Whitehall's hot air

A study by the National Audit Office makes a mockery of the government's pledge to achieve carbon ne

While Gordon Brown spouts hot air on cutting Britain's carbon emissions, his civil servants have been generating a 12 per cent increase in CO2 since 2000.

The findings emerged from a recent study by the National Audit Office, the body that monitors government spending. They make a mockery of the government's pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2012 and show that even Defra, the environment department, has increased emissions by 10 per cent.

The NAO made its investigation at the request of the Commons environmental audit committee. This committee had conducted its own study but had been baffled by the contradictory data it was sent by government departments. This prompted the NAO's second major finding: that the government has no consistent way to measure its own energy consumption and consequent CO2 emissions.

What did emerge was the scale of the government's environmental impact. The NAO worked out that the gas and electricity consumed by central government departments generate three million tonnes of CO2 a year. This is about 0.5 per cent of total UK emissions and the figure would double if schools and hospitals were added.

Worst offenders included the Department for Transport whose emissions increased by 50 per cent between 2003 and 2006; the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which saw its emissions increase by 66 per cent between 2000 and 2006; the Department for Work and Pensions, second-biggest consumer of energy in the civil estate, which increased its emissions by 14 per cent between 2000 and 2006.

The only government agency or department on track to meet emissions reductions and energy efficiency targets was the Food Standards Agency. NAO's investigators, Eric Lewis and Gill Proaktor, said: "Only five out of 21 government departments have met or are making progress against their carbon reduction target. However, four of these five have done so only because of significant reductions in their estate area. The remaining 16 departments, including all the largest, have recorded increases in emissions."

The main reason, according to the NAO, is the growing reliance of civil servants on computers and other electronic equipment. Lewis and Proaktor concluded: "While gas consumption across the entire estate has declined by 9.5 per cent since the baseline year, electricity consumption has increased by over 12 per cent . . . due mainly to the growth in the use of IT-related equipment."

The government has tried to put its own spin on the figures. It told the EAC it had achieved an overall 0.5 per cent cut in emissions since 2000. This, the NAO found, was deeply misleading. It traced the apparent cuts back to the Ministry of Defence whose individual submissions to the EAC had claimed a 7 per cent reduction in energy consumption and a 6 per cent cut in carbon emissions.

It looked good - till the NAO realised the MoD had achieved these cuts largely by selling off large chunks of its estate, principally through the privatisation of QinetiQ, the former defence research agency. It failed to adjust its energy consumption and carbon-emission figures to take account of its reduced size.

Since the MoD consumes more energy and produces more emissions than all other government departments put together, the apparent cuts it had achieved made the entire government look good. Once the MoD was excluded, said the NAO report, "carbon emissions from civil departments rose 12 per cent against the baseline of 1990".

For taxpayers, this has serious implications. In June 2006, Brown approved a government target of becoming completely carbon neutral by 2012. This is now unachievable through direct cuts in emissions. Instead, the government will have to spend millions of pounds buying carbon offsets.

Jonathan Leake is environment editor at the Sunday Times. Roger Waite is a reporter on the Sunday Times

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked