A long exposure shot of the lights outside of a public sector building.

National and international sustainability targets, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and commitments under the Paris Agreement, are shaping policy and operational frameworks within public sector organisations.

These entities, ranging from local government bodies to national agencies are uniquely positioned to lead by example, integrating sustainability into the core of public services and infrastructure development. In the United Kingdom and further afield, the public sector’s approach to sustainability is evolving rapidly, driven by a dual mandate to reduce environmental impact and to create resilient and sustainable communities. This transformation can have its challenges, with public sector organisations managing  budget constraints, regulatory complexities and the pressing need to balance immediate operational demands with long-term sustainability goals.


The State of Sustainability in the Public Sector in 2024

Shaped by global initiatives and the pressing need to address climate change, resource depletion and social inequities, the public sector’s commitment to sustainability is increasingly evident. This is reflected in a range of policies, programs and practices adopted across various levels of government, demonstrating a collective effort to integrate sustainability into the core of the industries operations.

The influence of international sustainability frameworks is profound within the public sector and these commitments have pushed governments worldwide to set ambitious sustainability targets, driving policy reform and investment in sustainable infrastructure, energy and services.

The current sustainability landscape within the public sector is characterised by a diverse array of initiatives and achievements. Many public organisations have made significant strides in reducing their carbon footprint, enhancing energy efficiency and promoting sustainable community development. Examples include the adoption of renewable energy systems in public buildings, the implementation of green procurement policies to create sustainable supply chains and the development of digital services to improve resource management and reduce emissions.

However, the journey is far from complete and the sector faces ongoing challenges in fully integrating sustainability into all aspects of operations and service delivery. Issues such as budget constraints, competing priorities and the need for more comprehensive regulatory frameworks continue to pose barriers to further progress. Additionally, the increasing urgency climate-related risks and the growing demands of an informed and engaged public are driving the need for more ambitious and innovative approaches to sustainability.

Despite these challenges, there is a growing recognition of the role that public sector organisations play in driving sustainable transformation, within their own operations and through their influence on the wider economy and society. Collaborative efforts within and across sectors are emerging as a key strategy for amplifying impact and achieving the scale of change required to meet global sustainability goals.


Key Trends in the Public Sector Sustainability

The public sector’s approach to sustainability in 2024 is characterised by several key trends, reflecting a comprehensive and multifaceted effort to integrate sustainable practices across various levels of government. These trends not only demonstrate the sector’s commitment to environmental and social goals but also highlight innovative strategies for addressing contemporary challenges.

Green Procurement and Sustainable Supply Chains

The NHS has committed to reaching net zero by 2040 for the emissions we control directly, and by 2045 for the emissions we influence, through the goods and services we buy from our partners and suppliers.¹

By leveraging its considerable purchasing power, the public sector can significantly influence market demand for sustainable products, contributing to broader environmental goals such as reducing carbon emissions and conserving natural resources.

Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Initiatives

Sub target to meet the government fleet commitment for 25% of the government car fleet to be ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEV) by 31 December 2022, and for 100% of the government car and van fleet to be fully zero emissions at the tailpipe by 31 December 2027.²

These initiatives not only contribute to national and international climate targets but also serve as a model for sustainable energy use in the broader economy, promoting a transition towards a low-carbon future.

Digital Transformation and Sustainability

Departments should report on the adoption of the greening government: ICT and digital services strategy and associated targets and ensure they provide membership to the sustainable technology advice and reporting team, who manage and deliver the GGCs ICT reporting.³

The integration of digital technologies not only improves service delivery and operational efficiency but also supports environmental sustainability by minimising waste and optimising resource use.


Challenges to Sustainability in the Public Sector

The pursuit of sustainability within the public sector has its challenges and while the sector is poised to lead by example in the transition to a more sustainable future, there are hurdles that must be navigated to realise this potential.

Public sector entities often face stringent budget constraints and funding challenges that can impede the initiation or expansion of sustainability projects. Despite the long-term cost savings and environmental benefits to such initiatives, the upfront investment required for renewable energy systems, green buildings and sustainable infrastructure can be substantial. Limited financial resources and competing priorities make it difficult to allocate adequate funding for sustainability efforts.

