A new presidential executive order that calls for major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from federal buildings and facilities could have sweeping impacts for construction and design firms that do business for the federal government.  

President Joe Biden's Dec. 8 directive calls for federal agencies to collectively reduce facility emissions 50% below 2008 levels by 2032, and have a net-zero operating carbon emission building portfolio by 2045. Other goals include moving away from fossil fuels and electrifying buildings and vehicles owned by the government, and achieving net-zero emissions from federal procurement efforts no later than 2050. 

The order instructs federal agencies and newly created task forces to develop plans and policies to reach the target reductions and goals. One will focus on developing a “Buy Clean” plan to promote using construction materials that have less embodied carbon.

Nick Goldstein, vice president of legal and regulatory affairs at the American and Road Transportation Builders Association, says it is “too early to tell” the specifics of how Buy Clean policies will be enacted, but “it’s something we’ll be taking a look at” to gauge potential impact on ARTBA members.   

As the federal government’s prime real estate agent, the US General Services Administration will play a key role in helping agencies achieve the goals outlined in Biden’s order. GSA is responsible for a real estate portfolio of more than 370 million sq ft and oversees more than $75 billion in annual contracts and is the primary agency that procures government-wide electricity. “From day one, GSA has been excited about revitalizing government-wide sustainability, and we are now positioned to help,” GSA Deputy Administrator Katy Kale said in a statement. 


The Goals are Ambitious

A long-term approach spanning several administrations will be needed to achieve the goals, which are ambitious, says Cliff Majersik, senior advisor for the Institute for Market Transformation. The target reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are “stretch” goals that will require “big changes in how the government operates, designs and constructs its buildings, and also [how it] makes decisions about where to build buildings, and which buildings to build,” he says.

Majersik adds the administration is planning to roll out a proposal for a new building performance standard early next year as part of its efforts to reduce emissions. “Performance standards are the most powerful policies that are driving improvement in the building sector,” he says, and having one in place would send a strong signal to the private sector. 

Building energy performance standards have been adopted in a handful of states and counties, but a 1980s effort to adopt one nationwide for federal buildings ultimately failed. 

Response to Biden's order was positive among renewable energy and environmental advocates. In a statement, Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said the directive will help “catalyze the development of thousands of megawatts of new pollution-free power, leading to a cleaner grid and more good-paying jobs for American workers.” He added the effort will be enhanced through the Build Back Better Act, which includes long-term tax incentives for renewable energy projects. 

But some GOP lawmakers chafed at Biden’s directive. “With this action, he’s telling millions of Americans who provide most of the energy we use every day that he thinks they should be thrown out of work," John Barrasso, (R-Wyo.), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. "What’s worse, he wants to use the power of the federal government to do it.”