Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Student sustainability roundtable

On 23 September 2021, nine CIPFA students – public finance leaders of the future – took part in a sustainability roundtable to discuss their views on the climate crisis and what their organisations are doing to address the climate change agenda.

Chaired by CIPFA's Karen Sanderson, Director of Public Financial Management, the discussion centred around four main themes:

  • the most pressing issues for the participants as representatives of their generation
  • what their own organisations are doing on sustainability and whether is it enough
  • the biggest challenges facing accountants in the public sector in this era of sustainability
  • the public sector initiatives to address the climate agenda that the participants find particularly inspiring

The transcript of the roundtable is below, which you can also find in the latest edition of PQ Magazine. Read on to see what our students had to say.

When you talk about sustainability, what does it mean to you? And what are the most pressing issues? 

Ruby: In conversation with friends, the most common comments surround consumerism and fast fashion. There are also issues around food, agriculture and land. We need to discover how we can sustainably do things and create a better world for future generations. Then there are natural disasters, which affect vulnerable people more, and the domino effect they have. No one is exempt from climate change, so we all need to be engaged in it.

Hannah: Consumer capitalism is part of it, and there's been some compliancy in developed countries. There seems to be a feeling that if we pump money into new technology it will solve our problems. We need to take a more integrated approach, looking at what we can do now, but also look at how we can change attitudes. 

James: There is a real appetite for much more urgent action among our generation. We are ready for more radical and out-of-the-box thinking. Although we are not the chief executives and heads of finance just yet, we need to send out the message to get the ball moving faster, while we still have the time to make the changes.

Declan: We need to embrace data science to find out where our main issues lie. How can we measure carbon at the global, national and local level accurately? For example, our older buildings, such as many of the local schools in each of our communities, cannot be completely accounted for effectively yet, as we cannot measure their emissions output precisely. We need to objectively look at what is going wrong and find out who the big emitters really are.

Francesca: It's easy to have sustainability in the back of your mind, and being efficient with resources. But is it convenient and cost effective? A prime example is food. Locally-sourced food is so much more expensive, and a lot of families can't afford that choice on a daily basis, so it won't be a priority.

Hannah: Major emitters at a local level are often residential homes. If we were to install low-carbon heat pumps, it could make a difference. But the start-up costs are huge, and quantifying that benefit is so difficult. How do you report the figures in a meaningful way?

Megan: When you talk about our generation and talk about climate change a lot of people want to make a difference but are complacent in their ways. The problem is changing the attitude of "we have always done it this way." For example, a lot of those people at Reading Festival who left their tents would say that they care about climate change, but they didn't relate their actions to it at the time.

Jonathan: A lot of people are keen on making a difference but are often confused about what it is that actually makes a difference! I have had lots of conversations with my friends about turning the TV off at the socket rather than leaving it on standby – but it's almost not worth talking about. If you turn your heating down by one degree, it makes so much more of a difference, cutting about 10% off your home's heat loss at a stroke. There is a lack of clear information in the media about exactly what makes 'the difference' and what are the big decisions that have the most impact on climate change. For example, asking "am I going to fly to go on holiday this year?" is equivalent to asking "are my net CO2 emissions going to be 50% bigger this year?", but people don't think like that, even though they might be very passionate about climate change. People don't know where the emissions come from and the consequences of their choices are not clear.

Ruby: Regarding people leaving their unwanted belongings and litter behind at Reading Festival, perhaps there could be more regulations to discourage this, like supermarkets who put the levy on plastic bags? The 10p bag charge has made a massive difference and helped change public behaviour. When it comes to the public sector, we can't be working in silos – we need to share ideas across our respective areas, ie local and central government, as well as across sectors.

Jonathan: It's amazing how effective the plastic bag levy has been. The monetary amounts are tiny, but the psychological effect on the public's behaviour has helped reduce plastic consumption hugely. Also, the environment doesn't care about borders, so we need national agreements rather than one authority going out on its own.

Hannah: The time is right for local 'marketing campaigns' about the climate crisis.

Ruby: There needs to be more relatable public awareness to make the connection between climate change and its effect on all of us, and we need to start planning. It may seem very 'Doomsday', but it must happen. Another thing is waste disposal – "use, reuse, recycle" was drummed into us at school. I'm not sure it's working well at all. Sending our garbage and offshoring emissions to other countries all makes our figures look better than they actually are.

Jonathan: There is a big disparity in how local authorities do their recycling. There was a crisis a few years ago when China said it wasn't going to take any more rubbish from the US and UK. We are shipping our rubbish across the world and then we're saying we have recycled all this tonnage of plastic, but we don't actually know what has happened to it. We put it on a ship and send it around the world, emitting CO2. It may look positive on the balance sheet, but it's just fiction! This is where the role of the accountant comes in – we need to be honest and reflect the reality of what effects such decisions have on the planet.

You are all training to be accountants, so what are the biggest challenges for the public sector and sustainability?

James: When I moved into treasury management, it wasn't obvious how we could be more sustainable. However, we can invest in greener and more sustainable funds, which have carbon neutral sources and are ethical. Sometimes it's a case of when you are sat in the office working through your T-accounts, the challenge is seeing what ways we could make sustainable improvements that aren't glaringly obvious.

Hannah: I've noticed with quarterly financial reporting, the environmental sustainability implications are glaringly absent. No information on environmental impact is stated in a lot of reporting we do, and I was quite surprised by that.

Declan: The problem for councils is that we can't measure every single metric tonne of emissions. It's all predicted. When we think of budgeting and accounts, how do we make sure people are thinking about this? How do we bring it into the report?

