At first glance, the recent EPA report on green public procurement (GPP) by Irish government departments makes for dismal reading. The headline finding is that just 24% of contracts awarded in 2021 included environmental criteria, accounting for 10% of spend. This is down from the levels recorded in the first report relating to contracts awarded in 2020. It is significantly below levels of GPP implementation in other EU countries, and well short of the target set in the Programme for Government for 100% of procurement using public funds to contain green criteria. As someone who works closely with public bodies in Ireland on green procurement, I was disappointed to see so little progress being made. But upon closer reading, the data underlying the report points to reasons for focusing our efforts rather than despair.
First of all, it must be noted that the report relates to contracts signed during 2021, and only covers contracts awarded by central government departments valued above €25,000. While Ireland has had a policy on GPP since 2012, the current Irish GPP criteria and EPA guidance were only published in September 2021, so were not available for most of the reporting period. The criteria cover ten priority sectors including buildings, transport, ICT, food and catering services, cleaning, lighting, heating equipment and others. The total reported procurement spend amounts to just under €530 million – less than 3% of Ireland’s total public procurement expenditure of €21.9 billion. Much larger sums are spent by state agencies, local authorities and central purchasing bodies such as the Office of Government Procurement (OGP) – some of which have made significant progress on GPP.
Procurement by Government departments may be marginal in terms of Ireland’s overall spend on public contracts, but it is currently the only part of the public sector which is subject to mandatory reporting requirements on GPP. It might be hoped that Government departments would play an exemplary role in fulfilling the commitments made under the Programme for Government and Climate Action Plans regarding green procurement. As noted in the report, the dataset is incomplete as only 50% of Departments had a system in place to track GPP. Many Departments appear to award contracts infrequently, as illustrated by the fact that no contracts were awarded in four of the priority categories during 2021 (food and catering services, heating equipment, lighting and textiles). Where procurement is carried out infrequently, it is more difficult to take a strategic approach in order to implement GPP effectively, not least due to a lack of staff resources and time.
Too often, procurement is reactive, limiting the scope for consideration of environmental and social impacts. The publication of the 2021 Irish GPP criteria and guidance, along with the OGP’s tool to search the criteria and the GPP training programme sponsored by the EPA, remove some of the excuses for inaction. However, in order for GPP to fully take root in Ireland as it has in many other EU countries (not just Scandinavia), greater levels of both political and practical support are needed. GPP needs to become ‘business as usual’ rather than an ad hoc effort, and to achieve this legislation may be needed. At the moment, Irish public bodies are faced with a rather complex landscape of legislation which mandates GPP in particular areas, such as the Clean Vehicles Regulations, while leaving others subject to more general obligations such as the requirement on public bodies to perform their functions in a manner consistent with Ireland’s climate strategy.
Probably the most striking gap identified in the report is the lack of green procurement in contracts for ICT products and services: only 10 of 107 contracts included green criteria. The heavy environmental footprint of this category is obvious, from the materials, chemicals, energy and water involved in producing devices, their energy consumption in use, and challenges with repair or recycling at their end of life. Less obviously, IT services such as cloud solutions, and the increase in virtual meetings, have a heavy data and energy footprint. We should be particularly aware of this in Ireland, where data centre energy consumption has more than tripled since 2015, and now accounts for 14% of total energy consumption. Sadly, a lack of strategic thinking in ICT procurement, where legacy systems are often kept going and reliance on a single vendor goes unchallenged, contributes to a sense of powerlessness when it comes to procurement. In this mindset, GPP can be seen as just another challenge, rather than an opportunity to save costs and carbon.
Another missed opportunity relates to contracts for professional services, by far the largest category of spend recorded. Consultancy, legal, financial and other office-based services are big business – so why are public bodies reluctant to include green criteria in these contracts? Part of the answer is that there are no standard GPP criteria for professional services, and many people struggle to see their wider environmental impacts beyond a bit of travel and printing. But think about the real impact which these services have: in shaping and sometimes implementing Government policy across a wide range of areas, affecting how many billions are spent. Is it too much to ask that these advisors should have some training and qualifications related to climate and the environment, in the areas they are working in? That they should have systems in place to ensure they incorporate sustainability principles in their advice, and measure and report on emissions generated under contracts? Sample criteria for professional services are set out on page 53 of the EPA guidance.
So how can we steer the ship in the right direction? I would suggest the following are essential, if Ireland is serious about meeting its public sector climate commitments:
1. Mandatory reporting on GPP should be extended across all of the public and semi-state sector. This was promised in the 2023 CAP, however it has not been assigned to anyone in the accompanying Actions published in March 2023.
2. Government departments, and all public bodies, need to be able to take account of life-cycle costs as part of their procurement budgets, not just purchase price. For purchases which involve energy, fuel, maintenance or ongoing consumable costs, life-cycle costing should be the default. For carbon-intensive categories such as buildings, engineering and vehicles, a cost should also be assigned to greenhouse gas emissions as part of project planning and/or tender evaluation, in line with the Public Spending Code supplementary guidance.
3. A clear framework for public sector reporting on Scope 3 emissions needs to be developed, ensuring that we capture the true impact of purchasing decisions.
In addition to these mandatory measures, ongoing support for voluntary GPP criteria, guidance and training will be needed. As a small country, Ireland has advantages in terms of networking and building a community of practice to support GPP. We also have a relatively competitive, SME-friendly public procurement system – meaning constructive engagement with suppliers on GPP is likely to bear fruit. With clearer legislation and follow-through on existing policy commitments, the future of Irish public contracts can be green.