Public sector leadership on the global climate emergency: guidance

Guidance to Scotland’s public bodies on their leadership role in the shared national endeavour to tackle the global crises of health, climate emergency and biodiversity loss.

Executive Summary

The leaders of Scotland's public bodies have a key role to play in the crucial period to 2030 in the shared national endeavour to tackle the global crises of health, climate emergency and biodiversity loss. Scotland is committed to achieving a 75% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2045. Delivering these national targets presents huge challenges in terms of the pace of action and the skills and finance required. The public sector is crucial to the implementation of national and local climate policy. Public bodies are also expected to show leadership by continuing to reduce their own emissions quickly – most sectors, including the public sector, will need to reduce emissions close to zero without offsetting for Scotland to meet its national climate change goals.

Public sector leaders must take strong action over the next decade to promote climate policies, to tackle the significant new challenge of decarbonising the £13.3bn of annual public sector procurement, and to continue to curb emissions from the public sector estate and fleet.[1]

Working together to build a greener, fairer, prosperous Scotland, the Scottish Government and Scottish Green party shared policy programme, published on 20 August 2021, sets out that public sector funding should be conditional on levering in wider benefits, such as the just transition to a net zero economy, and that this will be the subject of consultation.

The agreement also commits to developing and agreeing through consultation a series of phased targets for the decarbonisation of public sector buildings starting in 2024, with the most difficult buildings like hospitals being decarbonised by 2038, and for all publicly-owned buildings to meet zero emission heating requirements, with a backstop of 2038.

The Scottish Green Public Sector Estate Decarbonisation Scheme provides a number of support mechanisms for heat decarbonisation and improving energy efficiency across buildings owned by the public sector in Scotland. The Scheme will distribute the £200 million of capital support pledged over the next 5 year period to aid the decarbonisation of Scotland's public sector estates.

Public bodies have had statutory climate change duties since 2011. Section 44 of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 requires a public body, in exercising its functions, to:

  • contribute to delivery of Scotland's national net zero target (mitigation – reducing greenhouse gas emissions);
  • help deliver Scotland's climate change adaptation programme (adaptation – resilience to the impacts of a changing climate); and
  • act sustainably (sustainable development as a core value).

The Climate Change (Duties of Public Bodies: Reporting Requirements) (Scotland) Order 2015 introduced mandatory annual reporting by public bodies on compliance with these climate change duties.

Scotland’s unique reporting duty has been widely credited with driving climate action and delivering robust measurement of public bodies’ scope 1 and scope 2 emissions. There is now a strong demand among the sector for robust, consistent and comprehensive measurement and reporting of the entire carbon footprint of public bodies to support the accelerated action now needed. The Scottish Government is committed to continuing to engage with Scotland’s public bodies through networks like the Sustainable Scotland Network (SSN) to support this work.

In response to the global climate emergency and Scotland’s net zero by 2045 target, and following public consultation in 2019, the Climate Change (Duties of Public Bodies: Reporting Requirements) (Scotland) Amendment Order 2020 set out additional requirements for reporting periods commencing on or after 1 April 2021. Public bodies’ annual climate change reports must now also include:

  • where applicable, the body’s target date for achieving zero direct emissions of greenhouse gases, or such other targets that demonstrate how the body is contributing to Scotland achieving its emissions reduction targets;
  • where applicable, targets for reducing indirect emissions of greenhouse gases;
  • how the body will align its spending plans and use of resources to contribute to reducing emissions and delivering its emissions reduction targets;
  • how the body will publish, or otherwise make available, its progress to achieving its emissions reduction targets; and
  • where applicable, what contribution the body has made to helping deliver Scotland’s Climate Change Adaptation Programme (currently the 2019-2024 Programme).

The SSN Strategy 2020-2024, supported by the Scottish Government, recognises the reality of the global climate, ecological and public health emergencies, which are exacerbating the stark inequalities in society. These demand a just transition towards a sustainable Scotland, and investment in a green recovery from the impacts of COVID-19. The SSN Strategy sets out the opportunity for the public sector to lead by example in low carbon behaviours and adoption of innovative low carbon technology solutions, and ambitions centred around three themes: net zero places, net zero indirect emissions, and net zero public sector organisations. The Strategy stresses that Scotland needs its public sector bodies to work together on these challenges with clear leadership, consistent policies and improved knowledge, skills and resources.

This Guidance provides advice for public bodies on: leadership; robust, consistent and comprehensive carbon management; interpretations of the strengthened legislation; and resources available to support public bodies.

Based on the Climate Change Plan Update CCPu, published in December 2020, and net zero commitments and plans of Scottish local authorities, NHS Scotland, universities and colleges, Scotland’s Environment and Economy Leaders Group, Scottish Water, Zero Waste Scotland, and the Scottish Government, the following milestones are suggested for the public sector.

2021 onwards

Public bodies implement their sustainable procurement duty and embed climate change in procurement strategies and reporting.

Accelerated efforts to use 100% renewable electricity on the public sector estate. Public bodies continue to reduce electricity use.

Public bodies continue to install wind and hydro power on publicly managed land.

Public bodies embed circular economy principles into their procurement strategies.

Public sector reduce food waste throughout its buildings and services.

