Net-zero in the public sector: What might it mean for business?
As the dust settles following the General Election, it is time to return to the imperative of swift action to set the course for net-zero and the vital role of the public sector in achieving it.
In his speech on the morning after the election, the Prime Minister noted that the British public had voted for carbon neutrality and that the Government would deliver this. It is vital that the public sector takes a lead in this transition, and we want to see a commitment to achieving net-zero in the sector in advance of the 2050 deadline, ideally by 2040.
Let’s assume that the new Government steps up and accepts this responsibility, putting in place an action plan to remove carbon emissions from public sector activities. What does this mean for business? The public sector is a significant energy user: when it reduces its overall energy use and increases the flexibility of its demand, this will lower overall system costs, cutting costs for all energy users – good news for businesses.
The public sector will start to demand higher minimum levels of energy performance in the buildings they own and occupy: given their influence on the commercial property market, this will in effect mean de facto rising minimum efficiency standards for all non-domestic buildings. Which of course means the potential for a better working environment, increased productivity, and happier staff. Again, good news for businesses.
But actually delivering net-zero will require more than an increase in the ‘on paper’ energy performance of buildings. We will need to see much more use of actual energy use data to track the performance of our workplaces. And this, in turn, could drive significant changes in working practices for energy and facilities managers.
Because, at the moment, buildings are definitely not performing in the way that they should. At a recent ADE members’ conference Mike Darby, CEO of Demand Logic, shocked us with the following numbers: in 2018, on the coldest March day since records began, a single modern office building was recorded using enough electrical power to run 650 UK homes to cool itself and, to overcome this unnecessary cooling, was also running boilers equivalent to heating 500 UK homes, to warm itself up again! Imagine if facilities management was judged on the extent to which a building’s energy performance was as expected, rather than on how quickly complaints about thermal comfort were actioned… how much closer to net-zero could common sense actions like this take us? But of course, to enable this, building owners and occupiers need to have the information and interpretation to hand to understand how a building is behaving.
Public sector action on net-zero should not be restricted only to the buildings it owns and occupies. A Government that is committed to delivering emissions reductions should be procuring all its goods and services from organisations with similar commitments. Again, assuming that the new Government delivers on its carbon emissions reduction promises, this will be a real opportunity for businesses that have set themselves on the road to net-zero, and a real risk to those that have not.
But what if the Government doesn’t match words with action? Does that really change the landscape for businesses and their energy managers? I don’t think so. Investors and the banks are increasingly understanding the climate change transition and asset risks for them, and will be increasingly unwilling to finance companies that are not serious about reducing their carbon footprint. And if you add to that the benefits to the bottom line of lower energy use, increased productivity and improved staff wellbeing, there is simply no case for inaction.
In short, net-zero in the public sector has important implications for businesses, but it is not the only game in town. Acting now, and getting ahead of the competition, will be a smart move whether or not public sector organisations demonstrate the leadership we are looking for on net-zero.
Dr Joanne Wade, Deputy Director, Association for Decentralised Energy
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