How is Defra progressing its sustainability ambitions ahead of COP26? Chris Howes, Defra’s Chief Digital & Information Officer and Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) for sustainable technology across government, explains.

As HMG’s environmental leader, The UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has two major responsibilities: first, to be an exemplar and leader for change within government; second, to face off to industry and drive up sustainability standards.

Defra‘s vision for sustainable technology strategy is to deliver the 25-year environment plan to make our air purer, water cleaner, land greener and food more sustainable, while achieving the department’s vision to be a centre of excellence for sustainable information technology here in the UK and Globally. Defra’s Digital, Data and Technology Sustainability Team was established in 2018 to take on these responsibilities.

For you

Be part of something bigger, join the Chartered Institute for IT.

Defra commission sustainable ICT reporting across all government departments, agencies and bodies aligned to our GGC: ICT and Digital Services Strategy 2020-2025.

As an organisation, Defra published its first Sustainable Information Technology (IT) strategy, following its well-received industry guide to help businesses achieve sustainable outcomes.

The team’s achievements are significant and include:

  • Publishing a technology strategy to 2025, setting out how the government can meet its green commitments and reports tracking progress. Just 0.023% of our ICT waste was disposed of to landfill while supporting and overseeing improvements in 21 departments. As an organisation, we have become more efficient by sending zero IT waste to landfill for five years, with a forecast for £0.5M - £1M revenue generation from diverting electronic waste.
  • Reducing our organisational carbon emissions by 8% this year, with 55% of our own supply chain recording an increase in renewable energy including (wind, solar, bio and hydro). We have more accurately recorded and reported the carbon footprint of our digital services across government with the support of the cloud industry for the first time (see the 2020 Annual Report).
  • We have built partnerships and connected over 200,000 stakeholders from the public and private sectors, charities, NGOs and academia, to share and implement sustainability best practice together with the United Nations. And, we’ve ensured modern slavery compliance in accordance with section 54 of the UK’s modern slavery legislation act, in partnership with the Responsible Business Alliance.
  • At a European level, we have engaged in the widely influential EURECA project and the development of the EU Green Public Procurement criteria. Post-Brexit, our opportunities are expanding and we have signed a pact with a new international coalition on Circular and Fair ICT,  as well as co-leading Green ICT as part of the hugely influential Digital Nations Workstream with the Canadian Government.
  • Truly resetting the dial by embedding sustainability priorities into government procurement processes and, significantly, by developing the industry standard through our partnership with AXELOS to develop a globally recognised cross-sector module as part of the ITIL framework, due to be launched during COP26 in 170 countries globally, to help individuals and organisations create better outcomes essential for safeguarding our environment and the natural world.
  • We have pioneered in the development of innovations with the private sector that protect habitat and decrease threats to biodiversity, including the development of a tree planting app, the use of biotechnology to extract precious metals from redundant devices and the development of a trial youth climate app.
  • We continue to innovate through satellite Geospatial data to develop better insights into land cover emissions as part of the 25-year environment plan, ensuring that both data and digital help us understand and mitigate the climate crisis. We will continue to develop the role of data and digital to build back better across government through the work of the two new National Data and Digital Strategies led by DCMS.

Defra is immensely proud of its DDaT Sustainability Team and of the major external recognition that they have won:

  • Over 100 multinational organisations, including the United Nations, have endorsed the team’s work.
  • Computing magazine (an industry leading publication) awarded the team its prestigious Sustainability Leader Award for 2019, the civil service award as highly commended.
  • Shortlisted for the Edie supply chain excellence awards.

Sustainability remains a generational challenge for government but we are determined to show everyone the way.