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White House pushes back timeline for decarbonizing federal real estate

08 December 2021 Amena Saiyid

The White House pushed back a 2025 goal for decarbonizing the federal US government's real estate by at least five years, among a series of actions aimed at achieving nationwide net-zero goals under an executive order released 8 December.

Under the Catalyzing Clean Energy Industries and Jobs Through Federal Sustainability order, President Joe Biden announced the federal government will use its "scale and procurement power" to achieve 100% carbon-pollution free electricity on a net-annual basis by 2030, including a requirement that half of that supply arise from "locally sourced clean energy sources" to meet the 24-hour demand cycle.

Earlier this year on Earth Day, the US General Services Administration (GSA), which is responsible for managing the federal government's assets including buildings and vehicles, announced a 2025 deadline for purchasing 100% renewable energy for its real estate portfolio.

With the executive order, Biden changed the timeline for the federal government to "lead by example" by harnessing its purchasing power as part of achieving a carbon pollution-free electricity sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050.

Using annual purchasing power of $650 billion in goods and services, Biden expects the US government will transform its portfolio of 300,000 buildings and fleet of 600,000 cars and trucks.

Timelines for transitioning

For instance, Biden gave the government until 2035 to purchase 100% zero-emission vehicles, and an interim deadline of 2027 for light-duty vehicles.

Biden's order also included a "buy clean" policy for federal purchases that would achieve "net-zero emissions" across the supply chain, including construction materials with a low-carbon footprint.

He also announced 2045 as the goal under this directive for federal agencies to reach net-zero levels at each of its buildings, campuses, and installations; with an interim goal of 50% reductions by 2032 from 2008 levels.

According to the US Department of Energy's most recent statistics, the US government purchases nearly 53.8 million MWh of electricity annually, making it the largest energy consumer in the nation.

Questioning rationale for timelines

The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which petitioned GSA on 2 December to use its existing authorities to transition federal power supply to renewables and to purchase electric vehicles was disappointed.

"It is odd that the president's order pushes back deadlines from five to 15 years, depending on the category we are talking about," Bill Snape, the center's senior counsel, told Net-Zero Business Daily.

Noting that the order isn't even legal binding, Snape questioned the use of vague "carbon-neutral" language that he said he fears will "open the door" to natural gas, biomass, and nuclear.

"Whatever the dates are, what I cannot understand is why the government has chosen to push back these dates when we have the technology today," Snape said. "What is the hold up?" We have the wind, solar, and battery technology today."

Effusive support

Unlike the CBD, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Evergreen Action were enthusiastic about Biden's order.

"As the largest energy consumer in the country, the federal government is uniquely positioned to catalyze our transition to a clean energy economy. The commitments outlined in today's order will not only empower federal agencies to lead by example, but will also generate powerful downstream effects for the entire country," Sam Ricketts, action co-director for Evergreen, a nonprofit group devoted to tackling the climate crisis.

The Union of Concerned Scientists tweeted that the federal government's action to decarbonize its electricity will catalyze at least 10 GW of new clean power and contribute to the goal of achieving a 100% carbon-free electricity sector by 2035.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, transportation remains the top source of global warming emissions in the US so "it is crucial the federal government does everything it can to cut these emissions off at the source," Environment America Global Warming Solutions Associate Eve Lukens-Day said in a statement following the order's release.

"Backbreaking move"

Meanwhile, Republicans were aghast upon learning of Biden's order for the federal government.

The top-ranking Republican on the US Senate and Energy Natural Resources Committee, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, said Biden's plan is not about "build back better—it's another backbreaking move to build bigger bureaucracy."

In contrast, the US Chamber of Commerce was more circumspect in its response, while reiterating earlier calls for streamlining the federal permitting process. The chamber was supportive of the prior administration's efforts to ease the permitting process for infrastructure projects.

"While we are still reviewing the Executive Order, we appreciate President Biden's continued focus on tackling climate change," Marty Durbin, the chamber's vice president of policy, wrote in an 8 December statement.

However, Durbin added that the most important factors for the success of ambitious climate goals are "the pace of innovation and the ability of government to modernize permitting processes" that will allow technology to be developed and deployed without undue delay.

Posted 08 December 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate and Energy Research Analyst

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