Government labelled ‘hugely disappointing’ on sustainability

Poor performance on waste, carbon and water by government departments in 2005/06 reflects systemic operational failures, according to the latest assessment by the Sustainable Development Commission.1

Government performance on sustainability is "hugely disappointing" and "simply not good enough", says the commission.

In its second assessment of 19 departments and executive agencies, the government watchdog found none met all requirements of the targets assessed. Data quality was also patchy, similar to findings in the previous report (ENDS Report 372, pp 8-9 ).

Nine departments had poor waste data, and the commission singled out waste as an area needing "much more progress". Waste arisings increased 13% from 164,790 tonnes in 2004/05 to 186,380 tonnes in 2005/06, against a target to reduce waste by at least 1% annually.

It also highlighted significant gaps in environmental management system coverage across government. About 18% or 1,823 out of 8,147 sites have implemented an environmental management system (EMS) but just 4% of mixed estates - those which are not just office-based - have EMSs, against an 80% target. The commission warned this could "slow progress towards targets where an EMS would help improve communications, raise awareness or highlight opportunities for improvement".

The commission says a "drastic change in approach is essential" to have "any hope" of meeting targets on energy and carbon dioxide emissions.

The government has a target to cut CO2 emissions by 12.5% by 2010/11 from a 1999/2000 baseline. Emissions fell 4% to just over 3 million tonnes in 2005/06. But they continued to increase in 15 departments and have dropped a mere 0.5% since 1999.

Emissions have risen 10.2% in the Environment Department (DEFRA) and 11.8% in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office since 1999. This is particularly embarrassing given their roles in promoting climate change objectives.

With poor performance set against its messages on climate change, the government risks "breeding deep cynicism amongst the general public" unless "it can quickly take charge of its own operations", says the report.

To do this, the commission urges the government to:

  • Embed sustainable operations targets in permanent secretaries’ performance objectives.
  • Introduce a carbon allocation and trading system to improve carbon management.
  • Target efforts and resources on departments and areas with the biggest impacts, including EMSs, CO2 emissions and waste.
  • Externally verify departmental data.
  • Extend the objectives of the 2002 Framework for Sustainable Development on the Government Estate to all government operations, including those outsourced.

The commission assessed departmental operations against this framework, as previously, but this time only looked at the new targets announced last June (ENDS Report 377, pp 36-37 ). Fewer, more outcome-focused targets will apply from 2006/07.

Using these to compare performance in 2005/06 with that in 2004/05, other findings included:

  • Recycling rose 8% to just over 65,000 tonnes.
  • Transport CO2 emissions dropped from 122,961 to 78,358 tonnes and have fallen by 12,860 tonnes since 2002/03. But data from eight departments was incomplete and Department for Transport emissions have risen 40% since 2002.
  • The proportion of electricity from renewable supplies rose from 20% to 23%. This shows "good progress" towards a target for each department to achieve at least 10% by 31 March 2008.
  • Energy efficiency is declining in most departments.
  • Water use increased when all departments are taken into account. Departments use an average 10.2m3 per person, against a 7.7m3 target.
  • Progress in incorporating sustainable design features into new builds and major refurbishment projects.

Strong performances by the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions put them at the top of the departmental league table. DEFRA fell from second to ninth place, while the Department for Constitutional Affairs, Law Officers’ Department and Export Credits Guarantee Department remained bottom.

Most departments "need to raise their game significantly" to cope with future targets, says the commission.

Environment Secretary David Miliband admitted progress was inadequate and emphasised procurement efforts to deliver medium- to long-term carbon targets. The government launched a sustainable procurement action plan in March (see p 45 ).