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Creating a new NHS England: NHS England and NHS Digital merged on 1 February 2023. More about the merger.

Part of Sustainability Annual Report 2020-21

Operational and carbon highlights

The last year evidenced that our organisation can work effectively and deliver at pace for the health system, despite the extended period of remote working. As would be expected, there was a substantial reduction in the use of our office premises due to the majority of employees remote working.

Our operational and carbon datasets reveal reductions in carbon from across the estate, resulting in substantially reducing our carbon footprint in 2020/21 by 31% since 2019/20 and 65% since our baseline year of 2013/14.

Absolute consumption figures reveal reductions of 32% in overall electricity usage; 99% reduction in travel, a 35% reduction in water usage and a 94% reduction in overall paper usage in 2020/21 compared to 2019/20. This has only been possible due to the move to remote working during the pandemic.

Whilst these reductions are to be celebrated, we must be mindful that much of our consumption has not been removed and instead has been transferred to our employees’ own carbon footprint due to remote working. Cognisant of the fact that the carbon reduction documented here does not account for the full picture of this unusual period, we have used a trial methodology to understand the shift of some of our carbon footprint to employees’ homes. This is detailed further later in this report.

Remote working sustainability improvements

As we entered a period of extended ‘lockdown’, and our employees have mostly remained remote working status during the 2020/21 period, we expected a substantial reduction in our overall energy consumption and carbon footprint. Where in some places this has been the case, there is an interesting story to tell on where this has instead resulted in increases in energy usage (namely gas).

Where office occupancy has been low, and temperatures must remain stable to accommodate the low numbers of employees on site, there has been an increase of gas heating to ensure the offices can appropriately accommodate this. This has resulted in a large use of energy for a modest number of people and is able to offer an explanation as to why we have achieved no reduction in our gas consumption in 2020/21 from our 2019/20 dataset.

Temperatures in office buildings reflect its occupancy levels[1] and additional heating is required during lower than usual occupancy to ensure compliance with the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 [2], which places a legal obligation on employers to provide a ‘reasonable’ temperature in the workplace. 

A similar story can be told about our water usage across the buildings we occupy. The reduction in office occupancy has resulted in lower-than-normal use of water within these buildings.  Due to impact of minimal water usage, there is a need to maintain the water systems and undertake appropriate measures to prevent legionella growth. Water system stagnation occurs due to lack of use, which increases the risks of Legionnaires’ disease [3]. Regular flushing of toilets, running taps and other water systems has had to be deployed during the period of low occupancy to fulfil our obligations in respect of legionella.


[1] Huovila A, Tuominen P, Airaksinen M. 2017. Effects of Building Occupancy on Indicators of Energy Efficiency. Energies. 10(5):628



Carbon impacts of remote working

This methodology, whilst in development, seeks to understand the overall reductions from the whole picture, accounting for commuting emissions as well as increases in domestic energy usage. The results suggest that our estimated remote working carbon footprint reveals only a modest reduction in total organisational carbon footprint. Once commuter emissions and incremental increases of domestic energy have been factored in, our overall carbon reduction does not appear as substantial as isolated Estate’s carbon footprint reductions may initially suggest.

The scenarios we looked at to inform future ways of working reveal the following carbon reductions across building energy, domestic energy, commuting, business travel and virtual collaboration tools usage (Microsoft Teams). The scenarios were based on various assumptions, as described in Annex 4. As a result of these new ways of working, our organisation has set about further exploring hybrid working, to consider how we can adapt to changes in our ways of working whilst still delivering effectively for the system. The methodology undertaken ensured that sustainability considerations were factored into decision making around how the organisation moves into its future ways of working.

We will commit to, in 2021/22, undertake an assessment of our hybrid ways of working carbon footprint, and account for hybrid working emissions in our next annual reporting cycle to ensure we have a proper baseline we can improve against.

Last edited: 5 December 2022 10:54 am