Whitehall crawls towards sustainability

Progress in engaging Whitehall in the environmental agenda remains slow, according to the annual report on sustainable development in Government.1 Targets for introducing environmental management systems are set to be missed, though some Departments have made headway in reducing waste and greening their procurement practices.

The web-based report is the second annual review of implementing sustainable development across all 20 Departments.1 The initiative, which grew out of the series of "greening Government" reports, marked a step change in the transparency of Departmental reporting (ENDS Report 336, pp 15-17 ).

In November, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee drew on last year's report to mount a strong criticism of Whitehall's performance. It criticised the Government for falling well behind schedule in setting targets under the cross-Whitehall sustainable development framework, for failing to carry out environmental appraisals of policies, and generally for lacking commitment to mainstreaming sustainable development (ENDS Report 346, pp 40-41 ).

The new report confirms many of the Committee's concerns. While Departments have moved ahead in areas such as waste and renewable energy, overall progress been limited:

  • Environmental management systems: The target was for all main offices to have certified EMSs by March 2004. By 2006, EMSs should cover 80% of the estate - rising to 100% for Departments which are mainly concentrated in large offices.

    The Government now admits that the targets are "unlikely to be met". In 2002/03, only 13 Departments had achieved certification - the same as in 2001/02 - and these generally covered only a small number of central buildings.

  • Energy: In 2000, the Government missed a long-standing target to reduce energy use by 20% from 1990/91 levels. It set a revised target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from energy use in buildings by 1% each year.

    Finalised data for 2002/03 are not yet available, but preliminary results suggest that the target was met for the third successive year. Total CO2 emissions were down by 3% on the previous year - but there was considerable variation between Departments. The Ministry of Defence cut emissions by 7%, while emissions from civil Departments increased by 5%.

    Another target was for Departments to purchase at least 5% of electricity from renewable sources by March 2003. This target was largely met, with all 20 Departments purchasing some renewable energy, up from 13 the previous year. Six, including the Cabinet Office, International Development and the Treasury, purchased more than half of their electricity from renewables, though the MoD only managed 3%.

  • Travel: The Government's target is to reduce CO2 emissions from travel-related sources by 10% by March 2006, with 2002/03 as a baseline. Departmental travel accounted for more than 80,000 tonnes of CO2, based on data gathered by 13 Departments. Some Departments did not report any data - including the Treasury, which claimed that its business mileage is "negligible" and could not be quantified without "disproportionate effort".

  • Waste: In 2001/02, 12 Departments published data on waste production - and of these, just six were recovering 40% or more of their waste. The number of reporting Departments has not increased - but nine achieved recovery rates above 40% last year. The DTI and the Treasury improved most, increasing recovery rates from about 35% to 79% in 2002/03.

  • Water: The number of Departments participating in Watermark, the Government's water benchmarking scheme, rose from 14 to 17 last year. The DTI is the only major Department which has not signed up to the scheme.

    Some Departments have made improvements in water consumption, but only two met the target of 7.7m3 per employee. The Treasury and the Home Office are the most profligate users at almost 13m3 per head.

  • Procurement: All Departments have now reported on their timber procurement, up from 13 in 2001/02. Some £19 million was spent on timber from certified sources, and a further £10 million on uncertified timber where there was some evidence of its sustainability and legality. The report says that 99% of the total spending was on timber where there was at least some evidence of its sustainability - up from 71% in the previous year.

    Despite the improvement, there is still scope for another embarrassing gaffe such as the Home Office's use of illegal timber at its new offices in London (ENDS Report 341, p 35 ). Seven Departments spent around £164,000 on timber products with no evidence of their legality.

    In 2001/02, six Departments installed air conditioning systems based on HFCs - despite the Government's policy to favour alternatives to these powerful greenhouse gases. In 2002/03, seven of the 15 Departments which fitted new air conditioning systems used HFCs. Among them was the Environment Department - which argues that "at the time of procurement HFCs were permissible".

  • Policy appraisal: Scant progress was made last year in delivering on a long-standing commitment to conduct environmental appraisals of all policies with significant environmental implications. However, seven Departments agreed to take part in an assessment of appraisals, a report on which is due to be published shortly.

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