Tech helps Whitehall cuts three-fifths of greenhouse gas emissions

Use of mobile devices, cloud, and conferencing has played a major role in helping the public administration sector to slash its carbon footprint in the past 30 years

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Technology has played a significant role in enabling organisations providing public administration and defence to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 58% since 1990, according to new data from the Office for National Statistics.

The sector, which includes foreign affairs, justice, public order, fire services and compulsory social security, generated the equivalent of 11.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 1990. Provisional statistics suggest that this fell to just below five million in 2018. 

Among other mostly publicly run sectors, education halved its emissions from 5.3 million tonnes in 1990 to 2.6 million tonnes in 2018, but health and social work’s emissions rose 23% from 4.9 million tonnes to six million tonnes.

“Our increasing utilisation of cloud technology is generating environmental benefits”

Together, all three generate just 2.4% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions, which in total fell 32% from 834 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 1990 to 563 million tonnes in 2018. Large producers including manufacturing and power generation more than halved their emissions over this period. Transport and storage was up by more than a quarter, however.

Whitehall departments are monitored by the Greening Government Commitments programme. Its most recent annual report, published in May 2019, said that departments had cut emissions by at least 39% over eight years, from 3.1 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2009-10 to 1.9 million tonnes 2017-18. 


ICT has made a significant contribution to the carbon reduction, with an October sustainable technology report from the programme finding that 21 government departments made at least 3.5 million audio, web and video conference calls in 2018-19. It recommended this could be increased further by giving staff access to a range of e-conferencing options on end-user devices and in conference rooms, with the same systems used for both; by providing training and guidance; and by requiring suppliers to use e-conferencing where possible through contracts.

Departmental breakdown
Individual departments publish information on their use of technology in cutting emissions in annual reports and sustainability documents. 

The Ministry of Defence, which is responsible for half of central government greenhouse gas emissions, cut these by 42% from 2009-10 to 2018-19 according to its annual report published in July. 

This was largely due to better energy management and the UK’s electricity increasingly being generated from renewable sources, but the MoD has also cut emissions from travel by 8%, with a 21% reduction in domestic business flights. 

11.8 million tonnes
Amount of carbon dioxide generated by public services and defence in 1990 – a figure which has now dropped to less than five million

Amount of the UK’s overall greenhouse gas emissions generated by education, health and social work, and public administration and defence

Number of tablet devices issued by HMRC to help minimise paper use

3.5 million
Number of audio, web and videoconference calls made across 21 government departments in FY19

Amount by which the DWP has reduced its number of domestic business flights in the past nine years

“This, in part, has been achieved through improvements in remote collaborative working as part of our drive to embed smarter ways of working,” the report said. 

The MoD provided more detail on this in its most recent annual sustainability report released in December 2018. It introduced Skype for Business and videoconferencing as part of Microsoft Office 365 functionality in the ministry’s Modnet IT system, providing alternatives to physical meetings. The report added that increasing use of mobile devices has cut the need to print documents, with an experimental ‘paper-free February’ campaign in one office reducing printing by a third compared with the previous month.

The Ministry of Justice, which generates a fifth of central government emissions, had reduced these by 38% between 2009-10 and 2018-19 according to its annual report published in July. The ministry has introduced automated controls for boilers at three prison sites and automatic meter reading at 614 prison and court sites to improve energy efficiency. It also plans to make improvements by digitising court procedures and developing its Smarter Working programme, which includes much greater use of digital technology for collaboration, document sharing and communication.

HM Revenue and Customs’ emissions fell by 54% between 2009-10 to 2017-18, according to its most recent sustainability report, published in January 2019. It cut travel emissions by 3% over the previous year partly by replacing face-to-face meetings with audio conference calls. 

“Our increasing utilisation of cloud technology is generating environmental benefits,” HMRC added, while paper use was reduced by issuing nearly 39,000 mobile tablet devices to staff.

The Department for Work and Pensions, which has cut its emissions by 60% from 2009-10 to 2018-19 according to its annual report, has reduced its use of A4 paper by 72% and domestic business flights by 76% over the same time period. The annual report said the department has recently worked to apply intelligent automation to paper-based processes, which also improve speed and accuracy and release staff time to support customers.


Sam Trendall

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