Government has made progress reducing its greenhouse gas emissions but the way public bodies measure and report this varies significantly, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
Independent of government and the civil service, the NAO scrutinises public spending for Parliament.
Since 2011, central government bodies (government departments and their partner organisations) have agreed targets with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions through the Greening Government Commitments (GGCs).
The current GGC targets set by BEIS in negotiation with individual departments specify the reductions departments are expected to achieve by 2024-25, compared to a 2017-18 baseline.
Government has committed to align these GGC targets with a trajectory to achieve net zero by 2050.
There is no single department at the centre of government that holds overall responsibility for the framework for measuring and reporting of public sector greenhouse gas emissions. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has responsibility for GGCs.
BEIS leads on net zero, and the emissions-related aspects of the GGCs. HM Treasury (HMT) sets sustainability reporting requirements for annual reports and accounts.
By 2020, central government reported that it had reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% compared with 2009-10 – and had therefore achieved its combined GGC target. Government attributes this to the improved management of the government estate and the decarbonisation of the national grid.
However, the GGCs do not give a full picture of progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the public sector. Emissions from the wider public sector, for example hospitals, schools and local authorities, are outside the scope of GGCs.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, commented: “The government has an ambition for the public sector to lead by example during the transition to net zero, but the measurement and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions by public bodies is inconsistent.
“Public bodies face the challenge of navigating various greenhouse gas emissions reporting frameworks without a central source of government guidance.
“Government now needs to strengthen its leadership and establish a clear standard for the entire public sector to meet.”
According to the NAO, it is not clear that the GGC 2021-2025 targets are sufficiently ambitious. The Net Zero Strategy stated an aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from public buildings by 50% by 2032, and by 75% by the end of 2037, compared with 2017 levels.
The GGC emissions reduction targets for individual departments range from 10% to 43%. BEIS does not currently know whether together these will achieve the 25% reduction in aggregate emissions by 2025, which is needed to stay on course to meet the 2032 target.
According to the NAO, some public bodies have found it challenging to navigate the range of guidance about how to measure and report greenhouse gas emissions.
HM Treasury, BEIS, Defra and the Cabinet Office all publish guidance, so organisations have to cross-check multiple documents to ensure nothing is missed. There is no single location bringing this information together.
Not all departments are fully measuring their greenhouse gas emissions. The NAO found that for 2018-19 – before reporting was suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic – only nine of 21 government departments fully met HMT’s reporting requirements in their annual report and accounts.
Some central government organisations are using data to assess the cost implications of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. The NAO examined nine organisations and found that Defence Equipment and Support and the Department for Work and Pensions had estimated the cost of decarbonising some of their operations.
Some organisations had made plans to reduce the financial cost of decarbonisation by replacing assets (such as gas or oil-fired boilers) with lower emitting alternatives as part of their routine asset renewal cycle.
The NAO recommends that BEIS, Defra and HM Treasury streamline greenhouse gas emissions measurement and reporting guidance. BEIS should also ensure that the 2021-2025 GGC targets are aligned to its long-term decarbonisation goals.
The full ‘Measuring and reporting public sector greenhouse gas emissions’-report is available on the NAO website.