Reducing emissions from public sector buildings

building windows
Image © CHUNYIP WONG | Istock

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health weighs up the aim of reducing emissions from public sector buildings by 75% by 2037, compared to a 2017 baseline

In September 2021, the UK Government, under then Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP, through their Net-Zero strategy, launched their wholesale approach to decarbonising all aspects of the United Kingdom’s economy, industry, and society at large in a bid to ensure the UK reaches Net Zero by 2050.

It was the most comprehensive, cross-cutting approach to decarbonisation that had ever been considered by any UK government before. It included policies aimed at reducing emissions from the global supply chain, manufacturing, transport, housing, and buildings. Management of the public sector estate will be critical to supporting a net zero pathway, with public sector buildings responsible for approximately 9% of CO2 emissions. (1) Therefore, the government must show real leadership in reducing carbon emissions of public sector buildings to support efforts in reducing the UK’s carbon footprint.

In addition to legally binding targets to reduce carbon emissions by 75% by 2035 and achieve Net Zero by 2050, first put forward in Boris Johnson’s Ten-Point Plan, the government committed in the Net Zero Strategy to the aim of reducing direct emissions from public sector buildings by 75% against a 2017 baseline by the end of Carbon Budget 6 (2037).

How realistic is this target?

So how realistic is this target, and will the government manage to meet its commitments? The short answer is that it is far too early to tell. In its ‘State of the Estate’ report updated in November 2022, the government provided an update on emissions arising from public-sector buildings. In it, they confirm that as of March 2021, the government as a whole had reduced its emissions by 57% in 2020-21 compared to 2009-10, exceeding a previously set target of 43%. (2) However, as we know, the updated aim is to reduce emissions from public sector buildings by 2037, compared not to a 2010 baseline but to a 2017 baseline.

There is a commitment from the government to update their ‘State of the Estate’ annual report to reflect the progress towards this target, so we must wait to see what progress has been made in this respect. However, any progress must be met with one caveat that the government acknowledges: COVID-19 meant a dramatic, anomalous reduction in emissions from buildings in 2020-21.

buildings in London
image © serts | Istock

Why is this emissions target so important

As previously mentioned, emissions from public sector buildings account for approximately 9% of CO2 emissions. However, this is only part of the story. There are over 30 million buildings in the UK. In total, these buildings are responsible for around 30% of our national emissions. Most of these emissions result from heating: 79% of buildings emissions and about 23% of all UK emissions. (3) A look at government statistics on the Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) for all dwellings in England and Wales also indicates that insufficient progress is being made to reduce the emissions from private housing, as only 41% of all dwellings have an EPC of Band C or above. (4)

Therefore, not only is it essential for the government to reduce emissions from public sector buildings as a means of reducing the UK’s overall carbon footprint arising from this source, but it is essential that the government act as an exemplar concerning efforts to improve energy efficiency and to reduce emissions from the stock of houses and buildings across the United Kingdom.

Reducing emissions from public sector buildings by 75% is “an ambitious and laudable target”

The aim of reducing emissions from public sector buildings by 75% by 2037, compared to a 2017 baseline, is an ambitious and laudable target. The progress made towards achieving this target will be essential, not only in reducing emissions arising from this source but also in providing a blueprint for which the private sector can emulate concerning reducing overall emissions from the entire housing and building stock across the UK.

Rest assured that many will be keeping a close watch on the progress being made in this regard, holding the government’s ‘feet to the fire’, so to speak, as this is an essential and cross-cutting issue in the race to achieving Net Zero. We at the CIEH intend to act as a critical friend to the government, ensuring sufficient progress is being made, challenging where appropriate, and will always be on hand to bring the voice of our members to the heart of government where we think this will aid better decision-making.

1. HM Government, Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener, 2021 (
2. Cabinet Office, State of the Estate in 2020-2021 (
3. Final UK greenhouse gas emissions national statistics: 1990 to 2019 – GOV.UK ( (
4. DLUHC, Domestic Energy Performance Certificates for all dwellings by energy efficiency rating, January 2023 (

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Senior Policy and Public Affairs Executive
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health
Phone: +44 (0)20 7827 5800
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