Are public sector bodies ready for net zero?

Net zero is the primary challenge of our age. But most of the UK’s public sector appears slow on the uptake.

A recent study reveals over half of public sector bodies and quangos across the country (52%) are not planning for net zero carbon by 2050, according to research by ECA.

Overall, just 30 per cent of respondents said they were planning towards net zero carbon by 2050, while a further 18 per cent said they were partially planning for the legally mandated requirement. The remainder either said they were not currently planning for net zero, or did not know if they were.

Arguably, given that the drive towards net zero is of paramount importance to the UK’s climate commitments and indeed our economy, this is worrying news.

ECA energy advisor Luke Osborne commented: “These findings show that many public sector bodies have major work to do if they are to meet the Government’s legally binding commitment for net zero carbon by 2050.

“ECA urges all public sector bodies to lead by example and get zero carbon done, by monitoring their energy usage, as well as quickly putting into place plans for the next 30 years.”

So, that’s the background. But there are exceptions, and there appears to be a mood in government, despite Covid distracting day to day policy, to up the net zero game.

NHS goes net zero

In remarkable news, at the start of October 2020, the NHS set forth a multi-year plan to become the world’s first net zero national health system.

To give a hint at the NHS’ influence, 2018 figures showed that of the 5.36 million people with public sector jobs, 1.64 million work in the NHS and 1.5 million in education. The NHS employs 30.6% of all UK public sector staff, with education not far behind, employing a further 28% of public sector staff.

Therefore, despite a worrying lack of action among the wider public sector, the UK’s best known and best loved public organisation is taking a trailblazing lead on net zero.

Interventions driving progress towards the NHS goal will include developing new ways of delivering care at or closer to home, greening the NHS fleet, including road-testing a net zero emissions ambulance by 2022, reducing waste of consumable products, making sure new hospitals and buildings are built to be net zero emissions and building energy conservation into staff training and education.

The NHS plans in their entirety are available here, and offer interesting reading. Among other metrics, they reveal that reaching our country’s ambitions under the Paris Climate Change Agreement could see over 5,700 lives saved every year from improved air quality, 38,000 lives saved every year from a more physically active population and over 100,000 lives saved every year from healthier diets.

Contextualised in light of the impact and tragic costs of Covid-19 fatalities, these numbers illustrate how net zero, the climate crisis, business, our economy and public health are all intrinsically linked.

Which leads to the next element in the net zero game; funding.

Funding public sector change

In addition to the NHS’ moves, the government has also announced £1 billion to boost the energy efficiency of public buildings through a Public Sector Decarbonisation Fund.

This energy efficiency pot forms part of the government’s wider efforts to ensure the UK meets its legally binding target to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and build back greener from coronavirus.

And the government’s press release claims that over the past decade, the UK has cut carbon emissions by more than any ‘similar’ developed country. In 2019, UK emissions were 42% lower than in 1990, while our economy over the same period grew by 72%.

All of which leaves something of a dilemma regarding the overall public sector zero debate. Pressure, and indeed a strong lead from the NHS are there to rejig the UK public sector on a net zero path.

And the cash appears available too, from a government keen to seek ways to build a green economy from the tragedy of Covid.

Yet, the ECA’s figures show just over half UK public bodies are not currently planning for net zero, or more worryingly did not even know whether they were or not.
This must change – and pressure is mounting as momentum around the climate crisis grows. The government must continue and expand its net zero push across the public sector, to help deliver a productive and climate-friendly national infrastructure of which employees and users can be proud.