How The U.S. Government Just Pulled Off The Equivalent Of Retiring 1.8 Million Cars


The White House announced today that federal agencies have cut their greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent since 2008 — roughly equivalent to permanently taking 1.8 million cars off the road.

The occasion for the announcement was the annual release of agency scorecards, documenting their progress in cutting GHG emissions, improving energy efficiency, and reducing pollution and waste. This is the fourth year the agencies have released the scorecards. The process was kicked off in 2009 when President Obama issued Executive Order 13514, which laid out the goals for the agencies as well as the process by which they should plan, measure, and document their progress.

The current 2020 goal as laid down by the White House is for the entire government to reduce collective GHG emissions from fuels and building energy use 28 percent from their 2008 levels. Agencies are also tasked with cutting indirect emissions — which come from things like government employee commutes and business travels — by 13 percent.

Federal agencies are also tasked with getting 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, a goal that triple government use of renewables from where it was at in 2013. Today’s announcement showed the agencies reached nine percent renewable use by the end of fiscal year 2013. The target for that deadline had been 7.5 percent, putting the agencies ahead of schedule.

The federal government’s use of potable water has also been cut 19 percent from 2007 levels, with a goal of a 26 percent improvement in efficiency of use by 2020.

The White House’s current pledge to the international community is to cut America’s overall carbon emissions 17 percent below their 2005 levels by 2020. The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent rules cutting emissions from new and existing power plants is a major part of that effort, as are a slew of other initiatives outlined in President Obama’s climate action plan, including the improvements for federal agencies.

And while the government’s fuel and electricity usage only accounts for 1.5 percent of the nation’s annual energy consumption, that still makes it the U.S. economy’s single largest source of energy demand — thanks to its operation of nearly 500,000 buildings and over 600,000 vehicles. So the Obama Administration thinks the symbolism is important: “The President firmly believes that the Federal Government should lead by example in improving energy efficiency and cutting harmful carbon pollution,” the White House statement said.

The energy efficiency goals are also significant. America’s national energy consumption has been slowing since the 1970s while economic growth has continued apace, suggesting the economy is getting better at doing more of value with less energy. Global trends among advanced nations are similar. And while more needs to be done, building codes in the U.S. have also improved dramatically in the last few years, putting the government at the forefront of the national trend.

As for water use, it doesn’t take much climate change to drive water scarcity up significantly — though the threat is more severe in other parts of the globe than in North America. Still, U.S. water supplies are already strained by drought and the lack of fresh water is also a threat to the future stability of the country’s energy supply.

As the White House noted, the third National Climate Assessment reported that climate change driven by human GHG emissions is already affecting the country, with more impacts to come in terms of drought, floods, storms, and damaged and strained infrastructure.

Other goals the White House has laid out for federal agencies include: a 30 percent cut in vehicle petroleum use by 2020, 50 percent recycling and waste diversion by 2015, and a net-zero-energy building requirement for 2030.