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Can The Government Unilaterally Go Green?

Here's an important scoop from InsideEPA. The Obama administration is mulling an executive order that would require all federal agencies to start reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions 20 percent by 2020—without waiting for congressional legislation. (That target would be slightly steeper than the 17 percent cut required by the House climate bill.) This would be a pretty big deal if it actually happened:

If finalized, the order could ease congressional efforts to impose new climate rules by allowing the administration to argue that a significant portion of the economy is already being targeted for significant GHG cuts. In fiscal year 2008, federal spending accounted for 20.9 percent of the gross domestic product, according to figures released by the Congressional Budget Office.

If adopted, the order could also make it easier for the private sector to meet future GHG requirements by spurring the development of clean-energy technologies because of the federal government’s influence as the nation’s largest energy consumer.

True enough. One quibble, though: I'm not sure the right way to state the significance of this move is to say that federal spending represents one-fifth of the U.S. economy. That may be true, but a lot of that spending is for stuff like Social Security—and you can't exactly "green" those benefits. A better comparison would be to say that, in 2008, all federal agencies used 1.1 quadrillion BTUs of energy out of a whopping 99.3 quadrillion BTUs consumed by the United States as a whole. So if all federal agencies began unilaterally slashing their emissions, that would affect about 1 percent of the nation's energy supply. That's still significant, and could help spur the development of new clean-energy tech, but it's only a start.

Meanwhile, it's un clear whether each agency would be required to make the same 20 percent cut, or whether some sort of trading would be permitted. If the former, I can imagine the Pentagon would resist. The military's taking some major strides right now to curtail energy use and reduce its dependence on oil, but it's a relatively sluggish process, and the military could take longer to decarbonize than other agencies. (For one, there's still no easy substitute for jet fuel.) But maybe the agencies could make some tradeoffs—Pentagon cuts a little less, Treasury cuts a little more—to meet the overall cap.

--Bradford Plumer