Can the public sector do better?

It seems right and natural to think that if anyone can and should take action on climate change and act sustainably, it is the government. Unlike traditional companies, the government is free from the short-term demands of the market. And more importantly, it’s eventually the government that pays for the damage it causes. Unlike companies, its the government that picks up the bill for polluted rivers and obese children.

So you would think that, naturally, any government acting in its own best interest would pick up on the whole sustainability thing, right?

Unfortunately this assumption is wrong. I’ve been studying arguably the world’s leading government in attention to sustainability and climate change. The UK is the first to have legally enforced carbon emission targets and an ongoing commitment to “lead by example”. Despite eight solid years of real government leadership on the issue, and a maze of targets and action plans, the UK government departments do anything but “lead by example”. The latest progress report finds progress “wholly unsatisfactory” and even the top performers fail to one up many of its private sector counterparts.

In fact, benchmarking UK private v. public sector performance reveals an altogether embarrassing picture. While government departments struggle to make marginal reductions in carbon emissions, Johnson & Johnson makes 11.5% and Polaroid makes 14% in just a single year (all against 1990 levels). Similarly the entire UK private sector averages on waste, waste recycled, and energy use per employee outperform the government average.

This situation illuminates a number of puzzling issues. On the one hand it’s a very sad situation indeed. If the governments, created by and for the people, can’t even wash up their own dishes after dinner, then what can they do? On the other hand, it’s encouraging to see such eager action from the biggest and meanest companies out there. These aren’t social enterprises that are embarrassing government departments, its companies like Wal-Mart. I say, lets expect more out of our governments and lets help businesses continue to pave the way. There is no excuse that governments are not leading by example, and we should pressure them to do so, but its also encouraging that businesses have raised the bar, even if it’s just a few inches.