While Congress kept busy last week by not passing the climate bill, the Obama administration showed again that they are capable of introducing forward-thinking public policy through the agencies, without having to deal with obstruction from the right or the left. Last week, Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality held a forum on the federal government’s role in sustainable building. The oft-cited figure is that buildings account for about one-third of our greenhouse gas emissions, even more than transportation. So, in accordance with Executive Order 13514 — which created a list of energy-reduction goals for federal level agencies — the agencies are now creating plans to reduce fuel consumption in their car fleets, reduce water use, and reduce their energy bills.
According to the report on the forum, the federal government spent $24.5 billion in 2008 on energy and fuel to power their stock of approximately 500,000 buildings, most of which are managed the General Services Administration — often referred to as the government’s landlord. These half million buildings account for about 1.7% of all the commercial office space in the whole country. And they’re looking to cut back. Somewhere, an EnergyStar sales manager is putting together the PowerPoint presentation of a lifetime.
And that’s more or less what the Obama administration wants. The forum was hosted by the government, but attended by about 120 leaders in the commercial building industry. So on the one hand, they were explaining to leaders the potential savings and new efficiencies of green building practices, but on the other, perhaps they were helping make these captains of industry aware of how they might try to get a contract with the government in the future.
Martha Johnson, the — don’t laugh — General Services Administration Administrator, explained to the audience that it was quite shrewd of the president to include the little-known GSA in the plan to green the government. “GSA’s reach,” explained Johnson “is broad as well as deep. We touch both this river of government acquisition, as well as a significant portion of the buildings portfolio in which the government works. We are positioned to steer and leverage the immense purchasing power of the government to test, prove, and then bring to scale new ideas and new technologies. It’s an activist acquisition strategy.”
In addition to forming new public-private partnerships and “synergies” around sustainable building, Fast Company reports that the GSA is working on changing people’s energy use habits. For example, the GSA is working with other researchers to install a massive screen in the lobby of San Francisco’s Federal Building to display energy consumption levels in real-time. After that, they’re toying with the idea of putting a widget on employee’s computer desktops, constantly alerting them of their usage levels. Ironically, these sustainability initiatives are supposed to make for happier, more productive employees.
Boring and full of corporate and managerial-speak as the conference was — or what I could manage to get through on YouTube — what I witnessed was the dangling of a carrot in front of the faces of corporate interests. The government can set the example, and even give out contracts, but you need to fall in line. What the Obama administration needs now is a stick — specifically, a price on carbon — and Congress is the only one who can give it to him. Maybe if next July is hot enough to melt all the campaign donations our lawmakers take from energy corporations, we will actually see some results.