How federal agencies can achieve sustainability goals

How federal agencies can achieve sustainability goals
By Leslie Chinery and Chris Steuer
Mar 29, 2022
3 MIN. READ

Executive Order (EO) 14057: Catalyzing Clean Energy Industries and Jobs Through Federal Sustainability, released late last year, aims to “leverage the scale and procurement power of the federal government to lead by example in tackling the climate crisis.” It has the potential to make a real and significant impact on the administration’s ambitious carbon reduction targets.

Inside the new executive order

In order to meet these targets, the federal government must reduce its own emissions. Previous EOs have required that agencies measure their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and set goals to reduce them. This most recent EO raises the bar for reducing emissions while focusing on the most impactful pathways to achieve those reductions. It also directs government agencies to look at how they can make smart investments that have the greatest impact in the short term while providing the flexibility to evolve over the long term.

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Scope 1 and 2 emissions include direct emissions from sources owned or controlled by the federal government, such as fleet vehicles, as well as indirect emissions from purchased electricity and steam. Scope 3 emissions include emissions from other indirect sources such as landfilled waste and business travel.

As part of the EO, each federal agency must reduce its scope 1, 2, and 3 GHG emissions. This includes a target of 65% reduction of scope 1 and 2 by 2030, a big step up from the goal of a 40% reduction in scope 1 and 2 emissions set under President Obama.

The more ambitious goal more closely aligns the federal government’s commitment with those made by the private sector, such as the Climate Pledge. This is significant not only because federal agencies produce GHG emissions, but because of the sizable impact the federal government can wield through its purchasing strategy. The EO contains specific targets for actions federal agencies can take to reduce emissions through purchases, such as by achieving a “buy clean” provision aimed at promoting the use of construction materials with lower embodied carbon—including a long-term goal of achieving net-zero emissions in federal procurement. With over 300,000 buildings in the federal building portfolio, actions taken to reduce embodied carbon in building materials can have far-reaching impacts.

The EO requires 100% zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) acquisitions by 2035, including 100% zero-emission light-duty vehicle acquisitions by 2027. With over 600,000 vehicles in the federal fleet, agency efforts to procure ZEVs can help drive demand for the vehicles and the infrastructure that supports them. For federal agencies, transitioning to zero-emission vehicles will take careful planning that considers procurement cycles, zero-emission vehicle availability, vehicle uses—plus needed infrastructure, such as electric vehicle charging stations.

Energy efficiency strategies to consider

The EO also contains a goal of 100% carbon-pollution-free electricity (CFE) by 2030, at least half of which will be locally supplied clean energy to meet 24/7 demand. According to the Federal Sustainability Plan, the federal government purchased more than $4 billion in electricity in 2020 and made purchases in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. As agencies move toward purchasing more CFE, they should consider additional mitigation strategies such as improving energy efficiency and using alternative fuels. Energy use by buildings accounts for around a quarter of global carbon emissions. Powering buildings with clean energy further supports an additional EO goal to achieve a net-zero emissions building portfolio by 2045, including a 50% emissions reduction by 2032.

Beyond vehicle and electricity purchases, the government also has the ability to reduce emissions by encouraging climate-friendly practices among those who supply goods and services to the federal government. The EO includes requirements for the General Services Administration (GSA) to track disclosure of GHG emissions, emission reduction targets, and climate risk among major suppliers. According to the GSA Federal Contractor Climate Action Scorecard, federal contractor GHG emissions totaled about 150 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2019. Increasing transparency through disclosures will help the federal government and other consumers consider ways in which climate impacts may affect contractors’ ability to provide goods and services.

In sum, the EO represents a unique opportunity for every federal agency to establish outcome-based goals that demonstrate how it will reduce GHGs and address the climate change challenge given its unique mission and opportunities. While each agency will develop different plans to achieve these new targets, a whole of government approach allows agencies to learn from each other and from active engagement with the private sector, non-profits, and other governments around the world.

Meet the authors
  1. Leslie Chinery, Director, Climate Change and Sustainability
  2. Chris Steuer, Senior Director, Climate Planning + ICF Climate Center Senior Fellow

    Chris is a climate change and sustainability professional with nearly 20 years of experience advising and guiding corporations, federal agencies, and higher education institutions on greenhouse gas accounting and management approaches, net-zero energy and emission strategies, and sustainable programs and solutions. View bio

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