Reducing emissions – improving sustainability

The government estimates that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 42.1% lower in 2017 than they were in 1990. And provisional final figures for 2018 reveal a further 2% decrease in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Author: Paul Sheffield

This positive shift is mainly due to the energy sector reducing emissions by 7% after replacing coal with renewables. Nuclear and renewables – both low carbon energy sources – accounted for 47% of the fuel used for electricity generation in 2018: an increase of 25% since 1990.

The energy sector’s drive to promote decarbonisation is being echoed in the public sector. The Greening Government Commitments 2016 to 2020 policy paper outlines this intent, stating the goal of reducing GHG emissions by at least 43% from a 2009 baseline.

Greater Manchester Council is one public sector organisation committed to reducing GHG emissions and improving energy efficiencies. It’s proposed a carbon budget, highlighting to residents the benefits of becoming a zero-carbon city by 2038. And Salford City Council has already signed up to an energy contract delivering 100% renewable electricity.

These local and regional efforts are being replicated on the national stage too. In 2019, the UK became the first of the G7 group of industrialised nations to legislate for net zero emissions by 2050. In addition, the government’s Clean Growth Strategy outlines 40 policies to help increase the pace of clean growth by reducing emissions and improving energy efficiencies.

The plan includes targets that affect the public sector directly, such as leading the way in the transition to zero emissions vehicles. Council offices, hospitals and education establishments also have a goal: to achieve a 30% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020-21. These strategies are driven by the government’s desire to fully understand its current energy consumption, generation and emissions.

Audit for sustainability action

Audits can show public sector organisations how they’re using energy and reveal the level of associated emissions. They can use this information to set bespoke targets and create plans to meet those goals.

A commercial energy audit doesn’t just focus on energy use, or even on energy efficiency measures; it also looks for new business opportunities emerging from energy improvements. Typically, an audit will follow a detailed energy cost and efficiency analysis, including feasibility studies, and provide tailored information covering financial, energy and emissions savings.

The audit process covers physical checks to buildings and reviews historic consumption information. The outputs will typically include energy efficiency and environmental impact targets, plus expert advice on how to address these goals through prioritised efficiency measures. There will also be information about grants and funding access, business case support, return on investment forecasts, and scenario planning.

Ultimately, the audit is a key part of a wider energy optimisation approach that’s part of a best practice strategy. This enables public sector organisations to confidently invest in the most valuable efficiencies with a strong understanding of associated energy reductions or potential income streams. Having access to experts throughout this process helps to cut through any confusion around energy optimisation and ensure the public sector invests as wisely as possible.

With this achieved, the public sector can then implement energy strategies that best meet its sustainability targets. Key elements will include choosing a 100% renewable energy supply and adopting the latest energy-efficiency measures and technologies.

Smart monitoring

The new generation of smart meters constantly monitors and records energy usage then shares the data with the energy provider. In addition to ensuring accurate bills, this could allow a public sector organisation – working in partnership with its supplier – to track consumption patterns over time. These insights have the potential to help alter behaviour around power consumption.

What’s more, the smart grid could evolve, allowing distributed generation (generally done at a smaller scale than the traditional centralised model) to become more prevalent. This could give the public sector more flexibility in choosing when to consume or purchase electricity. It could also increase the likelihood of the sector being able to switch to self-generated power when it wants to – and take advantage of schemes such as demand side response (DSR) schemes and power purchase agreements (PPAs).

DSR schemes

As an increasing number of intermittent sources of energy, such as wind and solar, become available on the grid, balancing supply and demand also becomes more complex. However, DSR schemes can help public sector organisations to manage this.

DSR participation permits organisations with electricity generation and energy storage capabilities to switch away from the grid at peak demand times. Departments doing this will be rewarded for reducing energy costs.


PPAs enable organisations to enter into a buying arrangement to support local renewable energy generation. Linking to the renewable power markets protects the public sector from energy price shocks, lowers its carbon footprint and supports the addition of more renewable energy to the grid. And, organisations with their own renewable generating capability can sell their electricity as well.

Electric vehicles (EVs)

The sustainability benefits of EVs are undeniable; they’re non-polluting in their use and may be used to support renewable energy generation and balance the grid in the future.

In addition, battery range is improving all the time – we’re soon likely to see affordable vehicles capable of covering 300-400 miles on one full charge. The government has confirmed its ambition for at least half of new cars being ultra-low emission by 2030. It’s also planning to lead the way in EV take-up, committing to making 25% of its central vehicle fleet (i.e. within the public sector) electric by 2022.


Reducing emissions and improving sustainability is about embracing new schemes and initiatives as they become available. The convergence of technologies means that it’s possible to amplify the benefits of one with another’s. For instance, an EV fleet can be charged via solar panels, and the fleet owner can release stored energy back to the grid when power usage is high. This can help avoid or reduce high grid costs, or be integral to DSR or PPA activity.

However, so much choice can make it hard to select the best options. Energy experts can run comprehensive audits and create bespoke strategies to help organisations reach their sustainability and business goals within the targeted timescales.

In the next 10 years, there will be substantial changes to how we understand and consume energy. Climate change is currently centre stage as organisations continue to lobby the government to enforce net zero emissions much earlier than the existing 2050 target. The public sector should lead by example, supporting investment in the required technologies and helping the country make the transition.