Are the White House's zero-emission goals for federal buildings unrealistic? Yes, say some Biden administration officials
Funding concerns and renewable energy supply could hamper Biden's ambitious goals for federal agencies, though the White House maintains it is on track to meet them.
The Biden administration has set ambitious goals to reduce the federal government’s carbon footprint, but agency officials tasked with carrying that out are raising concerns the plans may not be realistically achievable.
The costs associated with President Biden’s vision to eliminate emissions from federal buildings are too high, General Services Administration personnel told the Government Accountability Office, and the technology required is often not yet available. GSA, which manages federal real estate across the country, has made some progress in boosting the sustainability of federal buildings, but remains far behind the short and long-term goals the White House has created.
GAO launched the review in response to President Biden’s Federal Sustainability Plan to make federal agency operations entirely carbon-neutral by 2050. As part of an executive order to meet that goal, Biden mandated that all agencies maintain net-zero emission buildings by 2045. By 2032, agencies will have to cut emissions in all federal buildings, campuses and installations by 50% compared to a 2008 baseline on the path to making them completely net-zero. Already, all new, large construction and modernization projects have to include building designs that are net-zero emissions and reduce waste and water usage. Agencies have until 2030 to ensure at least 30% of their current facilities are retrofitted to eliminate emissions, as well as to use 100% carbon-free electricity.
Much of the burden for those obligations will fall on GSA, which told auditors they have significant challenges ahead.
“Officials from nearly all GSA regions expressed little confidence in their ability to achieve future federal goals for net-zero building emissions,” GAO said.
Reaching that goal, the officials said, will require significant projects that include replacing major equipment. Funding will present a key barrier, they explained, noting they have so far mostly engaged in low-cost projects such as installing more efficient lighting. The capital required for future, much larger-in-scale projects would need a significant change in the trajectory of GSA funding. GSA’s central office conceded such an undertaking would necessitate spending beyond what has historically been available to the agency.
Officials suggested they can rely on performance contracts—in which energy companies take on the up-front costs for efficiency upgrades and are paid back by GSA over 20 years or so with the savings realized from the changes—to help offset costs. GSA only signed four such contracts affecting 22 buildings in 2022, however, and officials said many future initiatives would require too significant of up-front costs for performance contracts to be feasible.
GSA said it is evaluating what actions will be required to meet its goals and has undertaken 46 projects to meet the 2030 emission reduction goal.
In addition to the funding concerns, most of the officials GAO spoke to “expressed little confidence in their ability to achieve new federal carbon-free electricity goals due to the limited market of suppliers at the time of our review.” Where such sustainable options are available, they said, they often have to pay a premium for them. GSA created a new office in August 2022 to examine new ways and innovations to meet goals, which has helped establish short and long-term goals.
GSA is further struggling to procure sustainable building materials—another requirement under Biden’s order—calling it time consuming and, in some cases, not economically viable. The larger goal of net-zero emission procurement is a “largely unrealistic task,” officials said, unless they are able to purchase carbon offsets.
The GSA officials “just said there would be some challenges,” Catina Latham, GAO’s director for physical infrastructure issues, said of the agency’s overall outlook. They stressed their “competing demands,” funding concerns and the limited availability of supplies.
She added the officials did not say the goals were hopeless, but gave a frank assessment of, “‘This is what you’re telling us to do. This is how confident we feel in achieving it.’”
A spokesperson from the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, which is overseeing the Federal Sustainability Plan and coordinating closely with GSA on its goals, said federal agencies have reduced emissions from their buildings by 39% since 2008 and are "on track" to meet the president's net zero-emissions goal by 2045. Recent funding boosts would have make it achievable.
"With over $1 billion through President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law dedicated to making federal buildings cleaner and more energy efficient and agency strategic plans in place, the administration is taking action now to transform federal buildings into models of sustainability while creating good jobs in communities across the country," the CEQ spokesperson said.
GSA has for nearly two decades faced varying sustainability requirements and in that time has made some progress. About 31% of GSA-owned buildings were designated as sustainable in 2021, up from 24% in 2018. Federal buildings slashed emissions by 51% compared in 2021 to a 2008 baseline. That same year between 11% and 19% of electricity at buildings in GSA’s portfolio came from renewable sources, though that remains far short of the 2030 goal of 100% of electricity stemming from non-carbon sources.
Since Biden’s initiative went into place, GSA has issued new standards such as carbon standards for concrete and asphalt. The agency has issued a request for information soliciting feedback on how to meet the goals and is encouraging agencies and partners to consider how to use new funds, such as those made available in the Inflation Reduction Act, to accelerate progress. The Energy Department created a $250 million fund earlier this year, using money from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, that agencies can tap into to make their buildings more energy and water efficient.
A GSA spokesperson said newly available funds would make Biden’s goals achievable.
The money “will empower GSA to increase energy efficiency, electrify federal buildings, expand our use of carbon pollution-free electricity, and buy more low-embodied carbon materials, helping to catalyze industry efforts to accelerate decarbonization in U.S. markets, create good clean energy jobs, and ultimately achieve the Administration’s goals for sustainable, net-zero federal buildings,” the spokesperson said.
Biden has also ordered agencies to stop purchasing emission cars, trucks and vans by 2027 and to cease buying any internal combustion engine non-tactical vehicles at all by 2035. GAO previously cautioned that while agencies are taking several steps to better prepare themselves for the shift, there remain many challenges to meeting the targets the Biden administration has created.
This story has been updated with additional comment from GSA.