Obama Seeks Major Cut in Federal Greenhouse Gas Emissions

March 21st 2015

Alex Mierjeski

On Thursday, President Obama signed an executive order that would cut the government's greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent over the next decade, while also requiring federal contractors and suppliers to increase electrical reliance on renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. 

The announcement builds on November's landmark climate accord between the U.S. and China, where Obama agreed to cut domestic carbon emissions by between 26 and 28 percent of 2005 level emissions by 2025––roughly double the reach of the previous 17 percent decrease goal from the 2005 to 2020 period, set in 2009. Since then, the government has cut greenhouse emissions by 17 percentIn addition to ramping up efforts to curb the march of climate change, the White House noted that the order would save taxpayers an estimated $18 billion. 

"Today, America is going to be once again leading by example," Obama said Thursday at a Department of Energy event attended by leaders from federal contractors and suppliers. "These are ambitious goals, but we know that they're achievable goals."

"We're proving that it is possible to grow our economy robustly while at the same time doing the right thing for our environment and tackling climate change in a serious way," he said. 

The New York Times notes that the federal government's contribution of greenhouse gasses is small––not even one percent in 2013, when the most recent data is from––so the order itself is not necessarily a significant boon to the president's larger goals addressing climate change. However, a White House fact sheet noted that since the federal government is the largest user of energy in the economy as a whole––accounting for 360,000 buildings, 650,000 fleet vehicles, and $445 billion spent annually on goods and services––federal cutbacks could cause significant ripple effects that push private companies to fall in line. In order to help the process along, the president also released a scorecard enabling federal suppliers to record their emissions and mark reductions. 

The move preempts a United Nations agreement in Paris to reduce global emissions, and according to Brian Deese, a top advisor to the president, the White House hopes to set an example. "Certainly our hope is that we are laying forth a template that other countries could also learn from and look at as well," he told reporters. 

Deese also noted that the order showed the administration to be "on offense" on climate change in the face of strong Republican pushback to environmental efforts. Congressional Republicans have been under fire recently as they continue to argue that there is no scientific consensus on climate change. In January, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who heads up the Senate's environmental committee, brought a snowball to the Senate floor in an attempt to disprove man-made climate change, or, as he described it, the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." (Obama called Inhofe's actions "disturbing," in a recent interview with Vice News.)

As environmental efforts in Congress stagnate, Obama praised many of the major companies present at a roundtable discussion for cutting emissions to meet new target goals. "You guys have done an outstanding job," he told representatives of companies like I.B.M., General Electric, Honeywell, and Northrop Grumman. "Because of the prominence of many of the companies here, and the fact that they've got a whole bunch of suppliers up and down the chain, what you do with respect to energy efficiency is going to have a ripple effect throughout the economy." 

In the run-up to the UN climate conference in Paris in December, Obama is expected to release detailed plans for hitting nationwide emissions-cutting goals before the end of the month.