NAO: environmental sustainability a ‘Cinderella issue’ for MoD
21 May 2020: The National Audit Office reports that despite some progress, the Ministry of Defence needs to do more to make environmental sustainability a priority.
A report by the National Audit Office (NAO), the independent audit body responsible for scrutinising public spending on behalf of Parliament, says the Ministry of Defence has not gone far enough to embed environmental sustainability into its estate management, procurement, governance and policymaking.
The NAO says that the MoD is not doing as much as it should to contribute to central government targets for sustainability. The MoD is the largest landholder in central government and its scale and size of activities mean that according to the NAO “it could have an impact unparalleled in government – particularly in reducing greenhouse gas emissions”.
With a budget of £38bn a year, the third-largest in government, and expenditure with suppliers representing more than 40% of government procurement, what the MoD does will be critical to the achievability of government targets.
The NAO points out that while the MoD has made progress on the Greening Government Commitments (GGC), consistently measured and centrally reported environmental targets imposed on all government departments, these targets do not capture the full range of the MoD’s activities that affect the environment. This may make it more difficult to meet the June 2019 government legislation that commits the UK to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Achieving carbon neutrality will be difficult for the MoD, but everything it can do to reduce emissions will be important as even if the MoD ends up not being required to be carbon neutral itself, its emissions will need to be offset elsewhere.
The NAO suggests that the MoD is not placing sufficient emphasis on environmental sustainability by treating it as a subset of health and safety risks and hazards, making it a ‘Cinderella issue’ focused on the avoidance of incidents rather than the positive contribution it could make to environmental goals.
The report highlights opportunities for the MoD to improve its green performance, for example, in the way it manages the land it owns, including 169 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Natural England has assessed 48% of these as being in favourable condition, but more than half have not been assessed since at least 2011, with assessments increasingly out of date due to reductions in Natural England’s inspection regime. The MoD lacks the resources to do its own assessments and as a result, it is unclear whether the assessments are still accurate.
The NAO points out that as a major landowner, the MoD also has a role in developing good practice. By leading by example on conservation issues it could make a significant contribution to meeting the Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan.
Francesca Sharp, technical lead on climate change for ICAEW commented: “As a large landowner in the UK, the MoD will be under increased scrutiny to maintain or improve environmental performance – particularly with land that acts as a carbon sink such as wetlands or peatland”.
Alison Ring, director public sector for ICAEW said “The NAO report is clearly putting the MoD in the ‘could do better’ category when it comes to embedding environmental sustainability into its everyday activity. As one of the largest spending departments the MoD’s performance will have a major impact on whether government targets are achievable or not.”