Government failing on net-zero emissions reporting and measuring, MPs find

The UK Government is failing to lead by example on the road to net-zero emissions by 2050, with the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticising how emissions are measured and reported for the public sector across central government.

Government failing on net-zero emissions reporting and measuring, MPs find

MPs expressed concerns over a lack of departmental ownership of net-zero

The PAC has today (2 November) issued the findings of its inquiry into the Government’s pledge to “lead by example” in reaching net-zero.

Under the net-zero target, the Government is aiming to reduce emissions from public sector buildings by 75% by 2037, against a 2017 baseline. However, the PAC has found that responsibility for reporting and measuring emissions is split across different departments that utilise “vague” guidance and different report standards.

As such, the PAC warns that reporting standards are “too low” across central government. The Committee found that fewer than half of government departments are complying with mandatory reporting requirements set out by the Treasury. Outside of government, the public sector has no standardised and agreed reporting principles, the PAC notes.

The public sector risks falling behind on emissions reporting and “could learn from developing practice in the private sector and the devolved administrations”, the PAC added.

The PAC’s chair Dame Meg Hillier MP said: “The targets set to maintain our world in a liveable state are not ‘nice to have’. The government made a legally binding commitment to deliver net zero by 2050.

“Government promised to lead the way to national decarbonisation but isn’t even putting its own house in order. Vague guidance and lack of follow up make it hard for the public to hold the Government to account. A free for all on reporting veils progress or lack of it. Government needs to be clearer and must publish consistent standards for measuring and reporting emissions across the public sector so that it can be properly held to account”

The report echoes the findings from the National Audit Office (NAO), which criticised the Government’s approach to accounting and reporting on public sector greenhouse gas emissions, citing multiple frameworks and a lack of ownership as reasons that create confusion for professionals in the sector.

The NAO report found that while central government departments are reporting decent progress on decarbonisation a “patchy” and “inconsistent” approach to reporting and accounting is creating confusion in the sector.

Under current Government guidance there is no single departmental ownership of public sector emissions accounting and reporting, with multiple frameworks and guidance sitting in different departments across Government.

The Treasury, for example, offers guidance on sustainability reporting requirements for annual reports and accounts, while Defra imposes the ‘Greening Government Commitment’ (GGC) targets across different areas of Government. Then there is BEIS, which is orchestrating progress against the net-zero target while the Cabinet Office also has some level of oversight on decarbonisation.

Currently, less than half (nine out of 21) of Government departments are meeting the reporting requirements set out by the Treasury. Additionally, the GGC’s introduced by Defra are “too limited”, according to the report, and may not deliver the required levels of decarbonisation to reach net-zero emissions by mid-Century.

The PAC recommends that BEIS should publish regular progress reports based on data and how it compares to the required decarbonisation trajectories. BEIS should also set out what departments, if any, are under-performing.

The report also recommends that both BEIS and the Treasury set a timetable to create consistent standards for the public sector to report on emissions. Those departments should also consider which bodies will need to report Scope 3 emissions.

Earlier in the year, the PAC warned that the UK Government had “no clear plan” for funding the transition to net-zero and risks losing the confidence of organisations that will prove key to delivering a low-carbon future, including businesses and local councils.

The report berates the UK Government for taking more than two years to develop its flagship Net-Zero Strategy. This policy package was one of several requested by the PAC in March 2021 and finally came in October 2021, shortly before COP26 began in Glasgow, due to Covid-19-related delays.

Ministers have badged the Net-Zero Strategy as a comprehensive plan to “transform every sector of the global economy”, but green groups have argued that the lack of new time-bound, numerical decarbonisation targets for any sector – and the near absence of agriculture and food – makes the Strategy uncredible. Indeed, the Strategy was ruled unlawful in the High Court.

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