Public sector explores a “Team Scotland” approach to naturebased sequestration – sustainable forest management, woodland creation and peatland restoration – on publicly managed land.

Public bodies support Scotland’s Climate Change Adaptation Programme.

Net Zero Public Sector Buildings Standard (voluntary) progressively applied to new build and major refurbishment projects across the public sector.

Nov 2022

Report target date for zero direct emissions and for reducing indirect emissions.


Need for new petrol and diesel light commercial vehicles in public bodies’ procurement is phased out.

2023 – 2025

New regulations to set standards for zero emissions heating and energy efficiency.


Low carbon heavy vehicle fleet.

Scotland achieves zero waste to landfill.

2030 – 2035

Business travel and employee commuting will reduce in line with transport sector milestones.


Zero direct emissions from buildings.


Scotland is net zero.

Detailed guidance on Climate Change Reporting and Action



The obligation of an organisation, or named individual, to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them and disclose the results in a transparent manner. Accountability can be defined as the ultimate responsibility.


The adjustment in economic, social or natural systems in response to actual or expected climatic change, to limit harmful consequences and exploit beneficial opportunities.


Defined as a systematic and independent examination of data, statements, records, operations and performances (financial or otherwise) of an enterprise for a stated purpose.

Baseline year

Historical period specified for the purpose of comparing GHG emissions. A baseline year is usually set for a whole target period e.g. a baseline year of 2010 used for the target period 2011 to 2015.


Greenhouse Gas (GHG) inventories or carbon footprints are defined by boundaries. The boundary chosen should be in line with the GHG Protocol on corporate emissions. Ideally boundaries need to be expressed in terms of both the estate and services included (the organisational boundary) and the operational emission sources included.

Carbon emissions

This term is used as short-hand for greenhouse gas emissions (which, in addition to carbon dioxide, also includes methane, nitrous oxide and refrigerant gases).

Carbon equivalents

GHG emissions are measured in tonnes of CO2 equivalents which is a quantity that describes, for a given mixture and amount of greenhouse gas, the amount of CO2 that would have the same global warming potential (GWP), when measured over a 100 year timescale. These units therefore enable comparison of different greenhouse gases emitted, or saved, at different project stages.

Carbon footprint

This is an estimate of GHGs emitted to, or removed from, the atmosphere over a set period of time and is expressed in units of CO2e. A carbon footprint of an organisation refers to the sources within the footprint boundary chosen by the organisation and is likely to cover energy in buildings, street lighting (for local authorities), waste, business travel and fleet but could also include other emission sources. The carbon footprint discussed is therefore specific to each organisation.

Carbon Management Plans

These are designed to assist organisations in lowering their carbon emissions whilst saving money on energy costs. Carbon Management Plans typically include a carbon baseline, a corporate reduction target and a register of projects to be undertaken which will contribute to reduced emissions and often lead to increased efficiencies and reduced costs.

Circular economy

This is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which resources are kept in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

Direct and indirect emissions

The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol defines direct and indirect emissions as follows:

  • Direct GHG emissions are emissions from sources that are owned or controlled by the reporting entity.
  • Indirect GHG emissions are emissions that are a consequence of the activities of the reporting entity, but occur at sources owned or controlled by another entity.
Embodied carbon

Defined as the energy use and resulting carbon emissions released during the extraction, manufacture, sale, transport, assembly, installation and disposal of products or services.

Emission factors

Used to convert ‘activity data’ such as distance travelled, litres of fuel used or tonnes of waste disposed into units of carbon dioxide equivalents. For some activities, e.g. units of electricity consumed, the factor changes on an annual basis and the correct factor should be used for the relevant period. For the majority of activities undertaken by the public sector in Scotland, the relevant emission factors can be found in the webpages called Greenhouse Gas Conversion Factor Repository (currently hosted by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy).

Emission reduction

Reduction in emissions relative to a baseline (e.g. wind turbines replace coal electricity generation).

Global warming potential (GWP)

Factor describing the radiative forcing impact of one mass-based unit of a given GHG relative to an equivalent unit of carbon dioxide over a given period of time (usually 100 years). GWP is used to ‘translate’ other greenhouse gases into units of carbon dioxide equivalents for comparison.

Greenhouse gas

Any gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect by absorbing infrared radiation in the atmosphere.


Company, corporation, firm, enterprise, authority or institution, or part or combination thereof, whether incorporated or not, public or private, that has its own functions and administration.

Resource efficiency

Reducing the total environmental impact of the production and consumption of goods and services, from raw material extraction to final use and disposal route.


A duty or obligation to satisfactorily perform or complete a task (assigned by someone, or created by one’s own promise or circumstances) that one must fulfil, and which has a consequent penalty for failure.

Whole Life Costing

Refers to the total cost of ownership over the life of an asset. Typical areas of expenditure which are included in calculating the whole-life cost include planning, design, construction and acquisition, operations, maintenance, depreciation and cost of finance and disposal.

Net Zero

Where the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions put into the atmosphere would be equal to or less than the emissions removed from the atmosphere.


Are activities within the organisations operational boundary, such as enhancing the carbon sequestration of their own land holdings, or by agreement, on public land.


Are externally verified and purchased/ sold on a market.



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