled across the government estate worsened by 3.5 percentage points between 2006/07 and 2007/08 to 35%. The SDC judges that the 40% target for 2010/11 is still reachable despite the difficult economic outlook for recycling.

The SDC highlights considerable differences in departmental performance. Overall, the Home Office scored only 36.6% and one out of five stars. In contrast, the Treasury was given five stars and scored 99%. Over half of all departments assessed received four stars or above. The Home Office blamed its poor performance on the transfer of its prisons - which perform well against most sustainable operations targets - to the Ministry of Justice.

The Forestry Commission ranked bottom among all departments, with only one star and a 30.6% rating. The reason is the remote location and dilapidated nature of its buildings, the reliance on vehicles to access forests, and having to deal with large amounts of fly-tipped waste.

Large variations were also found within departments. The SDC ranked the Cabinet Office as excellent on waste, recycling and CHP, but found it has made no progress or poor progress in reducing carbon emissions from offices and vehicles and in increasing energy efficiency.

The largest department, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), had a big influence on the government’s overall performance, accounting for nearly three quarters of all office carbon emissions. Excluding the MoD, carbon emissions from offices have actually risen 5.3% from the 1999/2000 baseline.

In response to an SDC recommendation made last year, permanent secretaries at all departments have had sustainability targets incorporated into their performance agreements. But this applies to few other senior staff with procurement responsibilities.

SDC vice-chairwoman Rebecca Willis said: "It’s great to see departments finally starting to prioritise their sustainability duties and make progress in many areas. However, there’s still a long way to go."

  • Display Energy Certificates, which display a building’s A-G energy efficiency rating and must be displayed in many government premises, reveal a poor state of affairs. The OGC report says a survey last autumn found 59% of government buildings fell below the benchmark for average performance for a building of that type and were rated in the bottom three bands - E, F and G. The Department of Energy and Climate Change’s headquarters is G-rated.
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