We've become so drenched by the shower of initiatives and targets emitted by New Labour that when a truly significant idea comes along, it doesn't always register.

This was the case with Tony Blair's latest pledge: to cut carbon emissions across the government's estate. But it shouldn't take long for the penny to drop: the move, which was a rapid response to Sir Neville Simms' report on sustainable procurement, will have a big impact on the industry.

The goals are to make all the offices of central government and its agencies carbon neutral by 2012, and to reduce carbon emissions 30% by 2020. The other goals for 2020 are to reduce waste and water consumption 25%, to recycle 75% of waste and reduce energy consumption 30% per square metre. Exactly how these numbers are to be achieved is anyone's guess - one imagines that carbon neutrality will be achieved by "offsetting" - that is, planting trees or contributing to hydroelectric dams in developing countries (this is the government's approach to the awkward subject of air travel). We'll get a better idea in the autumn of how the government proposes to meet these targets, and how it plans to tackle the wider implications of the Simms report. But so far it can't be faulted for the speed of its response, nor the grimness of its determination.

Simms called for clear leadership on making the government's £150bn annual spend sustainable, and the government has responded by appointing Sir Gus O'Donnell, the cabinet secretary, to steer this policy through. He also said "budgetary mechanisms" were needed to support sustainable procurement. Encouragingly, Stephen Timms, Gordon Brown's number two, indicated that next year's Comprehensive Spending Review would take on board whole-life costs. Even a few months ago it would have seemed improbable to have a chief secretary to the Treasury acknowledge the need to accept short-term financial pain in return for medium-term gain.

So we have buy-in at the ministerial level. But what does that mean to those building projects on the ground? Take the gargantuan Building Schools for the Future programme. It has become apparent that the £40bn to be spent on this over the next few years is barely going to be enough to procure the basics, so how on earth will it pay for renewables and water recycling? Those were on the spec at concept stage, but they've long since been abandoned. And what about the city academies, which will now be procured on a design-and-build basis? Will the contractors that have just been shortlisted for the academies framework be told they have to spend a certain percentage of their bid on making these buildings carbon neutral? And what about the private sector? It seems that unless Ken is beating them with a big stick, developers jettison any plans to make buildings sustainable at the first sign that the numbers don't meet the budget. On this front, Davis Langdon's pledge to produce carbon indexes on all its cost plans is a welcome move, and surely one that will quickly be copied.

If we could somehow use the energy generated in discussing sustainability to power buildings, we'd be quids in. The government's attempts to tidy its own house could well be the catalyst that turns all the talk into action.