Seeing the light_2

11 Feb 10
Sustainability is no longer a choice for the public sector, with legal requirements to cut carbon emissions to be introduced in April. John Thornton says technology can help meet these targets and cut costs
By John Thornton

11 February 2010

Sustainability is no longer a choice for the public sector, with legal requirements to cut carbon emissions to be introduced in April. John Thornton says technology can help meet these targets and cut costs

Despite the recent controversies over some of the scientific data on global warming, we all know that we must make the transition to a low-carbon economy. The debate has moved on from discussions about the reality of climate change to dealing with its consequences. It is also clear that public sector bodies have major roles to play in terms of leadership, regulation and ­reducing their own carbon footprints.

Starting from April, almost every public service body will be required to register and participate in the new Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme, the UK’s mandatory climate change and energy savings programme. New Treasury guidance is also expected to require all government bodies to provide sustainability reports on a dry-run basis for 2010/11, which will become mandatory from April 2011.
These are in addition to the Sustainability on the Government Estate targets, which have previously been set across government. Councils will also most likely be required to introduce the sustainability reports, as well as meeting carbon reduction and energy saving targets that have been included in their Local Area Agreements.
For many of us this means a new vocabulary, which includes sustainability targets, carbon budgets and carbon balance sheets.  As the recent Oracle report,  Public sector sustainability reporting, makes clear, most of the current debate for accountants has been about sustainability reporting and carbon accounting. We need to change the debate and integrate sustainability objectives into corporate performance management. Accountants and performance managers have the necessary skills and experience to measure costs, formulate budgets and monitor achievements against plans. 

Public sector organisations must look hard at their own corporate carbon footprints and how these can be reduced. Many are looking at fundamental changes in working practices and greater use of technology to change their use of energy and resources.

The Highways Agency, which is responsible for more than 4,500 miles of the strategic road network, is introducing more energy-efficient lighting and is also piloting a ‘midnight switch-off’, where motorway lighting is turned off between midnight and 5am at pilot sites. This has the potential not only to reduce light pollution but could also cut energy usage and CO2 emissions by around 40%.

As the Sustainable Development Commission, the independent watchdog on sustainability, has recently highlighted, IT can support a range of ways to make mobility and our lifestyles more sustainable. It can also encourage home working and reduce air travel for meetings.

ICT itself is, however, a major concern in terms of sustainability. To make a 2 gigabyte memory chip, for example, requires at least 630 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals, in addition to the toxic and polluting effects that arise from its manufacture. Plus, typically, for every £4 spent on hardware, £1 is spent on the power to operate it.

Globally, electricity used by ICT increased by almost 70% between 2000 and 2005, bringing ICT-related CO2 emissions to 2% of overall global emissions. This is broadly equivalent to that produced by the aviation industry.

According to a recent Cabinet Office report, ICT is responsible for up to 20% of carbon emissions generated by government offices — around 460,000 tonnes a year (equivalent to more than 84,000 cars).  Reducing the energy consumption of ICT therefore becomes an ever more important part of efficiency, as well as a principal component of reducing our ­collective carbon footprint.

In the London Borough of Bexley, green issues and energy usage are influencing the council’s ICT and business strategies. Tony Allen, deputy director for ICT and a member of CIPFA’s IT Panel, says the council has moved staff to a greener and more efficient building, extended flexible and remote working, and reduced office space requirements to a ‘seven desks to ten users’ ratio.  It has also redesigned and modernised its data centre, as well as reducing the number of servers through virtualisation and consolidation – using one server in place of multiple ones.

Other policies include replacing IT equipment less often and encouraging users to switch off PCs and printers when not in use, especially overnight. The council is also publishing reports, papers and staff bulletins electronically and encouraging ‘web-reading’ rather than printing.

Individually, some of Bexley’s policies will have only a minor impact on its costs and carbon footprint. Replacing old inefficient desktop computers, for example, is expected to save just over £16,000 in electricity and 160 tonnes of CO2 emissions per annum. Introducing remote working two days per week for an employee with a 30-mile commute by car will save just over a tonne of CO2 each year.  However, taken together, the cumulative effect is significant, plus it shows commitment and ­leadership to both staff and the public.

This was a point echoed by the Highways Agency, which has a target to reduce emissions from administrative offices and travel by 5%. The agency has implemented technology to automatically switch off office IT equipment and lights using sensors. It has also introduced a new ticketing system that enables staff to see the carbon emissions that would result from different ways of travelling before they make any travel bookings. The agency has admitted that, while they will make small reductions in emissions, they are an important part of winning hearts and minds, and thereby changing ­behaviour.

As the Oracle report makes clear, there is no choice for public sector bodies – they must act on sustainability. But, while the new targets are all mandatory, the greater challenge is to put in place the performance planning and management arrangements. Much of the information you require might not currently be collected and might be held by others outside your organisation. This means setting up arrangements to collect ­reliable information. 

There are also significant financial and reputational implications for failing to comply with sustainability requirements, particularly the CRC, and for inadvertently reporting incorrect information.  However, while there is a lot of guidance available, it is not all in one place.  Also, it is not always clear what needs to be achieved and reported under which ­particular aspect of government policy.

Can we still afford sustainability?  Martin Hagen, president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, pointed out at the Accounting for Sustainability Conference in December: ‘Sustainability is simply about doing better business.’ He stressed that, despite the recession: ‘This is not the time to ditch sustainability objectives.’

The public sector currently spends around £3.2bn a year on energy. Reducing its energy consumption through new ways of working, greater efficiency and the use of low-carbon technologies makes sound financial and economic sense.  It should also help us to meet the needs of today’s citizens in ways that do less to compromise the ability of future ­generations to meet their own needs.

John Thornton is an independent adviser and writer, the executive director of e-ssential Resources  and a member of the CIPFA IT Panel

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