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Government’s internal operations must be transformed to meet climate change ambitions

FCO Coppice 1 May 2009

Sustainable Development Commission welcomes progress to date, and sets out priority areas for Government to lead by example and meet future challenges

A new report published by the Sustainable Development Commission today calls on the Government to set more ambitious targets for improving sustainability on the Government estate in order to lead by example and contribute to UK-wide targets on climate change and resource depletion.

Sustainable Development in Government (SDiG) 2008: Challenges for Government finds that despite significant steps towards reducing waste, water consumption and emissions from road travel, Government departments are still not on course to meet their own target for reducing carbon emissions by 12.5%, and far more remains to be done if they are to make a real contribution towards meeting UK-wide targets for 80% emissions reductions by 2050.

Future sustainability targets for Government operations are currently under consideration, with many deadlines on current targets expiring in the next two to three years. The report finds that recent initiatives – including the creation of a Centre of Expertise in Sustainable Procurement in 2008 – have set the groundwork for departments to begin to meet much more challenging targets in line with the latest understanding of environmental challenges, including climate change.

The report also finds that there is an urgent need for a greater understanding of the full range of environmental, social and economic impacts of Government operations. For example, while departments currently measure carbon emissions from offices and road vehicles, the full carbon impact of operations and procurement, including its supply chain, has not been quantified. Similarly, the water footprint of the central Government estate is largely unknown. And although road travel has been reduced, this has not been linked to a general shift toward more sustainable travel – such as rail instead of air travel – or reducing the need to travel through better use of video conferencing. Progress on energy sourced from renewables, as well as recycling, has even gone backwards, according to the latest data.

The Government’s Budget 2009 commits it to improving efficiency and sets binding carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act. Sustainable Development in Government 2008 sets out a series of recommendations to ensure that the Government estate is contributing to the achievement of these budgets, and improving the efficiency of its business to save money and carbon and ensure that Government can meet its commitment to lead by example.

Rebecca Willis, Vice Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, said: "The Government has taken some really significant steps making its own operations more sustainable. But it is still not on track to meet crucial targets, including reducing carbon emissions from offices. Worryingly, the current targets themselves don’t match the scale of the challenge we face, particularly on climate change.

"As the Government begins to consider future targets, we would urge them to bring these into line with priorities in the real world. Our understanding of climate science has advanced considerably in recent years; as has our understanding of the management of resources including water and biodiversity. Targets for Government operations must build on progress made to date, and reflect the urgent need to address these issues."

"The Government understands the urgent need to tackle climate change, and the necessity of living within environmental limits. It also understands the benefits to be gained from managing its own estate sustainably - the money to be saved from generating its own electricity, and the social benefits of good employment practices. The stakes can only get higher. As the Government sets out to review its targets for the next few years, it would be smart to set them high – for the efficiency of its own operations, for a future low-carbon economy, and for the UK and the planet as a whole."

William Jordan, Central Government’s Chief Sustainability Officer, based in the Office of Government Commerce, said:
"Significant progress has been made by the Government in delivering on its commitment to deliver sustainable operations on the Government's own estate. I very much welcome the recognition of this progress in the report published today by the Sustainable Development Commission. And I look forward to working with the Sustainable Development Commission to ensure we address successfully the issues raised in their report.

"The Government will be this year revising its targets and commitments to ensure that these reflect leading practice on sustainability. The Centre of Expertise in Sustainable Procurement in OGC will continue to support and challenge central Government departments and their agencies in the delivery of sustainable procurement and sustainable operations."

