For the first time, the U.S. government is under orders to do what scores of businesses and cities have already done to bolster their bottom lines: Set targets for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.
President Obama issued an executive order today requiring each federal agency to set its own 2020 emissions reduction target within 90 days.
He didn't mandate specific numbers, and the targets are for non-military federal agencies only; proposals to bring down the nation's greenhouse gas emissions are still tied up in Congress with no promises of movement before the UN climate meeting in Copenhagen.
Still, the executive order could be an important step in the right direction. The federal government occupies nearly 500,000 buildings, operates more than 600,000 vehicles, and spends more than $500 million annually on goods and services — a supply chain of companies that the agencies will now be pressuring to reduce their own emissions.
The keys to success will be the agencies setting aggressive goals, and the White House Council on Environment Quality (CEQ) holding their feet to the fire.
The president wrote in his executive order:
"In order to create a clean energy economy that will increase our nation's prosperity, promote energy security, protect the interests of taxpayers, and safeguard the health of our environment, the federal government must lead by example.
"It is therefore the policy of the United States that federal agencies shall increase energy efficiency; measure, report, and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from direct and indirect activities; conserve and protect water resources through efficiency, reuse, and stormwater management; eliminate waste, recycle, and prevent pollution; leverage agency acquisitions to foster markets for sustainable technologies and environmentally preferable materials, products,and services; design, construct, maintain, and operate high performance sustainable buildings in sustainable locations;strengthen the vitality and livability of the communities in which federal facilities are located; and inform federal employees about and involve them in the achievement of these goals."
Under the order, CEQ, its Office of the Federal Environmental Executive and the Office of Budget and Management will review the agencies' plans, with final approval coming from the CEQ chair, Nancy Sutley, and OMB director, Peter Orszag.
By the time Obama gives his first official State of the Union address in January, every federal agency should have official emissions reduction targets to aim for and be working on a Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan.
The plans will start with reducing the energy intensity of buildings, increasing use of renewable energy, and cutting fossil fuel use by shifting to alternative-fuel vehicles. Next summer, the agencies will be required to start considering personnel travel and supply chains, and they'll be under orders to work with government vendors to reduce the supply chain emissions, as well.
Some of that is already in motion. The stimulus package approved earlier this year put $4.5 billion into retrofitting federal buildings for energy efficiency and is helping to pay for more than 17,000 fuel-efficient federal vehicles. A few alternative energy projects are also in the works, including plans by the Department of Veterans Affairs to build a wind turbine system to provide 15 percent of the power to its Medical Center in St. Cloud, Minn., and by the General Services Administration to installing an 8 MW solar power system at an office in Colorado that will feed excess energy back to the grid.
The first assessment test comes in January 2011, when the agencies report their emissions for the previous fiscal year.
Obama's order, which expands on federal energy- and water-efficiency targets issued during the Bush administration, sets a few specific requirements:
• 30% reduction in vehicle fleet petroleum use by 2020
• 26% improvement in water efficiency by 2020
• 50% recycling and waste diversion by 2015
• 95% of all applicable contracts will meet sustainability requirement
• 2% annual reduction in petroleum consumption through 2020
• implementation of the 2030 net-zero-energy building requirement
As for the financial benefits, the White House says only that the savings in energy efficiency will be "substantial."
The president writes:
"It is further the policy of the United States that to achieve these goals and support their respective missions, agencies shall prioritize actions based on a full accounting of both economic and social benefits and costs and shall drive continuous improvement by annually evaluating performance, extending or expanding projects that have net benefits, and reassessing or discontinuing under-performing projects."
Business and cities that are already operating under greenhouse gas and energy waste reduction plans can testify to the value.
Just one of Denver's many energy-saving moves, replacing its old traffic signals with LEDs, is saving the city more than $800,000 a year in energy costs and cutting its carbon dioxide emissions by 2,937 tons.
IBM's energy efficiency efforts have saved the company $115 million in reduced energy costs and avoided more than 1.2 million tons of carbon dioxide over the past decade.
Friends of the Earth called the executive order "a solid move on the part of the administration," but said the bigger issues the president needs to act on are putting economy-wide greenhouse gas regulations in place and showing leadership in forging a strong, fair global climate agreement.
"Moves by federal agencies to reduce their own pollution are welcome, but they don't make up for U.S. efforts to block the negotiation of a strong international climate agreement," FOE's Nick Berning said.
Obama has been catching flak over the past week for his lack of movement on climate issues. His emergency trip to Copenhagen to lobby for a Chicago Olympics when he still wouldn't commit to going to Copenhagen in December for the climate summit irritated environmental groups. Greenpeace hung a sign off a church tower near the president's meeting place reading: "Obama: Right City, Wrong Date."
"Obama needs to help set a new pace in the climate negotiations, leading from the front instead of coasting at the back," Greenpeace Nordic climate campaigner Jon Burgwald said.
Today's executive order, following the EPA's announcement last week explaining how it plans to control emissions from big polluters, shows the president is paying attention. Whether he can lead the way to a strong, global agreement remains to be seen as the clock ticks down to Copenhagen.
(Photos: Podium, official White House photo by Pete Souza; Banner, Greenpeace)