Greening spending is a 'fundamental tool' for efficient use of common resources

Green public spending is a cheaper long-term option that allows government authorities to actively pursue climate and efficiency targets, writes Carina Vopel.

By Carina Vopel

09 Oct 2013

More than 20 years ago a number of innovative public authorities in Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden started paying more attention to environmental aspects in their procurement procedures. The trend is now more widespread and almost all member states have set up national plans to encourage what has become known as green public procurement.

Today it's widely acknowledged that public spending should take better account of environmental imperatives, and the EU has set the target that 50 per cent of public spending should meet green criteria. The new seventh European environmental action programme and the recommendations of the European resource efficiency platform both highlight this need to widen the use of green public procurement.

"Today it's widely acknowledged that public spending should take better account of environmental imperatives, and the EU has set the target that 50 per cent of public spending should meet green criteria"

It's a powerful tool, as almost 20 per cent of the EU's GDP comes from public procurement. National, regional and local authorities have environmental objectives, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution, or increasing energy and resource efficiency. Public authorities can use their purchasing choices to achieve these targets, choosing low-energy buildings, for example, buying energy-efficient IT equipment, low-emission vehicles and opting for supplies or food from sustainable sources.

The 50 per cent target is still some way distant – the current level is less than 30 per cent according to the latest survey – so why are public authorities not using this tool more widely, given their leading role in tackling the environmental challenges we face? One argument commonly put forward against buying green is the concern about cost. This is not negligible, especially in times of economic crisis, but the argument is only partially true. While some green products do cost more than conventional alternatives at the time of purchase, they are often cheaper over their whole life-cycle, because their energy consumption in the use-phase is often lower. Moreover, costs and environmental impacts can sometimes be reduced by rethinking overall procurement needs: how often do offices really need cleaning? Which plants in public parks need less water and pest control? Do we need company cars? How to encourage the use of public transport and promote cycling?

Another objection raised against green public procurement is that the process is overly complicated. Public procurement is complex, not green public procurement per se. And procurers need to be well trained in any case. Several tools have been developed in recent years to ease the implementation of green procurement. The European commission has published criteria for 20 product groups and a wealth of other hands-on guidance documents. Many member states have support structures for public authorities in place, based on national green procurement priorities. And all this does serve a useful purpose, as citizens expect public authorities to be role models for environmental protection. According to a 2012 EU-wide survey, an overwhelming 87 per cent of citizens consider that public authorities are right to opt for a more expensive procurement tender, if it respects higher environmental standards.

With the Open Days workshop on 8 October, we want to show how green public procurement can work in practice. Vienna, Ghent and Koprivnica will illustrate how they have successfully tackled the challenge, with real-world examples. Greening spending is a fundamental tool to make our use of common natural resources more efficient, and we hope that this workshop will provide some inspiration to other public authorities to engage on a greener path.

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Energy & Climate
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