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Leading by example: progress review

A year on from publication of the Coalition Government’s vision for sustainable development, Defra’s Sustainable Development Team reviews progress on the Government’s commitment to lead by example.

This report is one of a series of progress reviews across the themes of the Mainstreaming Sustainable Development vision.

Greening Government Commitments and the Cabinet sub-committee

In February 2011, the Government signed up to the Greening Government Commitments which set ambitious but achievable targets for government departments and their agencies. These are to: reduce carbon emissions by 25%, reduce waste generated by 25%, buy more sustainable and efficient products by embedding Government Buying Standards into contracts, and reduce water use to best practice benchmarks, by 2015. This is from a 2009/10 baseline. Transparency is key to these commitments with a promise to report publicly on progress and, in addition, a commitment to transparency on a range of issues such as biodiversity protection on the government estate.

Underlying these commitments is a belief in showing leadership to the wider public sector, businesses and citizens. It is recognised that government has the capacity to do so and should share its experience of innovative practice. Sustainable procurement is a good example as central government spend is 13% of total national spend. So the Government can lead by example and influence business as suppliers and procurers and, as a result, have a major impact on supporting a green economy.

How is the Government faring one year on? In terms of meeting the targets, the data that has been reported (so far on the first two quarters) shows the Government is doing well on some of the commitments. For example, in relation to the carbon emissions target, several departments are already close to meeting their target. On the one year paper reduction target (by 10%) which feeds into the wider waste target, the figures from the first two quarters show the Government is on track. On other targets such as the broader waste target, it is recognised that the target is challenging and will take considerable planning and effort to achieve.

It is expected that government departments will be able to achieve its 2015 targets. Sharing best practice within government will be vital. We also call on others to offer ideas and advice.

The need to keep the pressure up is recognised from the Government’s experience in reducing its carbon emissions by 10% in 2010. The commitment was exceeded with emissions reduced by nearly 14% and savings made of £13 million in energy bills. In the light of this, a formal ministerial sub-committee has been set up, chaired jointly by Oliver Letwin, Minister of State for Government Policy, and Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It will seek to ensure delivery of these targets by holding departments to account. The sub-committee held its first meeting at the end of January 2012, identifying those departments that needed to report more fully.

The next step is to obtain data for the last two quarters and then for annual departmental reports to be published. The intention is to bring departmental reports together into a pan-government picture for 2011/12 to be published by the Government in the Summer. This will enable all our armchair auditors to check on the Government’s progress.

Procurement and the Government Buying Standards

The Government is committed to leading by example on sustainable procurement by buying more sustainable and efficient products and engaging with its suppliers to understand and reduce the impacts of supply chains. The benefits of sustainable procurement, which looks beyond immediate costs to lifecycle costs, is recognised by the government as important for keeping longer term costs down.

Defra is reviewing, updating and extending the Government Buying Standards, which set minimum mandatory specifications for government buyers and higher voluntary best practice standards. In particular, it is seeking to ensure waste prevention is fully taken into account in developing these standards as well as greater emphasis on impacts during the production process.

The potential for driving innovation and green growth through harnessing the purchasing powers of government is also being developed and explored. Defra is working jointly with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) on innovation projects, and with business through the Aldersgate Group on the means of achieving this.

Besides updates to specific standards, a new listing of standards for products that have a significant impact on water usage helps buyers meet the Government’s commitment to reduce its water consumption. This is critical with the increase in recent years in drought warnings.

The first standards for food and catering services came into force in September 2011, ensuring that government departments and agencies buy more sustainable food and give small and local producers fair access to public contracts worth up to £2 billion a year. As well as requiring that all fish is from sustainable sources, the standards cover animal welfare and environmental standards, energy efficiency, waste management, nutrition, seasonality and fair trading.

The last year has seen considerable development of the National Sustainable Public Procurement Programme (NSPPP), which brings greater clarity and consistency to training for sustainable procurement in the public sector. The programme aims to clarify the messages, create a consistent approach to delivery, and ensure the quality of materials that can be readily shared between public organisations and sectors. Additional modules on carbon literacy and sustainable food procurement have recently been added to the NSPPP.

In October 2011 the NSPPP launched a carbon literacy e-learning resource, which has been made available to both the public and private sectors, in an example of sharing learning to improve sustainability.

Over the coming year, Defra aims to ensure that sustainable procurement is fully embedded into practice and that tools to use government purchasing power to support the Green Economy are developed further. The negotiations on the European Public Procurement Directives also offer an opportunity to ensure greater legal clarity on the scope for sustainable procurement.

This article is one of a series of reviews on progress in the first year since publication of Mainstreaming Sustainable Development, the Coalition Government’s vision for sustainable development. Read all the articles here…

Next article: Transparency and scrutiny: progress review »

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