Ruby: A standardised way of measuring emissions is important. In our local authority, we are trying to get project managers to add a carbon impact statement in every bid they put in.

Jonathan: The government has put out the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which is meant to be the standard way of measuring these things. That is a positive thing from the government, and an attempt to get a standardised approach.

Megan: Vodafone produce a sustainability statement that is audited by Grant Thornton. Maybe that could be a way forward for the public sector in terms of environmental and sustainability reporting. The public can have more faith in the information being produced if it is audited.

Francesca: It's important that what is published is at a level that is understandable for the public too. That means figures that people can relate to.

Jonathan: Relatable measurements such as "homes powered" are very helpful for those who are less familiar with energy metrics like kWh and joules.

Peter: Sustainability means so many different things for different countries. Sustainability for me means the ability of the people today to be able to meet their needs without affecting future generations meeting theirs. But we are not meeting our own needs, and we have so many issues – poverty, corruption, housing, cyber security. Increasing public debt means we are leaving problems for future generations. There are, of course, the UN global standards on sustainability, which cover much more than just climate change.

What do you think about the role you could play as a public sector accountant and the affect you can have on future generations?

Ruby: We need to start scenario planning, and we need it built into accountancy training.

Declan: Sustainability has become more of a 'must' rather than a 'maybe' on how we integrate it into our finances and reporting. Yet we only have a tiny budget for climate crisis rather than climate prevention.

Jonathan: The public sector has to balance the climate action we need to take with its other priorities, particularly considering the financial resource pressure we are under. When it comes to something like adult social care, we can barely afford to do what we are doing at present, so sustainability schemes may have to come from existing budgets. Peter was talking about the rampant poverty in his country and it's easy to see, in that context, why reducing CO2 emissions would be low priority. The public sector shouldn't forget its key social objectives and the public welfare, which must always be foremost.

Ruby: An out-there idea – we have a lot of pooling, so what about pooling energy and climate change funding across local government?

James: It's the way climate change and sustainability is worded. When you put it against schools and social care, it becomes a lower priority. However, it needs to be treated at the same level – it's a utopia, a grand scheme idea, but it has to happen. Someone has to get the wheel turning and it might as well be us.

Kayleigh: It's important to know where we can make the biggest differences, and it's probably where we should start as an organisation. We can get bogged down with a little bit of paper recycling, thinking I am doing my bit, when there are more important things I could be championing.

What are your organisations doing about sustainability? Is it enough and what would you be doing if you were in charge?

Francesca: Grant Thornton has a lot of sustainability initiatives, like turning off monitors, recycling and no paper cups. It also has wider initiatives that impact local communities and globally.

Declan: At Westminster, we have a five-step plan and a carbon reduction programme. A climate action plan is in the final stages – the plan is to be carbon neutral by 2040.

James: Reading is in a climate change partnership with the university and local community. This brings the research to us, and we help get the messages out there.

Peter: The big issue is not saying "I am green" and signing treaties about sustainability; it's about implementation and enforcement. Who will make countries accountable? There is no inclusiveness. People are not part of what is happening; they are just struggling to survive. There is no security. People are being kidnapped. How can we measure any of these things?

What do you find inspiring about what you see to address the climate agenda in the public sector?

Jonathan: I think the most positive thing is the way renewable energy is getting dramatically bigger. The last five years has seen three solar farms that are over twice as big as the previous record. Britain is not doing so well at that, but we are investing in fusion research. It might not come to anything, so we should definitely keep pursuing more proven technologies, but it is quite a promising avenue.

Ruby: It is encouraging to see Prime Minster Boris Johnson going out on the world stage and setting ambitious targets. I feel we are one of the leading countries in setting these targets, and one of the first nations to set legally binding ones. Banning petrol and diesel cars by a set date is another good policy. Many local authorities have also signed a pact on working together on climate change.

Declan: One of the world's largest employers, the NHS, has a really good sustainability unit. They have looked at their indirect emissions, mainly from pharmacology, and how that affects their footprint. It makes up 20% of their emissions, so you can see how big organisations can make big changes.

Kayleigh: I think we need to be producing less rather than increasing recycling. It's hard to know how much of it is really being recycled. But consumer habits are hard to change. Coming up to Christmas, we will be putting even more packaging on things to make them more enticing.

Hannah: The public sector decarbonisation scheme and low skills fund will help authorities use consultants to lower their carbon emissions. That's something good from central government.

James: The Local Government Association and Design Council have come together to help find new ways to combat climate change in local authorities. This will help councils come together and integrate their ideas and innovation.

Francesca: I really like the One Planet scheme initiative, which is a joint project with local businesses and local government. They have eco champions and give awards to the most eco-friendly SMEs and schools. This doesn't require a lot of money or effort, but it really helps the younger generation understand the impact of climate change.

About the participants

  • Declan Greaves: finances and resources department, adult services, graduate finance trainee, Westminster City Council
  • James Hall: trainee accountant, accountancy, directorate of resources, Reading Borough Council
  • Megan Hancox: public sector audit associate, Grant Thornton
  • Francesca Hitchman: assistant manager, audit, Grant Thornton
  • Hannah Meakes: graduate finance trainee, resources department, Brent Council
  • Kayleigh McAteer: graduate finance trainee, Enfield Council
  • Peter Ndukuba: assistant director (accounts), internal audit department, Federal Ministry of Education, Nigeria
  • Jonathan Woods: finance management associate, internal audit, Cambridgeshire County Council
  • Ruby Vuong: finances and resources department, corporate finance, graduate finance trainee, Westminster City Council