Yesterday, President Barrack Obama delivered his Second
Inaugural Address before nearly a million people crowding the Washington Mall
and millions more watching from around the world. Outlining his vision for his
next four years in office, the president reaffirmed the importance investing in
sustainable technologies to “maintain our economic vitality and our national
treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks.”
Coming as a surprise to some, these words were enough to make even the most stoic susty stalwart weep. Tears of joy, that is.
Although I managed to avoid the waterworks, Obama’s speech did get me to thinking about what he accomplished for sustainability during his first term as Commander-in-Chief and what remains to be done in the years to come.
In October 2009, less than a year after taking office, the president issued Executive Order 13514, which set sustainability goals for federal agencies to make improvements in their environmental, energy and economic performance, requiring them to establish greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets achievable by 2020. Besides decreasing the federal government’s energy consumption, the order also called for water conservation, minimizing waste, supporting sustainable communities and promoting sustainable products and technologies.
So how is this all panning out?
In April 2011, the White House Council on Environmental Quality released the first-ever comprehensive Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory for the federal government, reporting that it had reduced green house gas pollution by 2.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions since its 2008 baseline and was on track to meeting the 2020 reduction target.
In other words – so far, so good.
But now especially that he no longer need worry about reelection, the president would do well to take a more aggressive stance in promoting sustainability beyond the federal government and into the greater economy.
Here are five things he can do to achieve this:
1. Invest in energy-efficiency innovations as a bridge to a renewable energy future. The U.S. economy is currently too dependent on fossil fuels to make a complete transition to renewable energy tomorrow, not to mention that the technology to run the world solely on renewables is just not there yet; however, improvements in energy efficiency with the existing technology is a great way to both reduce carbon emissions and grow the economy while we develop alternative fuels as we wean ourselves off of oil and coal.
2. Lobby for legislation to hold businesses accountable for unsustainable practices (and reward them for sustainable ones). Currently, many if not most enterprises disregard their environmental impacts because they can simply write them off as externalities (bad air quality, deforestation, pollution) that the public more than pays for with increased healthcare costs. Offering carrots to companies innovating for sustainability while threatening the stick to those that continue to offend would go a long way to encourage more sustainable business practices.
3. Reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Power plants produce twice as much carbon dioxide as all the cars in the U.S. combined. Obama should support The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Carbon Pollution Standard for Future Power Plants, which limits greenhouse gas emissions in power plants and requires them to run more efficiently and clean. Need I say more?
4. Repeal The Renewable Fuel Standard. Passed back in 2005, this act encourages U.S. farmers to grow corn for ethanol fuel. While “growing fuel” might sound awesome, many scientists argue that turning corn into fuel is as water and energy-intensive as drilling for oil while also complicating global food prices.
5. Taking the sustainability conversation beyond energy. Obama should devote more time and resources to the oft-overlooked section of EO 13514 – “supporting sustainable communities and promoting sustainable products and technologies.” By bringing these to the forefront and encouraging sustainability policy focusing on materials, design and systems, the president could create a more comprehensive plan to simultaneously build the economy and rejuvenate the environment.
Keep in mind that the power of the presidency only goes so far – if Congress doesn’t buy into sustainability policy, then little will change in the long run. Regardless, Obama should flex his executive muscles as best he can to set the Congressional agenda and ensure that sustainability is taken seriously on Capitol Hill.
Pressing onwards and upwards into 2013, Obama would do well to heed his own words that although “the path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult… America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”