‘Inconsistent’: National Audit Office warns public sector emissions reporting is a mess

A major report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned the UK government’s system for counting and reporting greenhouse gas emissions is patchy and muddled, with approaches to climate impact disclosure varying significantly across different departments.

The findings, published this morning, warn there is no single department at the center of government responsible for orchestrating public sector emissions accounting and reporting, nor a centralized guidance document setting out standards and best practice. It also claims that the current emissions targets imposed on government departments for 2024/2025 are too limited in scope and may not be strong enough to put the UK economy on track to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, as required under the Climate Change Act.

In addition, the public spending watchdog warned that not all government departments are fully measuring their greenhouse gas emissions, noting that just nine out of 21 government departments fully met HM Treasury (HMT) reporting requirements in 2018-19, the last tax year before emissions reporting was suspended due to Covid-19 pandemic.

HMT is just one of four government departments that has guidance for greenhouse gas emissions reporting, alongside the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra), and the Cabinet Office. This means public sector organizations have to cross-check multiple documents when reporting their emissions, the NAO said.

And there is no single government department charged with overseeing the measurement and reporting of public sector greenhouse gas emisisons, the watchdog stressed. Defra has a responsibility for ‘Greening Government Commitment’ (GGC) targets imposed on different departments, whereas BEIS leads on the net zero agenda and the emissions-related aspects of the GGC targets. Meanwhile, HMT sets its own sustainability reporting requirements for annual reports and accounts.

As such, the NAO has today called on the government to streamline guidance for public sector bodies and pick a department that would hold overall responsibility for the agenda.

“The government has an ambition for the public sector to lead by example during the transition to net zero, but the measurement and reporting of gas emissions by public bodies is inconsistent,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO. “Public bodies face the challenge of navigating various greenhouse gas emissions reporting frameworks without a central source of government guidance. Government now needs to strengthen its leadership and establish a clear standard for the entire public sector to meet.”

It has also called on BEIS to ensure greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets set out by BEIS for government departments for the period between 2021 and 2025 are aligned with the government’s broader ambition to reach net zero by 2050, arguing that it is unclear whether the current targets are “sufficiently ambitious”.

The UK’s Net Zero Strategy has a goal to halve emissions from buildings by 2032, and by 75 per cent by the end of 2037 against 2017 levels. But the GGC targets – which are set out by BEIS in negotiation with individual departments – are less stringent, ranging from 10 per cent to 43 per cent cuts, the NAO said.

The watchdog added that “BEIS does not currently know” whether together the GGCs will achieve the 25 per cent reduction in aggregate emissions by 2025 required to stay on course to meet the 2032 buildings target. It also warned that emissions from the wider public sector – for instance hospitals, schools, and local authorities, remain outside the scope of GGCs.

Green Party MP Carline Lucas said a centralized source of government guidance on emissions reporting was urgently needed, with “clear standards and targets” that all departments would be compelled to meet.

“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,” she said. “There is a complete lack of consistency and co-ordination in government departments’ approach to decarbonisation.”

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts said the report highlighted a “worrying lack of central leadership” over how public sector bodies should report their emissions.

“Guidance is muddled and confusing, and the lack of clarity means reporting is a real mixed bag,” she said. “Good data leads to good decisions, yet some public sector bodies are not using the information to understand the true cost of decarbonising. Without it, they can’t know how to get the most bang for their buck.

“Despite warnings from my committee, there is still no clear guiding mind on the ‘what, how and when’ for reporting emissions. The path to net zero will be difficult enough, so government needs to better light the way.”

A government spokesperson pointed to emissions reduced by central government to date, as well as a number of measures it had introduced to deacarbonise public sector buildings.

“The NAO themselves recognise the progress we’ve made in cutting emissions from the central government estate in half since 2010, but we agree there is always more to do,” they said. “That’s why we are awarding £2.5bn to help cut emissions from public buildings such as schools and hospitals, as we make a strong and concerted effort to reduce emissions from all public buildings by 75 per cent by 2037.

“This is on top of our wider efforts to increase our use of home-grown energy such as renewables, increasing our energy security while meeting our net zero ambitions.”

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