Scotland is setting an example to the rest of the world with its commitment to action on climate change and using resources efficiently.

With ambitious goals sometimes you have to take the leap and do the big, difficult things to help you reach those goals. Action and leadership by the public sector will be the key to unlocking the scale of transformation required to create a sustainable Scotland by 2050.

Scotland should be proud of what has been achieved. There is a legally binding world-leading commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 42% by 2020 compared to 1990, and then 80% by 2050. Scotland leads the UK in renewable power, with 36% of our electricity consumption already met from renewable energy.

The new Resource Efficient Scotland programme aims to help businesses and the public sector deliver more than £2bn of annual savings in energy, water and raw material use.

The public sector has been in the vanguard of a commitment to cut carbon and deliver national targets. It directly employs almost one-quarter of the Scottish workforce, or more than 500,000 people. It also has a huge potential influence over buildings, infrastructure, the private sector and local communities, directly and indirectly. At the Carbon Trust we have worked with 150 public sector bodies in Scotland to develop carbon management plans. We estimate these 150 organisations represent more than 95% of all public sector emissions (approximately 3.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year).

These carbon management plans include recommendations for projects to help lower emissions. Aberdeen City Council was one of the first to be involved with our public sector programmes in 2003. By 2006 the council had exceeded its 25% reduction target set for 2015 through using renewable energy for street lighting and building improvements. The most cost-effective reductions are typically achieved through a change in behaviour, where low and no cost measures can result in immediate savings. Turning down thermostats or switching off unused equipment have real and quantifiable financial benefit, which becomes even more compelling as energy prices rise.

However, some two-thirds of the recommended measures have not been implemented yet. In a recent report the Carbon Trust identified the major barriers to implementing carbon management plans. These included: senior leadership not sufficiently engaged and incentivised; a lack of availability of project finance; a shortage of skilled staff and resources; and split incentives (especially in schools and tenanted buildings), where those most able to reduce emissions do not benefit from doing so.

Politically, it is not easy to make serious spending commitments during a time of public austerity, despite the strong business case and returns on investment. Scotland remains committed to finding capital to roll out necessary measures, but has to look at creating new financing mechanisms in order to invest to save. The Green Investment Bank could prove to be very useful in providing this access to capital for the public sector.

Practically, it is not easy to make major and disruptive changes to buildings. Also, climate change is not viewed as a top priority, with the economy and the independence debate dominating discourse. But big, strategic decisions need to be made sooner rather than later. Meeting long-term carbon reduction targets to 2050 will take more than some insulation and efficient boilers. New ways will have to be found for using buildings, reforming procurement and delivering services to the public. Major retrofits will have to be made to the public estate, and areas could be transformed with on-site renewable energy and district heating networks.

The public sector deserves praise for what has been accomplished over the past decade. With the right drive, investment and support in future decades, Scotland will become a low-carbon leader and a net exporter of energy, and could have one of the most efficient and modern public sectors in the world.