There is a long history of federal government action on sustainability and the environment. President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in January 1970, which codified the need “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.” This understanding of sustainability aligns with the Environmental Protection Agency, which defines sustainability as “Everything that we need for our survival and well-being [which] depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.” Even though there are a number of environmental investments in the recently signed Inflation Reduction Act, a comprehensive understanding of sustainability still seems to be missing from the broader efforts to transition to a low-carbon economy which enhances U.S. energy and climate security.
Recently, a series of executive orders have played a significant role in guiding federal sustainability concepts and outcomes. On December 8, 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order (EO) 14057 that outlines the goal of supporting American clean energy industries and jobs through a Federal Sustainability Plan (with an accompanying fact sheet). This Plan includes the goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent from 2005 levels by 2032. This EO emphasized the federal government’s role as a responsible and “good steward of government resources.” By addressing climate change, it would allow for the U.S. to continue to create “good jobs and industries” and make the U.S. “more economically competitive.” The Plan also includes a recognition of the economic damage inflicted by extreme weather events that are exacerbated by climate change, with the U.S. economy taking a $99b hit in 2020, and a $145b hit in 2021. With these opportunities and challenges in mind, the Federal Sustainability Plan calls for federal government preparedness and resilience to the changing climate, and to prepare in such a way that promotes economic and environmental equity for all Americans.
Ultimately, EO 14057 features five goals for the federal government:
- 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2030, at least half of which will be locally supplied clean energy to meet 24/7 demand;
- 100 percent zero-emission vehicle acquisitions by 2035, including 100 percent zero-emission light-duty vehicle acquisitions by 2027;
- Net-zero emissions from federal procurement;
- A net-zero emissions building portfolio by 2045, including a 50 percent emissions reduction by 2032; and
- Net-zero emissions from overall federal operations by 2050, including a 65 percent emissions reduction by 2030.
There are five principles and goals that align with the above goals for the federal government, and these include the following:
- Climate resilient infrastructure and operations;
- A climate- and sustainability-focused workforce;
- Advancing environmental justice and equity;
- Prioritizing the purchase of sustainable products; and
- Accelerating progress through domestic and international partnerships.
Three other EOs play a key role in guiding federal sustainability efforts:
- EO 14008 (January 2021) draws attention to the need for national security and military readiness in managing the effects of climate change. It established the Justice40 Initiative which aims to deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of clean energy, clean water, sustainable housing, and climate investments to disadvantaged communities.
- EO 13990 (January 2021) underscores the need for a transition to a clean energy economy that safeguards workers and health and promotes and protects public health and the environment.
- EO 14030 (May 2021) highlights the need for consistent, clear, comparable, and accurate disclosure of climate-related financial risk.
In response to EO 14008, more than 20 federal agencies released climate plans that outline their own steps to ensure their facilities and operations adapt to and are increasingly resilient to climate change impacts. Annual federal government and specific agency performance data for energy use, water use, renewable electricity, facility efficiency investments, sustainable buildings, vehicle fuel usage, and greenhouse gas emissions are publicly available. These efforts align with broader congressional sustainability and resilience initiatives, such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), which aims to, among many things, upgrade power infrastructure, build resilient infrastructure, and create a network of electric vehicle chargers.
However, existing EOs and plans fall short of offering explicit, enhanced protection for the natural environment (including national parks) and goals for managing natural resources sustainably. Earlier this year, funding was announced for 72 programs from the Justice40 Initiative, but natural environmental protection is limited to Superfund and brownfield clean-up efforts. Similarly, the BIL offered $21b to clean up former industrial and energy sites that are idle and serve as sources of pollution, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Climate Adaptation Action Plan did not mention any investments in the natural environment by supporting biodiversity and national parks. While these federal government efforts certainly make headway in addressing climate change through environmental education, information-sharing, community investment, and clean-up initiatives, they do not extend support for initiatives related to ecological restoration, biodiversity, or habitat loss. In turn, it is a missed opportunity to enhance the beauty and resilience of the U.S.’s diverse landscape.
Conversely, the U.S. Department of Interior—which oversees the National Park Service (NPS)—published a Sustainability Report and Implementation Plan that identified how to make NPS assets, such as its facilities, buildings, and vehicle fleet, more sustainable and how they can serve as a model for incorporating environmental considerations into other agency climate plans. Through its Green Parks Plan, the NPS is striving to “green” its facilities and grounds by adopting sustainable landscape management practices and enhancing pollinator populations, biodiversity, and healthy soils. The latter practices better reflect how the federal government can support its nature and better commit to historic and current understandings of sustainability. The “America the Beautiful” Initiative—launched in May 2021—outlined goals to conserve “30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.” This Initiative calls for creating more parks in nature-deprived communities, supporting Tribally-led conservation and restoration priorities, expanding collaborative conservation of fish and wildlife habitats, and incentivizing and rewarding voluntary conservation efforts.
Preserving and protecting the environment is a necessary component for ensuring sustainability and combating climate change. From nature based-solutions to water resource management – incorporating conservation and protections for nature are key to equitable and robust federal action. Although improvements have been made, more funding and objectives for conserving, restoring, and enhancing the natural environment would greatly enhance federal sustainability efforts.
Climate Security in Focus is a blog series dedicated to exploring key elements of climate security that impact American interests both at home and abroad. The series aims to examine specific aspects of climate security issues in order to better understand climate policy challenges, facilitate conversation, and generate ideas.