National Audit Office warns of ‘patchy and inconsistent’ reporting of public sector emissions

A new report published by National Audit Office (NAO) has 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.

National Audit Office warns of ‘patchy and inconsistent’ reporting of public sector emissions

The new NAO report, published today (10 June) has outlined the Government’s approach to counting and reporting on public sector emissions, with an overlying warning that this part of the economy may well be off track to help deliver the net-zero emissions target set for 2050.

The new NAO report finds 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.

“Central government departments have reported notable progress in reducing their direct emissions over the past decade. The GGCs have provided a broadly stable framework within which departments can measure and report progress against targets,” the report states.

“HM Treasury’s Sustainability Reporting Guidance has begun to set expectations for what stakeholders, and Parliament, might expect to see in the annual reports of public bodies. However, there are inconsistencies in which bodies are and are not reporting within the GGC framework, patchy compliance with HM Treasury’s reporting guidance and a lack of clarity about what is expected of the rest of the public sector.”

Slow progress

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.

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, many departments are operating against GCC targets, which offer a 43% reduction as the strongest target, with other departments only required to cut emissions by 10%.

“The current inconsistencies mirror a lack of coherence in the oversight and support provided by the centre of government on the measurement and reporting of public sector emissions. All public sector bodies need to understand the likely costs of delivering their decarbonisation targets so that they can effectively prioritise action and investment, the report adds.

“With better, more consistent data, central government departments could improve cost estimation and inform priorities for reducing emissions.”

Commenting on the report, Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: “For a Government which trumpets its climate leadership on a seemingly daily basis, this damning report exposes an utter dereliction of the most basic duties.

“There is a complete lack of consistency and co-ordination in Government departments’ approach to decarbonisation. There is no single department or location charged with collating basic information and guidance. Less than half of all departments are fully measuring their emissions. And emissions from the wider public sector, including schools and hospitals, are not even included in department targets.

“The Government won’t come close to reaching net-zero and avoiding climate breakdown without getting its own house in order. We urgently need a centralised source of government guidance on emissions reporting – with clear standards and targets that every single department must be compelled to meet.”

Beyond net-zero in the public sector

The public sector represents a critical piece of the UK’s net-zero puzzle. From local government to hospitals, schools and social housing providers – a significant amount of investment and work is required to cut emissions and embrace clean technologies. But beyond simply ‘reducing’, public sector organisations also have a key role to play in enhancing the environmental and social sustainability of the communities they serve.

This report aims to highlight the optimism in the sector in not only playing a key role in reaching net-zero, but also contributing to a “net-positive” approach to society, the economy and the planet.

Read the report here.

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