UK seeking decarbonisation of public estate with help of new guidance

Out-Law News | 02 Dec 2021 | 2:04 pm | 3 min. read

The UK government has set out guidance intended to help the estates teams and managers of public sector properties reduce emissions from and decarbonise the public estate.

The Net Zero Estate Playbook (88 page / 3.56MB PDF) sets out a six stage process for decarbonisation of the public estate. It is intended to apply across the whole public sector, other than to specialist buildings such as laboratories.

The UK public sector estate consists of 300,000 buildings with a combined value of  £515 billion, and generates around 2% of the UK’s total emissions.

Real estate expert Siobhan Cross of Pinsent Masons said: “Whilst it is of course welcome to see the government taking further action towards  reducing  emissions from the huge public sector estate and moreover acknowledging the leading role the public sector should play in decarbonising real estate, that work needs to commence quickly and proceed at pace if it is to provide the lead the government aspires to provide within the required time frame and to be a catalyst for developing the urgently required skills and supply chains needed to enable all of the built environment to transition to net zero which is critical if the UK is to meet its binding net zero target by 2050 and importantly to achieve the emissions reductions required this decade”.

The guidance aims to give estates teams and managers an understanding of how to define and measure emissions and develop strategies for decarbonisation, by establishing a systematic approach and consistent design, implementation and monitoring of the transition to net zero for public sector buildings. It defines what ‘net zero emissions’ means for both the construction – including major renovations – and operation of those buildings. The concept of ‘whole life carbon’ is not reflected in the guidance, as this is a developing area. However, it is intended that this will feature in future versions.

Cross Siobhan

Siobhan Cross


This work needs to commence quickly and proceed at pace if it is to provide the lead the government aspires to provide within the required time frame

Public sector organisations are required to focus on cutting ‘scope 1’ emissions – direct greenhouse gas emissions from sources controlled by the organisation – as a priority. However, they should also seek to reduce scope 2 (purchased electricity) and 3 emissions, which are energy-related and other indirect emissions which occur as a consequence of the organisation’s operations. In the public sector context, scope 3 emissions will usually arise from purchased goods or services and construction work.

The playbook sets out a roadmap to net zero for the public sector estate, at both portfolio and specific asset level. This begins with the establishment of governance structures to drive the transformation.

The second step, establishing the organisation’s baseline emissions and setting a target for reducing them, is “an essential piece of preparatory work”, according to the playbook. The baseline and the scope have to capture both existing and future estate, with a method for capturing emissions data and updating it in the future.

Step 3 is to set a net zero target and assess the options for achieving this. Estate managers should then seek sign off on the estate’s decarbonisation plan, taking into account any climate change adaptation requirements At this point, funding from the available government funding for the relevant decarbonisation work can be applied for.

Step 5 covers procurement and step 6 covers delivery and monitoring, to be overseen by a delivery governance team.

Consideration of refurbishment and retrofitting of existing properties is required as part of any decision about building new property, according to the playbook. It also advocates the use of green lease provisions where the public sector holds leasehold interests or is letting property.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Steve Barclay, said: “Decarbonising public buildings is absolutely crucial if we’re going to meet our environmental targets”.

The playbook’s publication follows the release of the government’s heat and buildings and net zero strategies in October 2021. These strategy documents provided detail and timelines for plans to decarbonise heat in buildings, and move towards net zero emissions across the economy.

Siobhan Cross said: “The government’s heat and building strategy set out the government’s intention to reduce emissions from public sector buildings by 75% against a 2017 baseline by 2037, and for the public sector to lead the way in decarbonising buildings by measuring, reporting on and reducing energy use, making its buildings more energy efficient, and in new buildings installing low carbon heating”.

“A £1 billion public sector decarbonisation scheme was announced in 2020 for the period 2020 to 2021 and subsequent further funding announcements have since been made, with the Climate Change Committee recommending budgets of £1bn per annum for this work. The heat and building strategy made it clear that if public sector bodies did not voluntarily report their emissions or make sufficient progress in reducing them, legislation to require this would be introduced,” she said.