Biden can use the GSA for climate policy, not a power grab

December 7, 2020

Emily W. Murphy, head of the General Services Administration (GSA), finally bowed to reality and political pressure last week, giving up her obstruction of the presidential transition process.

True to form, the Trump administration found a way to weaponize even the low-profile GSA in its anti-democratic power grab. Murphy stonewalled the president-elect’s access to federal agencies, resources and funds for more than two weeks after the election outcome was clear. Now, the Biden transition team can finally conduct its preparation in earnest, and the GSA will likely disappear from the news cycle for the foreseeable future.

The GSA rarely makes headlines and it is unlikely to reenter partisan politics under the new administration. But a Biden administration can use this oft-overlooked agency to help accomplish its ambitious policy goals for tackling climate change.

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The GSA essentially serves as the back office for the entire federal government, overseeing purchases and management of buildings, vehicle fleets, information-technology systems and many other parts of the $584 billion federal procurement budget.

A Biden administration can use the GSA to help achieve what might be his most aggressive, and possibly most consequential, policy priority: transitioning the entire U.S. economy to a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions pathway by 2050, in order to meaningfully address climate change. This will require enormous transformations in how we build, power and heat our buildings, how we travel and how we produce and transport goods. The GSA is well-suited to help facilitate these shifts across the federal government, which is the country’s largest owner of real estate and world’s largest purchaser of goods and services. Federal investments and procurement choices can either reinforce the status quo, or provide a template for a broader societal shift toward a low-emissions economy.

Improved GSA policies could reduce emissions across the entire federal government. Environmental considerations already factor into some federal purchasing decisions, with existing rules mandating Energy Star requirements or recycled-content minimums for certain products. But few procurement rules target extensive greenhouse gas reductions.

The Biden administration’s new GSA administrator could oversee an update to the government’s cooperative purchasing system, prioritizing low-emissions goods and services. The GSA oversees a wide range of long-term, government-wide contracts with commercial firms in order to offer government buyers access to more than 11 million products and services at volume-discount pricing. These GSA Schedules allow for fast order placement with vetted vendors at pre-negotiated, “fair and reasonable” prices.

Updating key GSA Schedules to favor low-emissions purchases could have huge benefits, as government entities frequently invest in long-lived assets associated with high emissions. For instance, the GSA Facilities Schedule allows purchasing of complete buildings, building materials and building energy management systems, while the Industrial Products and Services Schedule includes such items as water treatment products, power distribution equipment and heavy machinery. If the GSA begins a shift toward low-emissions options in categories like these, both federal and state and municipal buyers (which can use GSA Schedules in certain cases) could reduce their climate footprints with each new purchase.

The GSA also facilitates new vehicle purchases for federal fleets, and the agency could help accelerate a shift toward zero-emissions vehicles. The federal government owns nearly 650,000 vehicles, which cumulatively travel nearly 5 billion miles per year. Replacing gas and diesel vehicles with electric options can eliminate both greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution. This would also likely reduce vehicle-maintenance costs, saving taxpayers money.

The GSA already has some tools to enable greener practices. For instance, its Sustainable Facilities Tool helps federal agencies assess and improve their facilities’ use of energy and water. Such efforts should be expanded, and the Biden administration should also lay the groundwork for longer-term, transformative changes to help the country adopt sustainable infrastructure.

As the country’s largest owner of buildings, the federal government could achieve major emissions reductions by using low-carbon construction materials. Thirty to 70 percent of a structure’s lifecycle carbon emissions can come from the “embodied” carbon emissions associated with its materials. Low-emissions variants of concrete have entered the market in recent years, and the GSA should make them priority purchasing options. The Biden administration should ramp up federal research and development for steel, glass and other low-emissions building materials, and the GSA should move quickly to support these options as they become available. The federal government’s purchasing power can help boost demand and market share for these goods, stimulating new U.S. industries with export potential while reducing emissions.

Realigning the U.S. economy to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions will be a monumental task, and the Biden administration will need to use every tool at its disposal to make headway. The GSA can play an important role in this process, now that the agency is done with partisan ploys.

Derek Sylvan is the strategy director at the Institute for Policy Integrity and an adjunct professor of environmental studies at NYU. He recently authored a report on sustainable infrastructure policy.

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