New Guidance Published to Decarbonise UK Government Buildings


The Cabinet office has published new guidance in the form of an 88-page handbook which is aimed at decarbonising public sector buildings including schools, hospitals, prisons, offices and job centres. The UK Government’s new ‘playbook’ details how it plans to help departments and agencies to maximise their contribution to making the UK a net-zero carbon emissions economy by 2050.

The publication of the ‘playbook’ comes less than a month after the Government provided the first update to its ‘Greening the Government’ framework since the UK legislated for net-zero.

Measures such as reducing water consumption, waste and greenhouse gas emissions have always been included in this framework, but stricter decarbonisation targets and sustainable procurement targets have now been set. There are also new requirements for departments to produce Climate Change Adaptation Strategies and plans for restoring nature.

The UK public sector manages more than 300,000 individual properties according to the Net Zero Estate Playbook, which is the largest property portfolio in the UK. It is currently responsible for generating 2% of the nation’s carbon emissions or around 9% of the UK’s total annual building-related emissions.

The ‘playbook’ calls on departments and agencies to lead by example and outlines the practises that should be adopted in order to reduce the public sector estate’s environmental impact and deliver the 78% reduction in emissions that the Government has promised by 2035.

Guidance included in the document covers all steps of decarbonisation, from updating energy and emissions audits, to securing necessary funding, to installing mature technologies and testing emerging solutions, to monitoring progress post-installation and, finally, offsetting residual emissions.

The UK government is keen to take the lead and show other governments that it is taking its commitment to net zero by 2050 seriously. Being the first major country to legislate for net zero and as the host of COP26 recently, the UK has been leading the way in securing global action to tackle climate change. Giving departments, the public sector, and government property professionals clear guidance on the design, implementation, and monitoring of Net Zero strategies and delivery programmes will help to make the UK’s national infrastructure greener.

Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay said decarbonising public buildings was “absolutely crucial” if the nation was going to meet its environmental targets.

He said:

“Property professionals should use the playbook to turn best-practice into standard-practice. It will put the public estate in a stronger position to deliver a 78% reduction in emissions by 2035, and fully net zero by 2050”.

The Net Zero Estate Playbook will ensure that a coordinated approach is applied across public buildings with the use of, for example, solar panels, LED lighting and greener building materials.

The ‘playbook’ also highlights examples of model projects, such as the Department for Work and Pensions’ hub in Tŷ Taf, which has been recently opened in Wales. The new site is leading the way in sustainability with energy efficient solar-powered technology and has electric vehicle charging points for staff, putting it at the forefront of the UK Government’s commitment to using Ultra Low Emission transport.

The guidance, which is applicable to both existing and new properties, will also assist the Department of Health and associated public bodies to improve the sustainability of their hospitals with the use of low carbon materials and an improved understanding of a building’s environmental impact over its whole lifespan.

All decision makers are encouraged to properly investigate the benefits of refurbishing or retro-fitting existing buildings as an alternative to “automatically” commissioning new-build properties. The ‘playbook’ acknowledges that most of the buildings which will be standing in the UK post-2035 and post-2050 already exist so retrofitting will be needed at pace and scale. Advice is also given for listed and other historic buildings.

The handbook outlines how developers of new buildings can meet the Future Buildings Standard, which is due to come into effect from 2025. There is specific advice for topics such as rooftop solar and corporate power purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy and for building in energy efficiency and choosing low-carbon heating systems.

The ‘playbook’ is different from the recently published Heat and Buildings Strategy in that it is unbiased in the specific technologies it focuses on, pointing out that different solutions will suit different contexts. The report recommends that developers undertake an updated assessment as soon as possible whether they are looking at heat pumps, district heating, biofuels or hydrogen.

Though the playbook stops short of setting a target for reducing embodied carbon it does recommend that developers work with suppliers to procure low-carbon building materials. Recently, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), concerned that businesses were failing to address emissions from materials, published what is thought to be the first UK-specific whole life carbon roadmap for the sector. Importantly, it is clearly stated in the ‘playbook’ that there will be “future versions” of the document with “further guidance” in the years to come.

All existing policies, such as the 25-Year Environmental Plan, the Greening Government Commitments, and the Net Zero Strategy (published in 2021) are supported by the Net Zero Estate Playbook.

The publication of the ‘playbook’ came after COP26 concluded with 197 Parties agreeing the Glasgow Climate Pact to urgently keep 1.5°C alive and finalise the outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement.

The pact will accelerate the pace of climate action this decade, with all countries agreeing to return improved emissions targets in 2022, as well as doubling climate finance for action on adapting to climate change by 2025.

We Need More Energy Goals to Truly Fight Climate Change

Energy Goal

This year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his plan to reduce the United Kingdom’s environmental impact with renewable energy. Based on his announcement from Manchester, the U.K. will source 100% of its electricity from emission-free sources by 2035. Parliament established the goal of decreasing atmospheric degradation, and it continues to define each step carrying the country towards carbon-neutrality.

