President Biden’s wave of executive orders setting the federal government on a path to carbon neutrality by 2050 is another step in his efforts to restore the United States to a prominent role in fighting climate change, but it is a small step nonetheless.
Biden entered office with a vow to aggressively fight climate change. On his first day in office he signed an executive order for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, reversing the country’s withdrawal under former President Trump.
Now he has put the power of the federal government to work, saying the federal government will put in place a series of actions that will enable it to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2050. Every federal agency will now develop plans to meet Biden’s clean energy targets, which will be reviewed by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality.
“It isn’t going to get us all the way, but it’s an important step,” said Sara Fontes, a government affairs advocate for the League of Conservation Voters. “The federal government is one of the biggest customers in the world, it’s an important signal to the market.”
The U.S. government, of course, is a huge consumer of energy. But even when the military is included, federal energy usage only equals almost 10% of the national energy consumption.
Biden’s order requires the government to stop buying gas-powered vehicles by 2035. Considering the federal fleet alone includes about 645,000 vehicles, the plan may generate a lot of demand for zero-emission cars and trucks. That could lower the cost of the vehicles, as well as components such as batteries and other technology.
Also, by 2045 most buildings owned or leased by the federal government would need to be carbon-neutral, spurring private development in the construction sector.
Departments are also ordered to work together on government-wide goals. For instance, the secretaries of defense and energy will coordinate with the head of the General Services Administration to support efforts to increase the country’s clean electricity generation capacity to meet federal needs.
That still leaves much to do if the country as a whole wants to shift toward carbon neutrality.
“Biden wants to at least look like a leader in the fight against climate change, and so these proposals provide some virtue signaling in that regard,” Richard Heinberg, senior fellow-in-residence at the Post Carbon Institute, noting that few states have binding legislation.
Playing catch-up on climate
While the new commitment doesn’t immediately propel the United States to the top of the pack, it does help address the absence of climate leadership over the past several years.
Biden’s directives are more ambitious than the order signed by President Barack Obama in 2015 that set a target of reducing the government’s emissions by 40% over 10 years. Obama’s order was revoked three years later by Trump, who ordered government agencies to prioritize reducing waste and cutting costs.
“Under Trump, the U.S. regressed” as far as fighting climate change, Fontes said. “Independent of where other countries are at, we need to play catch-up.”
In fact, the U.S. target sets the country pretty much in line with others. More than 120 nations, including the U.S., have set nationwide 2050 net-zero targets. The European Union, for instance, set its goal three years ago, with countries including France, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark adopting legally binding targets or pledging to do so. The United Kingdom, although it left the EU, also has targeted 2050.
“The U.S. is not doing as much as some countries, but more—at least on paper—than a few others,” Heinberg said.
Europe’s push, though, is fueled by more than just a concern for the environment, Heinberg said. “Europe is mostly reliant on fossil fuel imports, largely from Russia,” he points out. “Countries on that continent have an incentive to reduce this dependency.”
Outside Europe, dozens of countries including Canada, South Korea, Japan, and South Africa have also pledged to be net zero by 2050.
Biden’s order is more concrete than a pledge by Australia in October to achieve net zero by 2050 without legislation to back it.
And it certainly places the U.S. ahead of China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon. The Chinese government aims for carbon neutrality “before 2060,” though many environmental groups have said the actions being taken so far are insufficient to achieve that goal.
“China uses an extraordinary amount of coal—over half the world’s annual supply,” Heinberg said. “China will face mammoth technical challenges in replacing coal, and the nation’s leaders know it.”
He called China’s 2060 target “mostly aspirational.”
The U.S., with its economy historically tied tightly to fossil fuel consumption and its high use of energy, may find it difficult to achieve carbon neutrality. The countries that are close to net zero tend to be small and use very little energy per capita, like Bhutan and Suriname. Iceland, which aims to be neutral by 2040, is in the rare position of being able to tap the geothermal energy that is ever-present on the volcanic island.
Fontes predicted that the order would spur more investments in clean energy projects as a way to supply the federal initiative. After all, the U.S. government spends about $650 billion on goods and services every year.
The next step in the administration’s push to fight climate change would be the passage of Biden’s $1.85 trillion Build Back Better bill, which includes about $500 billion for green energy and other climate-related measures. Most of the cash would be in the form of tax credits for clean transportation and electricity.
Biden’s order “is not an independent initiative; this is part of a larger strategy,” Fontes said. One of its aims is to prod Congress to act on Build Back Better and upcoming appropriations bills.
Even so, Build Back Better sustained a major setback when U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said on Sunday he could not support the bill.
While Heinberg supports the legislation, he calls for much stronger action.
“The best way forward would be a program for rationing our remaining fossil fuels, with an annually declining cap on production,” he said, referring to all levels of society, from the federal government to private companies to individual households.
This major legislative setback could complicate U.S. efforts to meet climate targets and regain international standing on climate.
“The sustainability executive order will send an important market signal, with the federal government as a large and reliable customer,” Fontes noted. “But without the investments and incentives in the Build Back Better Act it will be more difficult for companies to make the transition to clean energy, especially smaller businesses.”
Update, Dec. 20, 2021: This article has been updated with the comment on the Build Back Better legislation.
This story is part of The Path to Zero, a series of special reports on how business can lead the fight against climate change. This quarter’s report highlights how governments and private industry are approaching the biggest challenges and opportunities in the sustainability space.