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Green Gov-How the federal government intends to lead us toward sustainability February 9, 2010

Posted by Gretchen Giannelli in Environmental Health.
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According to the Environmental Protection Agency,  sustainability was established as a national goal by the  National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970, and is defined as:

the creation and maintenance of conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.

In practical terms it means using our natural resources wisely and responsibly so that we reduce the negative impact on our environment, and don’t create burdens for future generations. The concept has evolved from one of disparate interests and trade-offs (public vs private, business interests vs the environment) into one of shared interests and synergy. Sustainability can be applied to many systems and living conditions.

The federal government is involved in sustainablility too.  Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, blogged last week that there was much excitement in the room during her meeting with the Office of Management and Budget and other leaders from federal agencies regarding sustainability in the federal government. She reported this meeting was a follow up to Barack Obama’s state of the union speech on January 27, 2010 in which he “set a government-wide greenhouse gas emissions reduction of 28 percent by 2020….”

The emissions reduction plan was a requirement of President Obama’s October 5, 2009 executive order on Federal Sustainability, which committed the federal government to lead by example. President Obama said:

As the largest consumer of energy in the U.S. economy, the Federal government can and should lead by example when it comes to creating innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, conserve water, reduce waste, and use environmentally-responsible products and technologies….

This is not a “one size fits all” reduction plan. Under the executive order each federal agency is required to create its own sustainability plan and the newly announced 28% reduction plan was arrived at by reviewing the plans from 35 different federal agency targets. For example the Department of Defense plans to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 34% by 2020 for all non-combat activities” and the Department of the Treasury “intends to reduce its emissions by 33%” by 2020.

Government leaders also sought to involve the approximately 1.5 million federal employees in the plan toward sustainability. They sponsored the Green Gov contest last October, an online program that challenged employees to take part in the President’s Executive Order on Federal Sustainability by submitting their own clean energy ideas and voting on others. Over 1,380 ideas were submitted by employees about how to eliminate waste in the government and save energy. All of the ideas are online and include:

•    Put “recycle bins in ALL public buildings….”
•    “Make it a policy to only buy recycled paper and greener office supplies”
•    “Install self-limiting faucets which control water pressure and flow in the restrooms of our government facilities….”
•    “Federal 4 day work week, as state of Utah did with remarkable success: 13% reduction in energy use, $6 mil annual gasoline savings and 82% worker approval (Time, Sept. 09).

Sutley mentions that lots of agencies have begun projects aimed at reducing energy use. Several are listed here:

•    The Central Intelligence Agency committed to reducing GHG* pollution when it opened two new LEED** certified buildings in Virginia that reduce annual energy and water use by more than 20 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
•    The Department of Defense (Fort Bliss) is aiming to be the “Army center for renewable energy” and a net-zero electricity user by 2025, producing as much energy on-site as the facility uses.
•    The Department of Energy plans to construct one of the largest biomass facilities in the country [which]… is projected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100,000 tons per year.
•    The U.S. Postal Service constructed the largest green roof in New York City, and one of the largest in the nation…. The nearly 2.5 acres of native, drought tolerant vegetation on top of the seven story building not only serves as a park and open space for employees, but also saves energy and reduces polluted stormwater runoff ….

*Greenhouse gas
**Leadership in Energy and Environmental design- a certification for environmentally sustainable construction issued by the US Green Building Council

After reading about all of these ideas and projects it’s easy to see why there was so much excitement at the recent meeting.  Federal agencies are already taking actions toward sustainability and by doing so they are helping to spur innovation and jobs in the private sector, reducing costs, and reducing pollution and the use of precious resources. We will all be able to track the progress of these agencies in meeting the year 2020 sustainability goals by reviewing scorecards which will be available online.

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