Navigating the complex landscape of environmental regulations and ensuring policy alignment across different levels of government presents significant challenges. The public sector must comply with a wide array of sustainability regulations, which can vary significantly from on jurisdiction to another, adding layers of complexity to the implementation of sustainable practices. Measuring regulatory compliance and policy coherence demands considerable effort and resources, potentially detracting from the efficiency and effectiveness of sustainability initiatives. Misalignment between policies can also create confusion and hinder the comprehensive adoption of sustainable practices.

Public sector organisations must balance the growing public expectations for sustainability with the operational realities and limitations they face. Citizens increasingly demand environmentally responsible policies and services, however implementing these measures within the constraints of existing infrastructure, technologies and regulations can be challenging. This can lead to a gap between public expectations and what public sector organisations are realistically able to achieve, impacting public trust and the perceived effectiveness of sustainability efforts.


Opportunities and Strategies for Sustainable Public Sector Operations

Despite facing significant challenges, the public sector is positioned to go forward with sustainability initiatives that can have wide-reaching impacts on society and the environment. By capitalising on emerging opportunities and adopting strategic approaches, public sector organisations can lead the way in creating a more sustainable future.

Leveraging Technology for Sustainable Outcomes

Strategy: Embrace digital transformation and technological innovation to drive sustainability in public sector operations. This can include deploying smart infrastructure, utilising data analytics for efficient resource management and adopting digital platforms to reduce paper usage and improve service delivery.

Opportunity: Technology not only offers the potential to enhance efficiency and reduce costs but also enables public sector entities to minimise their environmental footprint. By investing in smart technologies, the public sector can lead by example, demonstrating the viability and benefits of such innovations to the broader economy and society.

Building Capacity and Fostering Collaboration

Strategy: Develop internal capacities within public sector organisations for sustainability planning and implementation. This involves training staff, establishing sustainability teams and creating frameworks for integrating environmental considerations into all aspects of public service. Additionally, fostering collaboration through public-private partnerships and community engagement initiatives can amplify the impact of sustainability efforts.

Opportunity: Strengthening internal capacities ensures that sustainability is a core component of public sector operations, rather than an afterthought. Collaborative efforts, meanwhile, can pool resources, knowledge, and expertise from across sectors, driving innovation and ensuring that sustainability initiatives are well-supported and aligned with broader societal goals.

Policy Innovation and Leadership

Strategy: Utilise the public sector’s policy-making authority to innovate and lead in sustainability. This can involve setting ambitious sustainability targets, enacting supportive legislation and regulations and incentivising sustainable practices within the private sector and among the public.

Opportunity: Policy innovation can produce significant changes within the public sector. By setting clear sustainability goals and creating a supportive regulatory environment, public sector entities can encourage widespread adoption of sustainable practices.

Sustainable Procurement Practices

Strategy: Adopt and enforce sustainable procurement policies that prioritise environmentally and socially responsible products and services. This approach should extend to all aspects of procurement, from the selection of suppliers to the criteria used in tender processes.

Opportunity: Sustainable procurement has the dual benefit of reducing the public sector’s direct environmental impact while also encouraging suppliers to adopt greener practices. By leveraging its significant purchasing power, the public sector can drive demand for sustainable goods and services.


Why do Public Sector Organisations choose McGrady Clarke?

Public Sector organisations choose McGrady Clarke for our targeted expertise in cutting energy costs, meeting environmental regulations and improving sustainability. We offer custom energy efficiency audits to reduce expenses, alongside net-zero strategies to help organisations lower their carbon footprint and meet regulations.

Our services are specifically designed to align with the public sector’s needs, ensuring economic benefits while promoting environmental sustainability, making us a preferred partner for organisations aiming to lead by example.



¹ NHS England. (n.d.). Suppliers. Greener NHS. Retrieved from https://www.england.nhs.uk/greenernhs/get-involved/suppliers/. This material is licensed under the Open Government Licence (OGL).

² UK Government. (2021). Greening Government Commitments 2021 to 2025. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/greening-government-commitments-2021-to-2025/greening-government-commitments-2021-to-2025. Licensed under the Open Government Licence (OGL).

³  UK Government. (2021). Greening Government Commitments 2021 to 2025. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/greening-government-commitments-2021-to-2025/greening-government-commitments-2021-to-2025. Licensed under the Open Government Licence (OGL) for public sector information.