» Download Sustainable Development in Government 2008: Challenges for Government

» Full 2007-08 data

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1. For more information, interviews, or an embargoed copy of the report, contact Rhian Thomas on 020 7270 8539 / 07825 106 803, or email rhian.thomas@sd-commission.org.uk

2. The report by the Government’s sustainability watchdog makes recommendations in six key areas for future targets which will move the Government towards much greater sustainability. These include:

Carbon Emissions

  • In 2007-08, the Government reported a reduction of 6.3% in carbon emissions from offices since the baseline year 1999-2000. This is not sufficient to be on track to meet the target of reducing emissions by 12.5% by 2010/11, and far from enough to contribute to the national target of an 80% reduction by 2050.
  • An investment of £4bn in wind and solar energy generation on the Government estate would immediately cut carbon emissions from offices by 68%, and provide significant cost savings from energy bills and a boost to the green technology sector and the construction industry.
  • Failure to make substantial emissions reductions will prove extremely costly to Government, and emissions must be tackled aggressively to avoid this. The entire public sector is committed to reducing carbon emissions under the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC), and departments missing targets will be forced to buy carbon credits – possibly from participating private sector organisations – to compensate for their emissions.


  • Despite a reduction in overall energy use, Government electricity usage is still on the rise. Increased use of information technology (ICT) is a key contributor to this negative trend. For example, increased ICT use requires increased air conditioning of server rooms, as well as contributing towards high levels of waste. While the existing Greening Government ICT Strategy (launched July 2008) represents an encouraging step towards making ICT usage more sustainable, the Government must consider urgently raising the ambition level of the Strategy as industry awareness and action gathers around this agenda.


  • The SDC is pleased to see Budget 2009 commitments to supporting the shift to ultra-low carbon vehicles. This matches the SDC’s recommendations for ramping up the procurement of ultra-low carbon vehicles.
  • UK-wide targets to reduce carbon emissions now include aviation. As air travel accounts for 36% of the Government’s total travel, and with long-haul flights making up the majority of this, this needs to be reflected in Government’s own framework to reduce emissions from all types of air travel. Controls should be implemented on domestic flights and those to near European destinations where rail travel is an option.
  • Current travel strategies provide a perverse financial incentive for vehicle travel by allowing staff to claim mileage at rates above fuel costs. Instead, staff should be incentivised to use more sustainable methods of travel, or avoid travel.


  • Any major capital expenditure projects should seek to minimise waste arisings throughout product life cycles, as well as sharing knowledge of these processes within Government and with the private sector. Recycling is not the solution to the waste problem.
  • Waste contracts and recycling services are not being used to their full capacity. Opportunities for collaborative procurement across Government to share these contracts and services should be more fully recognised.


  • Government and departments should begin to develop the methodologies to produce water footprints in order to help them understand the water consumption used through their operations and procurement practices, including embedded water in products.


  • Biodiversity is about more than the management of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). As a large landholder, the Government should be looking beyond this target to identify ways in which it can consider more comprehensively the diverse and dynamic nature of biodiversity throughout its estates and operations.
  • Government departments such as MOD and the Forestry Commission have unique expertise on biodiversity issues on Government owned land. Their experience, alongside Defra specialists, should be used to inform the wider Government and public sector estate, so that all landholders encourage biodiversity and share best practice.

The report builds on the recommendations from SDiG 2007, which remain relevant.

3. The Government launched new targets for sustainable operations on the Government estate, alongside the Sustainable Procurement Action Plan, in June 2006. These targets replace those in the Framework for Sustainable Development on the Government Estate (originally published between 2002 and 2004). For more information, see: http://www.sustainable-development.gov.uk/Government/estates/index.htm. Sustainable Development in Government 2008 is the seventh annual review of the Government’s performance against these targets, and the fourth produced by the Sustainable Development Commission. Full data for 2007-08 was published in December 2008 and is available at http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/sdig2008/

4. In response to the publication of the Sustainable Development Commission’s Sustainable Development in Government 2007 report in March 2008, the Government created a new Centre of Expertise for Sustainable Procurement (CESP), tasked with ensuring that the Government delivers on its sustainable operations and procurement targets. The results of changes made under these plans are expected to be visible in 2008-09 data.

5. The Sustainable Development Commission is the Government’s independent advisory body on sustainability issues, made up of 19 Commissioners chaired by Jonathon Porritt. It reports directly to the Prime Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland

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