Release of Greenhouse Gas Inventory for Federal Government Shows Potential Impact of Sustainability Policy

The recent release of the first ever scorecard of energy and environmental performance for federal government operations is a landmark step toward improving government sustainability. The White House Executive Order 13514, which was signed in October 2009, requires all federal agencies to appoint a sustainability director, take inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, and work to meet sustainability targets.

The scorecard, released in April, shows that the federal government operations resulted in emissions of 121 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e)—over three times more than the emissions caused by all residents and businesses in Chicago in a year. Of this federal total, 55%— 66 MMTCO2e— is covered by reduction targets under Executive Order 13514, with the remaining (largely defense-related) emissions tracked, but not targeted for mitigation.

Each department has released a scorecard that shows how they are performing relative to sustainability targets relating to greenhouse gas reductions, renewable energy use, reductions in petroleum use, water efficiency, energy efficiency, and green building. Not every agency is meeting its targets, and most are receiving a failing grade in at least one of the seven categories being assessed, but for agencies to be held accountable to specific sustainability targets such as these is a step forward. Links to all agency scorecards can be found through the Council on Environmental Quality.

Local Impacts
The environmental footprint of the federal government expands far beyond Washington, DC. The energy use, water use and emissions being tracked under the sustainability program occur in communities throughout the U.S. One very visible impact is the emissions and energy use associated with federal government employee commuting.

Remarkably, the greenhouse gas footprint of federal employees is 10 MMTCO2e—larger than the greenhouse gas footprint of many communities. This is not to say that federal employees have particularly large commutes, but that the number of employees the federal government has means that it can have great impacts on transportation in the communities it operates in by locating facilities near transit and providing transportation alternatives to employees and visitors to federal facilities.

A recent example of how these sustainability goals have the potential to change federal decision-making has been playing out in Kansas City, where the Environmental Protection Agency is slated to move to a new building away from the central city—likely increasing the transportation footprint of the agency. As Executive Order 13514 is more fully implemented, it should direct federal facility siting to become more sustainable for federal employees and the communities in which they work.

Supply Chain Effects
The federal government is one of the largest purchasers in the world. As the implementation of Executive Order 13514 expands to include reporting of emissions associated with federal government purchases and leased space, the supply-chain effects into the economy will be substantial. As vendors are required to provide emissions information as part of making sales to the federal government, tracking, reporting, and reducing emissions will become more integrated with business practices. Such sustainable purchasing requirements can also go beyond federal purchasing to serve as a model for business or local government procurement policy.

Example of Climate Action Using Existing Tools
The greenhouse gas reduction goals under Executive Order 13514 are a great example of the type of climate action that can be achieved using existing tools even without congressional economy-wide climate regulations. The 2011 update of the Presidential Climate Action Plan, which CNT contributed to, provides suggestions on many more actions that the federal government can take right now—including full-cost accounting policies, climate risk management, and increasing transparency of data to enable targeting of greenhouse gas reductions.

Model for State and Local Government
Executive Order 13514 can serve as a good model for state and local governments to improve the sustainability of their operations. Targeting operations can reduce government expenditures, provide leadership to the private sector, and allow government staff to test sustainability actions in-house before recommending them more widely.