Currently, the U.K.’s infrastructure is incompatible with complete renewable electricity sourcing. The country must establish additional energy goals to increase its climate change prevention efforts. Let’s evaluate the potential objectives and assess the current clean power plan.

Key Sustainable Energy Goals

In 2019, the U.K. established the Climate Change Act, which would reduce its general emissions by 80% by 2050. The country developed a carbon budget, restricting its release of greenhouse gases over a half-decade. The Climate Change Committee regulates emissions using carbon-tracking technology.

Climate professionals are zeroing in on the shipping and aviation sector’s pollution, penalizing them for ecological degradation. The U.K. government also developed a net-zero goal to hold companies responsible for carbon offsetting. While the U.K.’s sustainable energy goals are inspiring, they have flaws limiting their effectiveness.

The Climate Change Act solely contains emission-reduction tactics instead of carbon policies. Business owners may struggle to reduce ecological degradation without legal guidelines to follow.

Additionally, the Climate Change Act only targets the U.K. rather than global energy emissions. We need to expand universal sustainability regulations to truly fight climate change. The United Nations attempted to manage global emissions by creating the Paris Agreement.

Challenges With the Paris Agreement

At the Conference of the Parties (COP) in 2015, the United Nations released its plan to minimize adverse environmental effects. The goal is to limit Earth’s temperature rise to 1.5°C beyond pre-industrial rates. Each country that signed the Paris Agreement must develop its own emission reduction plan and present it to the committee.

There are some significant challenges within the global climate change prevention tactic, starting with free riders. The agreement only works when each country contributes equally to the end goal. Regulating nations’ efforts is challenging because of the complexity of industrial pollution and geopolitics.

Some countries and industries within a country minimize their emission reduction efforts hoping someone else will step up to the plate. When multiple nations rely on the sustainable advancements of others, it limits the success of global climate change prevention. Holding each country to the same emission reduction standard is also challenging.

Many environmentalists struggle to determine which countries are responsible for what emissions. Like the U.K. and U.S., post-industrial nations rely on outsourced materials and labour to meet consumer needs. While manufacturing emissions occur in other countries, the consuming nations must still take responsibility for some of the pollution.

Another challenge derives from the varying impacts of energy sources. Countries like China rely heavily on coal for power, which has different effects on the atmosphere than natural gas. Various greenhouse gases produce unique effects, limiting a climate committee’s ability to regulate each country’s impacts.

The Paris Agreement creates an effective starting point for sustainability enhancing efforts, and we must establish more global energy goals to further reduce adverse environmental effects. There are three potential goals countries can establish to truly fight climate change.

1. Expanding Renewable Energy Project Funding

Nations must develop goals of expanding clean energy funding to minimize their emissions effectively. Many countries prioritize economic gains over natural resource conservation but establishing both as a priority can help power professionals develop successful systems. Regions can profit from renewable energy production by selling their excess electricity.

Developing initial financial support can jumpstart a country’s transition away from its emission-producing energy reliance. The World Energy Investment of 2021 sets a beneficial example for nations minimizing their atmospheric degradation. Nearly 70% of the funding goes towards clean energy production.

The funding supports green technological advancements, renewable system installations, and maintenance costs. If nations develop an independent budget and support global energy investments, we can make significant strides in climate change prevention.

Government officials can also use the funding to create a clean electric grid. Developing supportive green infrastructure requires renewable energy expansions. Energy professionals can expand alternative electricity supplies like biodiesel to improve environmental conditions.

Unlike solar or wind power, biodiesel derives from repurposed natural resources, like vegetable oil and algae. The technology is relatively new, requiring higher funding support than well-established renewable energy sources. Developing abundant clean power sources and creating emission regulations can effectively minimize ecological degradation.

2. Establishing Emission Regulation Committees and Laws

Countries can additionally create climate change prevention committees and strict pollution-reduction laws to minimize ecological degradation. Currently, the lack of accountability for nations and industries allows emissions to accumulate in the atmosphere, limiting its ability to generate life-supporting temperatures on Earth’s surface. When countries regulate emissions and levy fines to those breaking climate change prevention laws, we can increase global environmental sustainability levels.

3. Holding Post-Industrial Nations Responsible for Outsource-Related Emissions

Developing countries, to which post-industrial nations often outsource their labour and emission-emitting facilities, struggle to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Transitioning from a fossil fuel-reliant power grid towards renewable electricity is costly and labour-intensive. We can increase the sustainability of global energy by holding developed nations responsible for their outsource-related emissions.

Countries can create a higher outsourcing tax, where the profits help establish a clean energy grid in developing nations, and additionally take a portion of their sustainability-enhancing funding and use it to expand green infrastructure in other areas.

Starting at Home

Before developing regulations and goals for global energy sources, countries must establish firm plans at home. Independent emission monitoring is a relatively new practice, and ecological engineers are continuously advancing the supporting technologies. While government officials wait for a global monitoring system to arrive, they can increase their clean energy funding, establish effective regulations, and clean up their outsource-related pollution.

By Jane Marsh