Don’t let COVID-19 derail sustainability: Five sustainability actions to take now

sustainability actions
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Anthony Ainsworth, COO, Industrial & Commercial, npower Business Solutions, highlights the top five sustainability actions local governments can take now to plan their road to net zero

The question of how we get to net zero is a challenging one, and this is particularly true in the public sector, where a diverse range of assets and operations must be considered, and where the need to invest in carbon saving technology must always be balanced with the strain it places on the public purse.

While it has often focused on the ‘quick wins’ presented by energy efficiency, the public sector now finds itself in a position where it must lead by example. As such, its commitment to decarbonisation was made explicit within the Clean Growth Strategy, which asked public sector bodies to adhere to an ambitious voluntary target and reporting structure, aiming to reduce carbon emissions by 30% by 2020/21 compared to a 2009/10 baseline. Government’s position was then affirmed and consolidated in June 2019 when it legislated for Net Zero by 2050, placing a statutory duty on councils to mitigate climate change and mounting the pressure on public sector bodies to adhere to the targets set by the new legislative framework.

But while some parts of the public sector already have well defined carbon targets in place, or are subject to mandatory or voluntary reporting schemes such as Display Energy Certificates (DEC), there is at present no common target or standard that covers all organisations. For a sector that consists of many different sub sectors, including local authorities, healthcare, education, transport and more, wholescale decarbonisation will inevitably be a complex journey.

That’s not to say decisive decarbonisation action in the public sector is impossible. Already, Nottingham City Council has committed to becoming the UK’s first carbon neutral city and is pursuing this goal with a sweeping net zero strategy that covers everything from retrofitting council buildings to investing in community owned solar-schemes. Meanwhile, Warrington Borough Council has launched a green bond that will see residents invest in two industrial scale solar farms and a co-located battery storage facility, as it works to deliver a carbon-neutral town by 2030.

However, these individual success stories and more widespread gains in carbon reduction are only one part of the story. While more than half of the UK’s local authorities had made climate emergency declarations before the COVID-19 pandemic began and many more are now eager to find investment for net zero action as the economy reopens, the lack of a consistent approach and the absence of clear policies that would make collaboration with business and industry easier could slow progress towards the 2050 goal.

Based on this, npower Business Solutions consulted with several public sector organisations as part of a wider report of nearly 100 businesses to gauge views on the net zero target, where they are in their own net zero journey, and the support they want to see from central government to aid the transition.

‘Your Business Blueprint – The road to Net Zero for public sector organisations’

The results of the ‘Your Business Blueprint – The road to Net Zero for public sector organisations’ showed that organisations are optimistic about achieving net zero by 2050 – 83% believe that it is a realistic target. In addition, when asked whether they had a clear plan to hit net zero emissions ahead of 2050, over half (57%) agreed. The majority – 60% – also believed their organisation would benefit from the changes required during the net zero transition, with the main reason being greater long-term operational resiliency through saving money and carbon.

However, the research also revealed a concern from 60% of organisations about the potential economic impact on their organisation – which was much higher than the commercial sector. There was also a difference in opinion about who should contribute the majority of the funding for it – whether it should be the government, large energy intensive industries, financial institutions or the general taxpayer.

That said, despite their concerns, the findings show that the public sector is planning to invest in a variety of measures to achieve their own net zero targets, with many looking at on-site generation, waste heat recovery, smart energy management and electric vehicles (EVs) as part of their emissions reduction strategies. Corporate PPAs from renewable energy sources were also on the list of investment areas for a quarter of respondents.

So, what actions can organisations take over the short-to-medium term to put them in the best position to hit their carbon reduction targets?

For us, there are five steps to take:

  1. Understand your energy data to take action, you need to understand how energy is being used, so an energy audit can identify improvements including looking at times of use, efficiency of infrastructure and processes, and changing employee behaviour to help reduce emissions or costs.
  2. Invest in energy efficiency – energy efficiency has been called a ‘no regrets’ action and can include relatively ‘quick wins’ such as switching to more efficient lighting, air conditioning and refrigeration, as well as bigger investments such as implementing a smart energy management system.
  3. Procure ‘green’ fuel – buying and using green fuel is another way to offset carbon emissions. There are two potential options. The first is generating local energy by installing on-site generation. Or, if space or capital are not available, then local generation schemes – for example, large-scale solar or wind solutions – can be used to offset future energy demand via a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), an option which has been taken up by several local authorities.
  4. Consider on-site generation – there is now a great deal of choice for organisations, including CHP, wind, solar photovoltaic (PV) or biomass.  As well as reducing emissions, it increases resilience as it means the organisation is less reliant on the grid.  That said, there is a need to make sure that any plans for on-site generation are scoped appropriately, so the payback and benefits can be assessed.
  5. Plan for the future – organisations should also start planning for the longer term, including the potential impact of new technologies such as hydrogen – which will be crucial to decarbonising the more energy intensive areas of the public sector – and a wider adoption of solutions such as EVs.

It’s an important time for the public sector and one during which they must lead by example. Organisations have a duty to demonstrate the broad benefits of decarbonisation and can influence the way UK businesses approach everything from low carbon buildings to sustainable transport fleets, with their actions and procurement choices potentially paving the way for increased investment in low carbon technology.

What Your Business Blueprint – The road to Net Zero affirms is that the majority of organisations want to implement measures to reduce their carbon impact. They recognise the role they will play and acknowledge they will need to contribute to the funding of the UK’s ambitious climate goal.

However, they need policy clarity, greater support and a clearer roadmap from central government if this ambition is to become a reality.


‘Your Business Blueprint – The road to Net Zero for public sector organisations’ from npower Business Solutions can be downloaded at


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