George Tarvit, Director, Sustainable Scotland Network
George Tarvit Sustainable Scotland Network
A landscape photo looking out over Edinburgh
Energy
Energy
Now that the UK and Scottish Governments have committed to reaching Net Zero in legislation, all attention is on delivery. Local authorities and their public sector partners are often sitting at the sharp end of that delivery, working to secure the co-benefits of climate action for the people and places they serve. So, with so much focus on action, what can mandatory public sector climate change reporting add to the agenda?

Now that the UK and Scottish Governments have committed to reaching Net Zero in legislation, all attention is on delivery. Local authorities and their public sector partners are often sitting at the sharp end of that delivery, working to secure the co-benefits of climate action for the people and places they serve. So, with so much focus on action, what can mandatory public sector climate change reporting add to the agenda? 

Scottish local authorities and the wider public sector community benefit from having the Sustainable Scotland Network (SSN), a long-established and trusted network whose roots lie in the Local Agenda 21 era of the early 2000s. But since the passing of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, SSN has played an increasingly important role in supporting collaboration, consistency and capacity building on public sector climate action. Working with over 180 ‘major player’ public bodies, SSN has also been at the heart of work on the Public Bodies Climate Change Duties that are integral to the 2009 Act.

From the legislative foothold in the 2009 Act, SSN has worked with the Scottish Government, the SSN Steering Group and a range of support agencies, to develop, implement, support and analyse Scotland’s distinct mandatory climate change reporting duty. Mandatory reporting for Scottish public bodies was instigated in 2014, building on voluntary reporting that had taken place as part of initiatives such as the Scotland Climate Change Declaration. Following a period of consultation and development, reporting requirements were made mandatory through a Parliamentary Order in 2015, and this Order set out the reporting requirements for all major player bodies in Scotland, including all 32 local authorities. The original Order has recently been amended, requiring the reporting of targets on direct and indirect emissions, reporting of information on financial and resource alignment to meet those targets, and improved reporting on adaptation.

Based on good climate and carbon management principles, Scotland’s mandatory reporting requires all responsible bodies to report progress on: Governance, Management and Strategy; Corporate Emission; Procurement; and Adaptation. Public bodies are also encouraged to report on their wider influence on emissions, including work on local area emissions, as well as wider partnership initiatives and sustainability actions. Since 2015, all major players have reported annually, with close to 100% returns in each year. Reports are all available on the SSN website, along with the annual analysis reports produced by SSN. 

It is fair to say, Scotland’s public bodies are now well versed in the language and practice of annual climate change reporting. So, what difference has that made, and what are the pros and cons of the Scottish approach?

What we have learned from reporting so far: 

  • Scotland now has a series of annual data reports from all major public sector bodies. Emissions reporting is increasingly consistent, and reporting has greatly helped develop the public sector’s carbon accounting ‘literacy’. Additionally, reporting has kept the wider influence of public bodies, in terms of procurement and area-wide emissions, as well as adaptation, firmly on organisational agendas. Reporting has also fostered a more corporate approach to climate change in Scotland, with reports requiring cross-departmental collaboration and senior-level visibility and sign-off. 
  • Reporting has also enabled Scotland to generate a year-on-year analysis of public body plans, targets, emissions, projects and partnerships. SSN’s analysis of the reports provides high-level insight into the emissions reduction trends across the sector, and in sub-sectors, and can shine a spotlight on examples of good practice. Emissions trends are heading in the right direction, with Scope 1 and 2 emissions down 5.8% on last year and down by over a third since reporting began. However, reports also show that this is heavily dependent on the decarbonisation of the electricity grid, and more challenges are faced when looking at emissions relating to heating and the use of gas. 
  • SSN’s analysis shows the need to improve the reporting of projects and finance that are designed to meet emissions targets. This is something that the reporting amendments brought in in 2020 seek to address.
  • Reports also show the need to invest in capacity building – i.e. training, education, policy design etc - on climate change adaptation, and also to better align climate change reporting with other public sector reporting requirements, such as reporting on public procurement. 
  • Also, our experience of managing a common but relatively complex reporting system for public bodies has shown many challenges of making reporting efficient for officers to collate reports, and effective in generating data and insights that then inform policy, investment and action.

Looking Forward

We now have the opportunity to build on Scotland’s public bodies' climate change duties reporting (essentially ‘reporting v1.0’), to make reporting a more robust pillar of an effective public sector response to the challenge of global climate change. SSN is working with the Scottish Government, the SSN Steering Group and its members on a number of areas of improvement. These include:

  1. SSN and the Scottish Government co-developed new guidance for public bodies, launched in October 2021. This refreshes a lot of existing guidance and provides a base level of guidance to inform public sector climate action and reporting. It is the basis upon which more advice, guidance and good practice will be developed and shared.
  2. SSN is working to better engage leaders with reporting, to encourage better use of reporting to inform decision-making. Our Spring Conference on 25th May closed the gap between leadership and reporting, bringing the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport plus leaders from local government, NHS Scotland and the Further Education sector together to explore what reports are telling us and to identify ways that reporting can be used better to drive action. Additionally, SSN is developing a Climate Emergency Leaders Checklist to help leaders assess and improve their organisations’ climate performance.
  3. The SSN Secretariat is also working with colleagues in the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute and SSN members to identify and promote more consistent and collaborative tools and methods for tackling climate change. This work includes work on consistent carbon scenario planning, and work to explore how public bodies can work better together to share knowledge, data, tools and methodologies. Short-life working groups are involving SSN members in work to co-develop consistent approaches to issues such as carbon impact assessment, carbon budgeting, and carbon sequestration. 

Widening the scope of reporting is another area that needs development. Reporting of Scope 3 emissions is patchy and inconsistent, and climate change reporting needs to work in concert with sustainable procurement policy, to generate better annual assessments of progress and opportunities for improvement. Furthermore, work on local authority area-wide emissions (a long-standing area of work for SSN) needs to evolve to enable a more consistent approach to be established and for annual reporting to better reflect the vital work that public bodies and local partnerships do in helping communities transition to Net Zero and adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. 

Finally, more needs to be done to make public body reports publicly accessible and useful. There is growing scrutiny and interest in the role of local authorities, public bodies and local partnerships in addressing climate change. This is likely to continue to grow, with both formal public sector audit regimes and citizen participation being drivers for more and more attention placed on the role of public bodies in delivering change and helping communities, businesses and citizens cut emissions, sequester carbon and build climate resilience. This interest and scrutiny demands that public sector reporting is invested in and made fit for the challenges of the next decade, as we seek to accelerate the scale and pace of change towards Net Zero and climate resilience. 

Collaborate to succeed

SSN has always benefitted from positive collaboration with practitioners, consultants, researchers, NGOs and businesses in developing and delivering its support to public bodies in Scotland. We have also benefited from alignment with and learning from international, European and UK wide initiatives seeking to support and promote public sector climate action.

  • If any of this blog sparks interest and you’d like to discuss ideas or opportunities, please do get in touch at george.tarvit@ed.ac.uk.