‘Urgent action’ needed to green government estate

Top civil servants should be made personally responsible for greening government departments, the Sustainable Development Commission recommends. The measure is needed to turn around a lamentable performance on cutting carbon dioxide emissions from government offices and transport.

The government needs to take "urgent and radical action" to reduce the impacts of its operations, a report by green watchdog the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) says.1 The latest Sustainable Development in Government report, on performance in 2006/07, paints the usual picture of patchy conduct by government departments - last year the SDC was "hugely disappointed" by progress, especially on waste (ENDS Report 386, p 51 ).

On the positive side, the SDC says that recycling targets are well on their way to being met - 38.5% of waste from the government estate was recycled in 2006/07, almost meeting the 2010 target of 40%. The target to buy electricity from renewable sources of 10% by 2008 was exceeded with 28.3% achieved in 2006/07.

However, while carbon emissions from offices fell by 4% by 2006/07 relative to a 1999/2000 baseline, nearly two thirds of departments were not on track to meet their 12.5% cut target by 2010/11.

Energy efficiency per square metre improved by 21.7% from the same baseline, higher than the target of 15% by 2010, but only because of gains made by the Ministry of Defence. Energy efficiency across the rest of the government estate worsened by 3.3%.

Carbon emissions from vehicles increased by 1.5% compared to 2005/06. This shows no progress towards the target for a 15% cut by 2010/11 and is an area of "serious concern", the SDC says.

Limited progress at 0.1% towards the target to reduce water consumption of 25% by 2020 was achieved, but not enough to keep it on track. The SDC also complains that mandatory procurement standards were being widely ignored by departments.

The report recommends that permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants should have sustainability targets incorporated into their personal performance objectives.

Departments must agree a common policy to reduce carbon emissions from transport by encouraging more sustainable transport options and alternatives to travel. A target to cut emissions from air travel must be developed. More ambitious targets for future waste minimisation and recycling should be developed to ensure improvements continue.

The government must produce a clear definition of ‘carbon neutrality’ to support its target to achieve the status by 2012. This will be "extremely difficult to achieve" without resorting to major carbon offsetting. This should be a last resort only after all opportunities to reduce emissions have been exhausted, the SDC says.

Departments must produce detailed plans of how they aim to meet targets together with a central register of baseline information to ensure all changes are accurately measured.

SDC vice-chair Rebecca Willis said: "The UK government is making history by introducing the world’s first Climate Change Bill, giving Britain the opportunity to lead the way on one of the most pressing issues facing the world. But government as a whole needs to take radical action to put its own house in order if it is to be in a position to lead by example."

The government’s response to the report, also published in March, accepts all of its recommendations.2 It will set up a new centre of expertise for sustainable procurement within the Office of Government Commerce to coordinate performance management. The government will also appoint a chief sustainability officer to drive forward a "culture of change".

From 2010, it says, all departments will be included within the carbon reduction commitment - an emissions trading scheme for large organisations that fall outside the EU emissions trading scheme (ENDS Report 390, pp 41-43 ).

The Environmental Audit Committee will hold an inquiry into sustainable development in government.

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