President Joe Biden signed an executive order Wednesday outlining a sweeping plan for the federal government to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Under the plan, the government would spend billions of dollars to purchase electric vehicles, upgrade federal buildings, and leverage the power of the government to shift to cleaner forms of electricity.
It won’t be a completely seamless transition, though. The government would stop purchasing gas-powered passenger cars in 2027 but would only achieve 100 percent electric vehicle purchases by 2035.
Biden’s order would direct the government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent by the end of the decade before reaching full carbon neutrality by 2050. Based on the scope of the government’s electricity demands, the president expects this would help add 10 gigawatts of clean electricity to the grid by 2030. The plan also calls for federal buildings to be “net-zero” by 2045, including a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2032.
The 2050 deadline for carbon neutrality is in line with what scientists have found is necessary globally to prevent catastrophic climate change. And it reflects the president’s broader goals to slash greenhouse gas emissions nationwide. Under the Paris Agreement, the US agreed to cut its emissions by up to 52 percent this decade compared to 2005 levels.
There’s a growing urgency to reduce planet-warming pollution at the federal level. Experts have determined that global carbon emissions need to drop by half this decade and reach close to zero by the middle of the century in order to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and prevent some of the most devastating effects of climate change.
The US is the second-largest producer of greenhouse gases after China, but a lot of momentum was lost under former President Donald Trump, who pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement and rolled back regulations governing vehicle tailpipe emissions.
Regarding electric vehicles, the executive order represents the fulfillment of a promise Biden made on the campaign trail to swap government fleet vehicles with American-made EVs. The second piece of his plan to spur the mass adoption of electric vehicles is to offer generous tax incentives, which is being debated in the Senate as part of the president’s Build Back Better plan.
As of 2020, there were nearly 657,506 vehicles in the federal government’s fleet, according to the General Services Administration. This includes 250,499 civilian vehicles, 181,462 military vehicles, and 225,545 post office vehicles. In total, that fleet represents $4.2 billion in vehicle leases, acquisitions, and purchases. And despite the pandemic, those vehicles traveled 4.16 billion miles in 2020.
Biden’s plan represents a validation for the EV investments made by automakers over the last several years. Ford has said it will spend $29 billion introducing a raft of new EVs, while GM has committed to spending $35 billion on electric and autonomous vehicles through 2025. Meanwhile, Tesla’s remarkable stock market rally over the last two years has made it the most valuable automaker in the world and its CEO, Elon Musk, the richest man on the planet.
Biden’s order may not be a direct win for Tesla, though, which has mostly focused on luxury and performance vehicles. Automakers that could benefit include Ford, which is working on an electric version of its Transit vans, and GM, which just spun out a new company called BrightDrop focused on electric delivery vehicles. Both companies are in the process of rolling out electric trucks that would be useful for a variety of governmental purposes.
But to achieve the government’s electric vehicle goals, the industry will need to overcome delays related to the semiconductor shortage and install enough charging stations to make EVs more practical. Last month, Biden signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill into law, which includes $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations.
The hope is that Biden’s order will help spur demand for clean electricity, zero-emissions vehicles, and more sustainable building materials across the country. “The government is a significant driver of demand,” Sarah Bloom Raskin, a Duke University law professor who served as treasury deputy secretary under President Barack Obama, told The Washington Post, adding that federal procurement officers can “send a signal” even without adopting new regulations or passing legislation.