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Is the Government climate-friendly when buying goods & services?

Analysis: there's a wide range of opinions for and against introducing mandatory climate-friendly procurement policies for public authorities - Alexandra RevezMaria Kirrane and Fiona ThomsonUCC

The Irish State's annual procurement spend on goods and services has grown over the years and most recent figures estimate that it’s around €6 billion. But only 10% of these funds are currently spent in a way that considers sustainability and 'green’ criteria.

Public spending continues to follow a traditional procurement policy approach which places a strong focus on minimising cost. The societal benefit of this approach, though, increasingly comes into question in the face of the climate crisis. The poor uptake of green criteria in public spending also sends a mixed signal to other stakeholders regarding the Government’s commitment to reducing emissions and protecting the environment.

As the need to tackle climate change increases, we have seen a growing interest in promoting green buying practices and using procurement more strategically to deliver positive environmental change. Yet such green procurement measures are currently voluntary. This means public institutions still exercise discretion in setting up green criteria when they are purchasing goods and services from external suppliers.

The European picture

The debate about making green public procurement mandatory continues in the wake of EU led environmental policy goals. The uptake of green public procurement in Europe is varied. Much like in Ireland, research shows the linear economic approach to procurement based on "take-make-dispose" still prevails. A review from 2011 indicates that 12 countries in the EU27 featured a green procurement uptake below 20%.

Despite this, calls for mandatory green procurement practices continue to increase. Public institutions are major consumers of energy, goods and services and need to be leaders in the transition to a decarbonised and sustainable society and economy.

Proponents for making green procurement mandatory highlight its potential to be a "first mover", directing the wider market to greener practices. They also stress its value to encourage innovation and the diffusion of green technologies, and underline its role in influencing consumer behaviour toward more sustainable practices. In the EU alone, government procurement expenditure amounts to EUR 1.8 trillion annually, equivalent to 14% of the European gross domestic product. Making it mandatory to direct this expenditure toward green goods and services seems to be an easy decision for many.

Practices such as reducing, re-purposing, repairing or sharing resources are not considered part of greening procurement

But there are growing concerns over green procurement as a key environmental policy. Concerns include the fact that green public procurement needs refining and more consistency. For instance, the assumption that it will enlarge the market for more sustainable products and services, working as a trigger or a signal for suppliers, can be problematic. We lack the evidence to know if green public procurement will trigger transformative change of if it simply works to push other consumers and suppliers out of the green market and into the brown market.

Equally, there are unresolved questions on whether other environmental policies, such as direct grants to suppliers, can be more impactful in bolstering innovation and sustainability. Public authorities are notoriously risk averse and therefore reluctant to engage with innovative entities as the risk of failure is perceived to be greater. Furthermore, innovative startups often struggle to meet standard public procurement criteria (such as financial or contract track records etc), and this is an impediment for embracing ground-breaking sustainable solutions.

While research suggests that public procurement can been effective in terms of achieving social innovation and delivering positive social policy goals, others caution against using market driven approaches for ‘buying’ social justice or sustainability. Practices such as reducing, re-purposing, repairing or sharing resources usually do not feature in current considerations for greening procurement. These typically fall outside the remit of purchasing decisions and shows that some sustainability measures extend beyond ‘buying’ decisions and require a new form of partnership and alignment with other public service practices and strategies.

'A low level of implementation'

Like other European states, Ireland has seen a closer alignment between public procurement and environmental policy. In the most recent Green Public Procurement Guidance for the Public Sector, there is a stipulation to make this mandatory for all procurement using public funds in Ireland by 2023. This, though, does not appear to be reinforced in other key policy documents, such as the most recent Climate Action Plan.

A commitment to mandatory green public procurement in Ireland through policy is still unclear. The monitoring report on green public procurement activity in Ireland from the EPA in 2022 found a low level of implementation across Government departments. Results show inclusion of GPP criteria in contracts over €25,000 represent on average 17% of total spend.

These monitoring reports at national level are important, but there is much to learn by looking at specific contexts, though there are limited studies that seek to learn from experiences on the ground. Our findings from a recent case-study on greening practices in UCC brings further perspectives into focus. Our research involved interviews with six staff members with a procurement role in the university and a workshop with 15 staff members and a student representative with either a role or strong interest in procurement.

Delivering on the promises of green public procurement appears more complex than initially assumed

We found the stance of UCC staff members over mandatory green public procurement to be uncertain. While staff welcome mandatory green procurement policy, they have concerns over market responses to this, such as price hikes in the public sector, lack of quality service and doubts whether it will lead to considerable changes in the wider market.

A discussion concerning short-term priorities for greening procurement in UCC reveals concerns that green measures in UCC appear geared to consumer behaviour change and changes in work practices. Examples of this include concerns for exploring resource sharing arrangements and finding ways to maximise the use of existing resources and technologies.

Procurement staff noted that green public procurement is not solely based on the readiness of procurers but also on the readiness of suppliers across the supply chain. Clear messaging on what is coming ahead from a supplier perspective is critical to ensure widespread adoption. Evidence on the ground on whether green public procurement should be voluntary, or mandatory in UCC is inconclusive.

Delivering on the promises of green public procurement appears more complex than initially assumed. In the context of the climate crisis, we have few clear answers on whether we should forge ahead or if we have time to consider more refined approaches. These questions seem to parallel the public health crisis discussions around the pandemic, when the WHO's Mike Ryan stated that "speed trumps perfection" in an emergency.

Dr Alexandra Revez is a Research Fellow in the MaREI Centre and Environmental Research Institute in UCC, who also works with the Cleaner Production Promotion Unit. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee. Dr Maria Kirrane is Head of Sustainability and Climate Action Office in UCC. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee. Fiona Thomson is Procurement Officer at UCC.