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Biden wants to make federal government carbon neutral by 2050

White House to spend billions to buy electric vehicles, upgrade federal buildings and change how the government buys power

President Biden speaks on Nov. 17 in Detroit at a General Motors plant that produces electric vehicles. (Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
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The Biden administration announced Wednesday it aims to buy its way to a cleaner, cooler planet, spending billions to create a federal fleet of electric vehicles, upgrade federal buildings and change how the government buys electricity.

The executive order President Biden signed leverages Washington’s buying power to cut the government’s carbon emissions 65 percent by the end of the decade. It lays out goals that would put the federal government on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050 and would add at least 10 gigawatts worth of clean electricity to the grid.

Under the new approach, federal operations would run entirely on carbon-free electricity by 2030. By 2035, the government would stop buying gas-powered vehicles, switching to zero-emission heavy-duty trucks and cars. A decade after that, most of the buildings owned or leased by the government would no longer contribute to the carbon pollution that’s warming the planet.

The order also instructs the government to launch a “buy clean” initiative, prioritizing products produced and transported with low greenhouse gas emissions.

Sarah Bloom Raskin, a Duke University law professor who served as treasury deputy secretary under President Barack Obama, said in a recent interview that the administration’s push to reduce its carbon footprint could ripple across the economy.

President Biden on Nov. 1 told world leaders that the United States will keep its promise to slash greenhouse gas emissions by more than half. (Video: Reuters)

“The government is a significant driver of demand,” she said, adding that federal procurement officers can “send a signal” even without adopting new regulations or passing legislation.

“It doesn’t tell the private sector entities what to do, but to some extent it will demand a certain kind of good and service so companies can shift what’s being made,” Bloom Raskin said.

Administration officials said the size of the federal fleet alone — which includes some 645,000 vehicles — could lower the cost of electric vehicles, batteries and other technology. Just as the green building certification process known as LEED nudged private developers toward eco-friendly construction, a government-wide effort to cut emissions could shape the public’s tastes and buying habits.

Speaking at a conference hosted Tuesday by the American Clean Power Association, Biden’s national climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, said the administration hopes the effort will enhance “the ability of states and localities to build off those contracts and take advantage of the breadth of the purchasing power of the federal government.”

Still, the plan faces significant logistical and financial hurdles, and could encounter opposition from business groups and Republican lawmakers.

Left-leaning groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sunrise Movement accused the administration of not going far enough, while Republicans like Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.) said the plan would harm states with large fossil fuel reserves.

“President Biden’s strategy is to destroy the economies of Wyoming, West Virginia and other energy-producing states,” said Barrasso, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “With this action, he’s telling millions of Americans who provide most of the energy we use every day that he thinks they should be thrown out of work.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce responded with more caution. “While we are still reviewing the Executive Order, we appreciate President Biden’s continued focus on tackling climate change,” said Marty Durbin, the group’s senior vice president of policy, in a statement.

To meet its goals for zero-emission vehicles, the administration will have to overcome production delays caused by computer chip shortages and install enough charging stations to make the vehicles practical. And although the auto industry is planning to churn out dozens of new models of electric cars and trucks in the coming years, specialized vehicles, like the U.S. Forest Service’s wildland fire engines, could be harder to source.

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The new executive order alludes to this stumbling block, calling for the federal government to stop buying gas-powered passenger cars by 2027 but postponing the federal fleet’s complete transition from fossil fuels by another eight years.

Right now, the federal government is taking only incremental steps toward this goal. It bought 650 electric vehicles last fiscal year, according to a senior administration official. While that was triple the previous year’s total, it represents a little more than 1 percent of all the vehicles the government typically buys each year.

Government purchasing is also notoriously slow, with layers of bureaucracy designed to prevent fraud and cost overruns. The quick pace of technological development could make investments in a product or strategy obsolete by the time it’s deployed.

How to pay for a government-wide pivot to cleaner energy is an open question. While the infrastructure bill Biden signed into law last month contains $7.5 billion to build a network of electric vehicle chargers, other aspects of the administration’s plan may be constrained by agency budget allocations.

Fixing aging buildings could be one of the government’s biggest challenges — and opportunities. Burning fossil fuels to heat and cool buildings in the United States produces nearly a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Although improvements in energy efficiency have made a dent in carbon pollution from buildings, Americans’ increasing reliance on electronics and appliances is expected to increase emissions by mid-century.

As the country’s largest landlord, the U.S. government oversees about 300,000 properties built during different eras, under a wide range of code requirements. Both existing and new buildings would be covered by Biden’s executive order, as well as military bases and leased facilities that the government doesn’t directly control.

Under the order, the White House Council on Environmental Quality would draw up performance standards for federal buildings for the first time so government officials can evaluate a facility’s carbon footprint.

Retrofitting government warehouses and compact office buildings to make them more energy efficient is relatively simple, said Victor Olgyay, a principal architect at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank focused on energy policy.

By adding insulation, sealing air leaks and covering the roofs with solar panels, many of these buildings could become carbon neutral, Olgyay said. But energy-thirsty facilities like government laboratories and data centers pose a thornier problem and, in some cases, it may be more cost effective to tear down old buildings than attempt to modernize them.

Making federal buildings carbon neutral by 2045 is “absolutely” possible, he said. “We have all the technology we need to do this now, and it’s cost effective. It’s more politically and economically a question.”

Although it could take a year or more for changes in procurement to take effect, some agencies are already testing new approaches.

U.S. Park Police in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., began using electric motorcycles and dirt bikes this year. Within a matter of months, the Department of Homeland Security plans to introduce the electric Ford Mustang Mach-E into its law enforcement fleet.

By the end of next year, the Pentagon plans to complete one of the country’s largest solar panel arrays, a 520-megawatt project on Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. The administration estimates the project will create about 1,000 union construction jobs. Another solar installation and battery storage project underway at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the Hawaiian island Kauai could power the entire base if the grid failed.

Biden’s directive builds off an executive order Obama signed in 2015 setting a goal of cutting the federal government’s emissions by 40 percent over 10 years. President Donald Trump revoked that order three years later, replacing it with instructions to agencies that focused on reducing waste and cost-cutting.

Some states are using their purchasing power to tackle climate change. A California policy mandates that, by 2025, half of all the cars the state buys must be emissions-free. State law requires that only certain low-carbon building materials can be used in public works projects. New York also prioritizes buying low-carbon products.

Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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