Continuing to lead by example on federal sustainability

As the country’s largest landlord, fleet operator, and purchaser of goods and services, the federal government can lead by example in moving the country toward a more sustainable future.

Taking that opportunity, the Obama Administration recently issued a new executive order, Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade, that builds on energy-saving advances and ups the targets for federal agencies to do even more. Joining in the commitment to cleaner energy and energy efficiency were 14 companies that are major federal suppliers.

A 2009 executive order set a target of reducing federal greenhouse gas emissions 28 percent below 2008 levels by 2020. The March 2015 executive order raises the bar – to 40 percent below 2008 levels by 2025. The goal is expected to save taxpayers up to $18 billion in avoided energy costs.

The order also directs federal agencies to:

  • Increase the use of renewable energy sources to 30 percent of total consumption by 2025,
  • Reduce per-mile greenhouse gas emissions from federal fleets 30 percent by 2025 and ensure a fifth of the fleet is made up of zero-emission and plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2025, and
  • Reduce the amount of water used in federal buildings 20 percent below 2007 levels by 2025.

Complementing the new executive order, 14 large federal suppliers committed to new or expanded emission pledges that would cumulatively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 million metric tons by 2020. Several members of the C2ES Business Environmental Leadership Council made commitments:

  • IBM will reduce its energy-related carbon dioxide emissions 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and buy 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by that year.
  • GE will invest $25 billion in research and development in energy efficiency and clean energy and reduce water use and greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below a 2011 baseline by 2020.
  • HP will reduce the emissions intensity of its product portfolio 40 percent by 2020 from a 2010 baseline.

Taken together, the new executive order and the voluntary commitments from federal suppliers will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26 million metric tons below 2008 levels by 2025, according to White House estimates.

Figure: Fiscal Year 2013 Federal Government Direct Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Category

Federal direct greenhouse gas emissions totaled nearly 45 million metric tons of CO2e in Fiscal Year 2013. Over 60 percent of emissions are from purchased electricity. Transportation emissions include those from passenger fleet vehicle, vehicles, aircraft, ships, and related equipment.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy (2014), "Comprehensive Annual Energy Data and Sustainability Performance"

Federal government emissions are already down 17 percent from 2008 levels, saving taxpayers $1.8 billion in avoided energy costs. Progress has been made by increasing  renewable energy use, which now stands at 9 percent, and by deploying energy efficiency solutions for buildings and vehicles.

A variety of tactics will be needed to meet these new goals. One way to help is to use smart meters and grids, telematics transportation systems, telecommuting and teleconferencing, and a range of mobility and collaboration tools to transform the federal workplace. C2ES has examined how federal agencies have begun using  information and communications technology (ICT) solutions to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, and enhance productivity. Our 2013 report found that widespread deployment of ICT solutions could help reduce federal greenhouse gas emissions by 12 percent, saving about $5 billion in energy costs through 2020.

The new goals announced by the federal government and major federal suppliers serve as an example to other nations and other companies that a clean energy future is in our grasp if we are committed to reaching for it. This leadership is important because reducing greenhouse gas emissions will take action by both public and private sectors.

Taking action on climate change is good business strategy

A new C2ES report highlights lessons useful for companies and policymakers as more states and countries consider carbon pricing to spur innovative technologies and cut emissions at the lowest possible cost.

The report, written for the World Bank’s Partnership for Market Readiness (PMR), examines how three companies — Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Rio Tinto, and Royal Dutch Shell -- prepared for carbon pricing programs.

The PMR shares this type of information with developing countries to help them create their own market-based policies. We were pleased to partner with the PMR to explore how a few of the companies in our Business Environmental Leadership Council prepared for carbon pricing and we thank the companies for sharing their expertise.

The lessons they shared fall into two categories – what business can learn from other companies operating in carbon markets and what governments considering market-based climate policy can learn from business.

Climate Interest, But No Action in the 113th Congress

The 113th Congress (2013-2014) is on track to be one of the least productive and most divided in history. No legislation explicitly mentioning climate change has been enacted into law, but more bills and resolutions related to climate change have been introduced in this Congress than in the previous one. (For brevity, we refer to all legislative proposals, including resolutions, and amendments, and draft bills, as “bills.”)


Only two bills loosely related to climate change (though not directly referencing it) have been passed and signed into law: the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act and the Hurricane Sandy Relief bill, which provided $17 billion and $9.7 billion, respectively, to cope with Sandy’s aftermath.

Of the 221 bills introduced that explicitly reference climate change or related terms, such as greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide, the majority support climate action. These focus primarily on building resilience to a changing climate, supporting the deployment of clean energy, and improving energy efficiency. A number would use some form of carbon pricing to reduce emissions.

Extreme Weather and Resilience: An Ounce of Prevention

A recent Senate hearing highlighted some of the progress U.S. communities are making, and the major challenges they face, in better coping with costly extreme weather events — including those, such as heat waves and coastal flooding, whose risks are heightened by climate change.

Sen. Tom Carper, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, noted that the “frequency and intensity of these extreme weather events are costing our country a lot - not just in lives impacted – but in economic costs, as well.” Nearly 130 weather-related events in 2013 caused more than $20 billion in losses in the United States.

Extreme weather is costly, not only to federal, state, and local governments, but also to businesses and individuals.

Much of the Senate testimony echoed key findings in our report, “Weathering the Storm, Building Business Resilience to Climate Change.”  Three key points made at the hearing were:

The federal climate: A look back and ahead

A year ago, the path ahead for climate action at the federal level was murky. Congress clearly had little appetite for climate and energy legislation, and while President Obama had declared that climate change would be a priority in his second term, the details were hazy.

Heading into 2014, there is a clear direction and a credible and comprehensive plan for action. The Climate Action Plan the president announced in June outlines a wide array of steps his administration plans to take using existing authorities to reduce carbon emissions, increase energy efficiency, expand renewable and other low-carbon energy sources, and strengthen resilience to extreme weather and other climate impacts. 

Given congressional paralysis, this plan is likely to be the blueprint for U.S. climate action for at least the next three years. The reaction at the United Nations climate conference last month in Warsaw showed that other countries have noticed, and are encouraged to see stronger U.S. action.

A key step in implementing the plan was the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal in September to limit carbon emissions from new power plants. Other elements of the plan that have already seen movement include:

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