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Obama cracks down on another emissions giant – the US government (+video)

In his latest executive action, President Obama is targeting greenhouse emissions from the federal government. It's all part of his climate change agenda, which has taken center stage in his second term.

President Obama signed an executive order Thursday to rein in heat-trapping emissions from a major polluter: the federal government.

Hamstrung by a GOP-controlled Congress, Mr. Obama’s order is the latest in a series of executive actions to address climate change. Environment and climate policy have emerged as centerpieces in Obama’s second term – from his plan to cut US power plant emissions 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, to last fall’s bilateral climate accord with China.

While Thursday’s action represents a small fraction of total US emissions (and an even smaller fraction when considered globally), the move aims to pave the way for other governments and corporations to follow suit.

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“We thought it was important for us to lead by example here at the federal government,” Mr. Obama said Thursday after touring solar panels atop the roof of the Department of Energy building in Washington. “We’re proving that it is possible to grow our economy robustly while at the same time doing the right thing for our environment and tackling climate change in a serious way.”

Thursday’s order cuts the federal government’s greenhouse emissions 40 percent from 2008 levels over the next decade, saving the US $18 billion in electricity costs, according to the White House, while reducing the country’s carbon footprint. Obama also promised get 30 percent of the electricity the government uses from renewable sources within the decade, up from about 9 percent today.

The federal government’s greenhouse impact is the single largest in the US, given the government’s 360,000 buildings and its 650,000-vehicle fleet, as well as the $445 billion the governments spends on goods and services every year.

Several companies that contract with the federal government – including IBM, GE, HP, and Northrop Grumman – announced plans to cut a total of 5 million metric tons worth of emissions by 2020. Combined, the corporate and federal government commitments make a total reduction of 26 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from 2008 levels by 2025 – the equivalent of taking 5.5 million cars off the road for one year.

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A 2009 executive order has already helped the federal government cut its emissions 17 percent since Obama took office, saving $1.8 billion on energy costs, according to the White House.

Obama’s increasing reliance on executive actions is a response to Congress's intransigence, which has has crippled hopes of legislative action on controversial issues like climate change and immigration.

In his first term, Obama pushed for a cap-and-trade bill to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, which warm the planet, leading to rising sea levels and extreme weather. When Congress failed to craft a bill, the Obama administration began looking for tools it could use to work around Congress, like using the executive’s Clean Air Act authority to cut power plant emissions.

Since taking control of both houses of Congress earlier this year, Republicans have worked to block Obama's power plant emissions cuts and other clean-energy actions, instead favoring an emphasis on cultivating the country’s ongoing oil and gas boom.

“We are going to stay on offense in achieving our clean energy and climate change objectives,” White House senior advisor Brian Deese said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.

Environmentalists applauded Obama’s move to cut the government’s carbon footprint.

“President Obama is again proving that he is committed to meeting the climate change challenge head-on,” Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, said in a statement Thursday. “As the biggest energy consumer in the country, the Federal government is well-positioned to lead by example as it reduces carbon pollution and energy waste while increasing the use of clean energy.”  

Obama pointed out Thursday that the US government used less energy last year than any time in the last four decades.

Last year, worldwide emissions growth essentially flatlined, despite continued expansion in the global economy. It’s a promising sign as world leaders prepare for December’s international climate talks in Paris, which aim for a global agreement on capping emissions to prevent runaway warming. 

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