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    Driving sustainability: how to check your speed

  • Posted on July 14, 2016 by

    Driving sustainabilityIt’s tempting to think someone else is dealing with environmental concerns: charities, perhaps, or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But we all have a role to play, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Department for Transport (DfT), the subject of the NAO’s latest interactive Sustainability Overview. Public and private organisations, alike, can apply the good practice criteria we used to review DfT to understand their sustainability strengths and weaknesses.

    Environmental targetsThis week’s report by the Committee on Climate Change about the UK’s preparedness for global warming illustrates the crucial importance of environmental management – and its complexity. As a country we have signed up to international commitments for the environment, and the government has also made its own announcements (some listed right). Achieving these targets is not solely the responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

    Transport is one sector with significant impacts on the environment. It contributes 22% of domestic carbon emissions and uses 38% of our energy. We have almost 16,000 km of railway and 7,000 km of motorways and major roads, much of which passes through countryside. Tackling the challenges created by the sector requires a department that recognises the importance of the environment and is equipped to take action to support sustainability – hence the focus of our review.

    Through our ongoing support for the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), we’ve developed criteria and questions for reviewing departments’ progress – which are useful to review the progress of any organisation. Using this framework, we found that the Department for Transport (DfT) has taken many positive steps to meeting the challenge of sustainability in the transport sector, particularly in respect of its internal processes and interactions with other parts of government. However, there’s an opportunity to go further and be a leader for sustainability in the transport sector, and to ensure that the environment is fully considered across all decisions.

    The high level questions in our framework are set out below, along with the headline findings for DfT. EAC used our work as the basis of an evidence session with the department, and will be publishing the results of their inquiry in the near future.


    EnvironmentAre the policies and policy‑making consistent with sustainable development objectives?

    DfT findings: Although DfT doesn’t have formal ownership of cross-government environmental targets, it recognises that it’s in an important position to influence their achievement. DfT’s work with other parts of government to achieve sustainable transport – including the Office for Low Emission Vehicles – is a good example of cross-government coordination that could be applied by other parts of government, and its Transport Analysis Guidance includes detailed guidance on environmental impact assessment. However, there is still more that can be done to ensure these positive steps are visible to those outside the department.

    EnvironmentDoes the governance and leadership promote sustainable development objectives?

    DfT findings: DfT’s governance and organisational structure reflect its view that sustainability is a cross-cutting issue relevant to all areas of its work. However, stakeholders have told us it is difficult to know what priority the industry should be placing on sustainability and this may be a limiting factor for innovation. The department could do more to promote its leadership role in the sector and articulate its ambitions for sustainability and the environment.

    EnvironmentIs the procurement conducted in a manner consistent with sustainable development objectives?

    DfT findings: DfT has made progress in reducing the environmental impacts of its procurement activities, and is currently updating its Sustainable Procurement Strategy to reflect government priorities.

    EnvironmentAre estates and operations being managed in a manner consistent with sustainable development objectives?

    DfT findings: The majority of DfT’s estates are managed by its agencies and arm’s‑length bodies, but there is a central process for reporting and monitoring operational environmental impacts. Overall impacts are reducing, but challenges remain and environmental accounting boundaries may change.


    The questions and criteria set out in the Appendix of our Sustainability Overview, and the good practice set out in our other work on environmental sustainability, could be helpful for organisations’ sustainability reviews for their annual reports.

    Please do share your views on this crucial matter for the country and how government can respond, either by commenting on this post or contacting us.
     
     
    Tom Glithero

    About the author: Tom Glithero is an Audit Principal working in the NAO’s Newcastle office as part of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) team. Tom’s been at the NAO since 2011, having joined and qualified as a Chartered Accountant through our graduate programme. He has an interest in the environment and sustainability, and has a degree in Geography from Aberystwyth University.

     


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