Given the current focus on climate change and the need for positive action to mitigate its effects, the Irish Government’s publication of a new circular on Promoting the use of Environmental and Social Considerations in Public Procurement (Circular 20/2019) is timely. Demonstrating a commitment to promoting Green Public Procurement (or green purchasing) by asking Departments to consider the inclusion of green criteria in their procurement processes, the circular comes as part of the roll out of the Government’s Climate Action Plan.

Green Public Procurement

Green Public Procurement (GPP) is an initiative promoted by the European Commission and has been around for some time. First really on the agenda back in 2005 with the publication of the Commission’s Buying Green: A handbook on environmental public procurement, GPP aims to encourage Europe's public authorities, major consumers of goods, works and services, to use their purchasing power to choose environmentally friendly products, services and works, and in so doing, to contribute to the drive towards sustainable consumption and production.

What does the circular do?

Specifically, the circular instructs Government Departments to consider including green criteria in public procurement processes where clearly defined, quantifiable, verifiable and measurable criteria have been developed by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and are relevant to the specific procurement process. The circular also highlights the possibilities for Departments to deliver wider social and environmental aims through public procurement.

Can Green Public Procurement be applied to all public contracts?

Whether it is appropriate to include environmental measures in public procurement projects will vary depending on the contract or project in question and is primarily a matter for individual contracting authorities. According to the circular, each stage in the procurement process offers opportunities to take green issues into account and once a decision has been taken to include such issues, this should be clearly signalled by the contracting authority at all stages of the procurement process - from business case and specification stages through to selection, award and contract management stages.

In relation to the award stage, it is important to recall that environmental or green award criteria cannot simply be tacked on to any or all procurement processes; the procurement rules dictate that award criteria must be linked to the subject matter of the particular contract. As the question of whether an environmental award criterion is genuinely linked to the subject matter of a particular contract can be a difficult one for public authorities to navigate, it is to be welcomed that support in implementing GPP will be provided by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the OGP.

The publication of this new circular follows the publication by the OGP last year of an Information Note on Incorporating Social Considerations into Public Procurement. Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan, who has special responsibility for public procurement, said of the new circular: ‘[Circular 20/1019] sends an important signal of the Government’s commitment to opening public procurement up to environmental and social considerations. A wide range of policy areas come under the heading of social considerations including, for example, environmental sustainability, disability access, training for young or disadvantaged people, social enterprises and increasing access for SMEs and start-ups. The structure for progressing these considerations is the Social Considerations Advisory Group, a cross-Government initiative established earlier this year. This group brings together officials from across Government and is considering what and how social policy objectives can be advanced appropriately and effectively through public procurement’.