Net zero goals in the public sector: how to make real progress

Scott Parlett, head of public sector at BiU

2020 may have been dominated by a pandemic and the subsequent recession, but it was also the year that the NHS in England made history with its commitment to become the world’s first net zero carbon health system. It was also the year when the number of local authorities to declare a climate emergency reached 300: nearly three-quarters of all councils in the UK.

But this sense of urgency hasn’t yet translated into action. A recent poll of UK councillors found that many lack confidence, both in their council’s chances of achieving its targets and in their own decision-making. How can public sector organisations overcome their hesitation and make progress towards decarbonisation in 2021?

Measure first

Setting an emissions reduction target without knowing what your current emissions are is like trying to map out a journey without a starting point. The first step is to measure your organisation’s energy use so that you have a baseline to measure future progress against. This means carrying out an extensive audit to map out all the emissions sources for your organisation.

Cover all areas

It’s important that you include all the emissions generated by your organisation’s activities. The most robust audits include so-called Scope 3 emissions, those not directly generated by your organisation but generated on its behalf. For a council, this would mean including the emissions not just from your offices and council-run facilities, but domestic emissions from council housing, transport emissions from staff travelling to work, and more.

It’s often difficult to work out which emissions to include in your audit, so many public sector organisations bring in specialists to help with this initial mapping exercise.

Make data-driven decisions

You might already have an idea of where your organisation can cut carbon, but the results of your mapping exercise could surprise you. (The more it surprises you, the more opportunities it represents!) As you start planning your organisation’s route to net zero, you will want to prioritise changes that represent the best value first. Make sure that your decisions are based on the data you’ve gathered, rather than organisational preconceptions.

Use other metrics

Large businesses don’t just record their greenhouse gas emissions; they use an “intensity ratio” to put them in context. That might measure how emissions relate to yearly profits, or it might be more creative: a pub chain might record tonnes of carbon per thousand pints poured, or a supermarket might measure kilogrammes of carbon per employee. Public sector organisations have many ways of measuring success in what they do, so harness yours as an intensity ratio. That might be the number of pupils in a school, the number of swimming sessions at a leisure centre or whatever is meaningful to you. This will give you a framework for assessing how potential emissions-cutting changes will affect the services you deliver.

Chart your course and keep checking in

The smaller and more short-term a target is, the more likely we are to achieve it. Setting the ambitious goal of net zero for a distant date will not set your organisation up for success unless you have a detailed plan including interim targets. If you are to achieve net zero by 2030, where will your organisation need to be by this time next year? Make that a publicly stated goal to which your organisation will hold itself accountable. If you don’t achieve your early interim targets, you have time to get back on course before your ultimate deadline.

It’s not just about using less

It’s likely that most of your emissions will come from buildings and transport, and the first steps many public sector organisations take involve reducing use and bringing in energy efficiency measures. At the same time, organisations should be looking to change the source of their energy by considering the most viable renewable/low carbon options.

Your organisation may already have a culture of sustainable procurement, in which case you just need to apply this to your energy use and do your research. Many organisations switch to a 100% renewable tariff, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but your money will work harder if you choose a supplier that actually invests in new renewables. You might be able to go even further and invest in renewable projects directly via a corporate power purchase agreement, or CPPA (a contract under which an organisation buys electricity directly from a renewable energy generator, e.g. a solar farm).

Two NHS Trusts we work with are currently sourcing 100% of their power demand from localised renewables projects, and are also looking into the CPPA route to help get nascent renewables projects off the ground.

Get specialist help

If you’ve set an ambitious target and you don’t have the in-house expertise to draw up a detailed and realistic plan, it’s time to bring in the experts. BiU works with many public sector organisations every year to help them achieve their emissions reduction goals. We’d be delighted to put together a tailored strategy that works for your organisation.