As a former alpinist and rock climber, I know how gratifying it is to reach the top of a mountain. Critical to a successful summit, though, is the ability to break the planned route into achievable stages — an opportunity to breathe in the clear air of progress and refocus the body and mind for the next section.

Embracing the bold vision outlined in the Federal Sustainability Plan, which calls for a 65% emissions reduction by 2030 and net-zero by 2050, agency leaders must map out the path to achieve each incremental stage. Otherwise, they risk finding it impossible to reach the summit.

Planning the climb

In 2021, as the Biden administration issued Executive Order 14057, “Catalyzing Clean Energy Industries and Jobs Through Federal Sustainability,” agencies appointed chief sustainability officers (CSOs) and released short annual sustainability plans summarizing actions implemented to meet sustainability goals, progress, results, cost savings and the agency’s strategies for continued progress and performance improvements.

The Office of Management and Budget issued guidance to agencies regarding federal building performance standards and greenhouse gas accounting and reporting. Advisory groups continue to form, including the General Services Administration-led GSA Acquisition Policy Federal Advisory Committee (GAP FAC) and the Treasury-led Climate-Related Financial Risk Advisory Committee (CFRAC). These are all commendable actions.

To reach the peak, though, the federal government needs to complete these base camp preparations quickly, so that it can move beyond these foundational elements and start the journey toward decisive action. Given the sheer ambition of the Federal Sustainability Plan and the need for urgency given the speed with which climate change is manifesting, federal leadership must look to existing public and private sector models to achieve immediate wins and sustained progress. Across the federal landscape, agencies should take small, tangible steps immediately, even as they continue to scan the terrain ahead and make long-range plans.

Clearing a path

There are specific steps agencies, the White House and Congress should take in the near term:

  • Obtain more comprehensive greenhouse gas inventories and include Scope 3 categories—emissions for which agencies are indirectly responsible, including the supply and value chains. OMB should include Scope 3 emissions in agency sustainability scorecards.
  • Empower CSOs to take real action, with staff and budget. Executive collaboration drives progress: CSOs should adopt a model much like the Federal CIO Council. Together with the White House, this council should strengthen with greater knowledge sharing of best practices and case histories, as well as lessons learned from what projects did not work out.
  • Strategically utilize the power of contracting and of public-private partnerships. For example, moving beyond memoranda of understanding and establishing long-term, multi-facility utility contracts that exert a forcing function on adoption of renewable sources would impel faster change.
  • Embed sustainability into federal buying. Proposed additions to the Federal Acquisition Regulation would strengthen provisions around sustainable procurement. That said, agencies do not need to wait for these new provisions to move toward more sustainable products and services.
  • Reduce facility emissions by leveraging existing trends. Make permanent the levels of teleworking that are appropriate to meet agencies’ missions to reduce the time, cost and emissions resulting from employee commuting. At the same time, consolidate federal office space and embrace new workplace approaches such as federal coworking.
  • Follow industry examples. Models exist for more sustainable operations at scale. For example, Amazon Web Services has become one of the world’s largest purchasers of renewable-sourced energy for its data centers. It couples these purchases with investments in on-site battery storage to move towards continuous supplies of 24/7 carbon-free energy.
  • Establish comprehensive implementation roadmaps with successive milestones and deadlines for reaching the Federal Sustainability Plan goals at each agency. A comprehensive roadmap should include the who, what, when and how of sustainability, including key performance indicators and the funding necessary.

The route ahead will have some difficult ground. Agencies must prepare to bring both imagination and creativity to achieving the net-zero emissions goal: for example, figuring out how to move beyond providing education, training and resources to incentivizing personnel to engage in sustainability-enhancing behaviors.

In short, agencies must treat the goals for 2030 and 2050 the way a mountaineer treats a summit expedition. Namely, plan ahead and aim high but understand that to reach the top in time you must start taking steps right now.

This article first appeared on Federal News Network