Five ways the UK public sector is taking action to create a sustainable future

This round-up highlights five key ways in which public sector bodies are progressing across all areas of sustainable development

Released last Wednesday (7 November), edie’s public sector sustainability insight report outlines how organisations within this sector should be working, innovating and collaborating across all areas to achieve a sustainable future.


The report, produced in association with Total, documents the steps which leading organisations in this space are taking to champion low-carbon, resource-efficient and socially-sustainable actions, while highlighting moves which must now be taken to scale-up impact across all areas of sustainable development.

Here, edie has extracted from the report five ways in which public sector organisations are working to achieve ‘Mission Possible’ across the campaign’s five key areas of energy, resources, mobility, built environment and business leadership. 

ENERGY: The focus on energy efficiency is making way for more ambitious carbon targets

With the public sector spending more than £2.5bn annually on energy consumption in England alone, it is unsurprising that most organisations in this field have turned to energy efficiency in order to reduce their bills and carbon footprint simultaneously. Indeed, this focus has seen public sector emissions drop by one-third against a 2009-10 baseline, leading the Government to set a more ambitious set of targets.

However, leading organisations in this space are now beginning to set more ambitious targets. edie’s survey of 200 sustainability professionals found that almost half (48%) of the public sector bodies represented are aiming to set a verified science-based target, regardless of the fact that the Science Based Targets (SBTi) does not yet officially authorise targets set by public-sector organisations.

Moreover, 83% of public sector respondents told edie that they had installed some form of on-site renewable generation capacity in a bid to decarbonise their energy footprint. This finding comes at a time when more than 80 UK towns and cities, including Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow, are striving to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

RESOURCES: Major cities are striving to unlock the benefits of becoming ‘fully circular’

Despite a series of funding cuts and other setbacks for local authority-run recycling schemes in recent years, such organisations are largely continuing to help the businesses and residents they serve to become more resource-efficient and play their part in the shift from a ‘take, make and dispose’ society to a circular one.

Off the back of research concluding that by adopting a circular model for its waste, London alone could create 12,000 jobs by 2030 and provide a £7bn net-benefit to the capital’s economy, several cities have set ambitious circularity goals. London itself is striving to become a place where businesses utilising closed-loop systems can “flourish” by 2020, while the likes of Peterborough and Glasgow are now taking steps to become “circular cities”.

MOBILITY: Zero-emission public transport is now seen as a ‘major opportunity’

In 2016, transport overtook power generation as the most carbon-intense sector in the UK for the first time, making it a key part of any organisation’s low-carbon strategy. With this in mind, and with policy changes like London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and the Government’s 2040 ban on new petrol and diesel car sales looming, local councils and other bodies are adopting ever-more ambitious sustainable transport strategies.

While the likes of The Environment Agency, Gateshead Council, the London Borough of Hackney and Yorkshire Ambulance Service have made internal commitments to replace their van fleets with electric vehicles (EVs) by 2028, other organisations have gone one step further in a bid to drive sustainable transport outside of their operations. Oxford City Council, for example, is aiming to launch a ‘zero-emission zone’ by 2035, as local authorities in cities like Leeds and London electrify ever-larger proportions of their public transport networks.

These options have the multi-benefit of reducing congestion in busy urban areas, improving air quality and helping the public to live healthier lives. It comes as no surprise, then, that more than half (52%) of edie survey respondents cited  ‘zero-emission public transport for commutes’ as a major opportunity.

THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT: Energy-efficient buildings are becoming business-critical

Heat and power for buildings currently account for 40% of national energy usage, making them a key focus point for both decarbonisation and cost-cutting among the UK’s public sector.

As the Government works towards halving the energy use from new buildings by 2030 and the energy costs from the existing building stock – both domestically and commercially – most public sector organisations are ahead of the curve in this space, the public sector report concludes. 87% of the Mission Possible survey respondents said that energy efficiency upgrades in existing buildings was a ‘significant’ or ‘business-critical’ priority, with 59% categorising ‘net-zero’ designs for future projects as equally important.

These findings come at a time when the World Green Buildings Council (WGBC) is calling for businesses and policymakers to eliminate carbon emissions for building portfolios by 2030, in order to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement.

BUSINESS LEADERSHIP: Public-sector organisations are increasingly adopting a purpose-led approach to sustainability

In recent times, several pieces of research and case-in-practice examples proving the case for purpose-led business have emerged. FleishmanHillard Fishburn (FHF) research, for instance, found that 93% of the millennial generation want to buy from companies that have social sustainability and environmental stewardship built into their ethos, while brands such as Unilever and Ikea are experiencing faster growth from their ‘more sustainable’ offerings than the rest of their products.

This transition to a new age of purpose-driven business leadership is also taking hold in the public sector, edie’s report finds. As the public’s trust in local authorities and other public bodies depletes amid concerns around transparency and funding cuts, almost three-quarters (72%) of public-sector respondents to the Mission Possible said that ‘aligning sustainability with core business values’ was the most important characteristic to an organisation’s ability to drive a sustainable future.

Additionally, 45% highlighted the importance of ‘sustainability values held among executive leadership’ in driving impactful change around key issues such as fuel poverty, public health and wellbeing and social inequality.

Read the full public sector sustainability report here

Sarah George

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