Decarbonising Public Services

A report launched this week by Unison details why it is so important to decarbonise public services. They account for 8% of UK carbon emissions and this is excludes emissions associated with procurement, public transport, construction or social housing. Decarbonising these services would contribute significantly to reaching our net zero targets. The report provides full financial costings of decarbonisation and finds that there is a significant shortfall of around £113 billion. It argues that adequately funding the decarbonisation of public services would not only help address the climate emergency, but it would also create around 240,000 jobs and guarantee high quality, collectively provided services that ensure that nobody would go without the housing, transport, education or care that they need. Its findings provide a compelling case for a Social Guarantee.


In light of the grand promises and inflated rhetoric that has surrounded COP 26 it is important to get some perspective on the state we’re currently in. Unison looked at nine public service sectors – health care, social care, local government, education, police and justice, community care, housing associations, water, and environment – and found that most of these sectors had no coordinated strategy on how to meet net zero. The lack of coordination is due to an absence of government support and fragmented, privatised systems, further exacerbated by inadequate funding and the extraction of profits. The current state of decarbonisation strategies in these public service makes meeting national net zero targets highly unlikely.


Of all these sectors, the NHS has the most detailed strategy for reaching net zero and demonstrates how publicly owned organisations are well equipped to coordinate effectively as Ian Gough notes in his recent blog. NHS targets are ambitious and comprehensive due to high levels of communication across all Trusts and Integrated Care Systems. They not only cover emissions for which the NHS is directly responsible, but also emissions that it has influence over in its supply chains. Unfortunately, due to the significant disruptions caused by the pandemic combined with a lack of adequate funding, less than half of NHS Trusts are on track to meet these targets. Nonetheless, the existence of a plan in and of itself puts the NHS ahead of many other public service sectors.


Despite being exclusively privatised, the water sector has also coordinated its providers to develop a sector-wide plan. However, due to the requirement to pay its private shareholders, it too is facing a funding shortfall. The sector estimates the cost of reaching net-zero by 2030 as £2-4billion. This may seem like a significant amount of money, yet these same companies have paid out on average £1.4billion per year in dividends since 2010, equalling a massive £16.9billion to date. Bringing this natural monopoly into public ownership would enable these huge sums to be reinvested and foot the bill for decarbonisation.


In home-care, another privatised sector, the situation looks bleak for both small independent providers and local authorities. The situation here demonstrates why funding from central government is so important. The vast majority of home-care in the UK is delivered by small firms with local authorities providing 70% of funding. Despite being predominantly funded by public money, home-care is mainly delivered by a collection of private businesses. The cost of decarbonising this sector, if not supported by the state, would further increase the already high costs of home-care. These increases would fall on vulnerable service users, on small providers or on severely underfunded local authorities, eroding the quality and availability of this essential service. Similar problems afflict the privatised residential care sector.


Local government is directly responsible for between 2-5% of their local emissions and has a significant part to play in reaching net zero nationally. However, due to substantial failings in central government’s approach, there is very little clarity over the roles of local authorities or understanding of who is accountable for what. This lack of coordination and communication makes it very difficult for local authorities to develop long term plans. Combined with a devastating lack of funding overall, and piecemeal and diffuse funding pots for decarbonisation efforts, this has made it impossible to create the scale of planning needed across the sector. For local authorities to be able meet net zero by 2030, there needs to clear lines of responsibility, devolution of power and significant, ringfenced funding.


To address the considerable issues identified in the report, its authors make three recommendations. Firstly, spend money. If the government is serious about its commitments to reach net zero by 2050, then decarbonising public services is essential. Providing the estimated shortfall of £113billion between now and 2035 would decarbonise public services while at the same time bringing down operating costs, creating savings in the long-run. Secondly, this money should be delivered as part of a decarbonisation budget. Ten years of austerity have decimated public services. The money needed for decarbonisation must be delivered in addition to the much-needed funding for restoring essential services. Unless it is ringfenced, this money risks being diverted into severely under-resourced operational budgets. Finally, the report recommends setting up partnerships between government and trade unions to ensure that plans for a Just Transition are developed with those on the front line of service delivery.


This important report provides a compelling argument in favour of a Social Guarantee. As evidenced by the NHS, collectively provided services are better able to coordinate and communicate in order to develop credible strategies to net zero. With little or no profit extraction, collectively owned firms can reinvest any gains in measures to improve services and cut emissions. For vital services like adult social care, public investment is essential to prevent the burden falling on vulnerable people or overstretched local authorities. Power and resources must also be devolved to local areas and supported with clear guidance from national government to ensure that local targets can be set and achieved.


Everybody relies on services such as healthcare, housing and education to live a fulfilling life but none of this is possible without a thriving planet. The Social Guarantee puts the meeting of people’s needs at the heart of all economic and political activity. This means ensuring universal access to essential services through the expansion of collective ownership and control, devolution of power, and the distribution funds to restore, revive and decarbonise these sectors.