“We have already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis, we can’t wait any longer. We see it with our own eyes, we feel it in our bones. It’s time to act.” – President Joe Biden, as he signed multiple Executive Orders related to Climate Change in January 2021.
Many thought leaders have proclaimed that 2021 will be the year we see significant actions taken to address climate change. If the first month of Joe Biden’s Presidency is any indication, those experts may be right.
Within the first week of the Biden-Harris Administration, several key Executive Orders and Memorandums were signed to address Climate Change through the creation of Jobs, Infrastructure, and Environmental Justice. The administration addressed the topics with explicit commitments and targets in the Executive Order entitled, ‘Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad’.
Some of the critical topics include the Administration’s commitment to:
- Integrate the climate crisis into National Security and US Foreign Policy conversations and plans ahead
- Establish the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and National Climate Task Force to take a cross-collaborative whole-of-government approach
- Advance ecological concerns, such as conservation, reforestation, and agriculture
- Revitalize the clean energy sector
- Invest in rebuilding infrastructure to catalyze a more sustainable long-term economy
- Leverage the Federal Government’s physical footprint to become a leader in efficiency and carbon reduction
These six key points are listed in order of impact to the built environment and to the real estate business more broadly, starting from least directly impactful to most directly impactful.
The White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy will be led by the US’ first National Climate Policy Advisor, Gina McCarthy and Deputy Advisor, Ali Zaidi. McCarthy has served as head of the EPA under Barack Obama and most recently was appointed CEO of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). NRDC’s ‘Healthy People and Thriving Communities’ Program focuses on many elements within the built environment that are directly related to real estate, including promoting energy efficiency in buildings, and curbing pollution while giving access to healthier, affordable communities. McCarthy recognizes the intersectionality of the climate crisis, saying, “At its core, the issue of a clean environment is a matter of public health.” McCarthy is expected to integrate her expansive professional experience into cross-collaborative and multifaceted policies to drive the sustainable economy forward. To bolster the Climate Policy Team, the Biden-Harris Administration has also appointed John Kerry to ‘Climate Czar’ within the US Presidential Envoy for Climate, Kerry is also a member of the National Security Council.
The White House’s attention to a long-term ‘sustainable economy’ is critical to drive progress to address the climate crisis. When signing the initial Executive Orders in January, Joe Biden said,
“Today is climate day at the White House, which means that today is jobs day at the White House…We’re talking about the health of our families and cleaner water, cleaner air and cleaner communities.” It is clear that the administration sees the transition to clean energy and the need to rebuild infrastructure as two key strategies to creating a more sustainable economy and providing new jobs to so many US citizens in need. Of course, the building industry is a critical element to infrastructure and one of the largest consumers – and therefore stakeholders – of clean energy. These new catalysts to a sustainable economy will create a host of new roles that are focused on energy efficiency in buildings, incentivize attention to innovative technologies to promote carbon emissions reduction, and identify tangible strategies to upgrade the existing infrastructure and building stock.
Most specifically, it will be critical that the administration lead sustainability efforts and climate change solutions by example, which is often highlighted in Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ recovery plan from 2020’s COVID, racial justice, and climate crises. While the order includes many directives related to reducing investment in fossil fuel and focusing on clean energy, there is one directive that will be integral to the real estate industry. The order directs each federal agency to develop a plan to increase its facilities and operations to the impacts of climate change and directs relevant agencies to report on ways to expand and improve climate forecast capabilities.
The private sector is also stepping up to integrate these changes into the real estate sector. There is opportunity to leverage existing programs, such as CLEEN, that seamlessly integrate into Biden’s plans. CLEEN, or The Clean Economy Employment Now Project, has a mission to provide federal leaders with easy access to highly actionable clean economy job creation ideas. Their interactive database has specific themes, including Green Buildings. CLEEN’s ‘Green America’s Buildings without Congress’ database defines explicit solutions to deliver on the Biden-Harris Administrator’s ‘Build Back Better’ efforts in the private sector of buildings.
CLEEN is just one of many examples of how the private sector is primed and ready to support the Biden Climate Plan. The sustainable buildings industry recognizes the Administration’s powerful stance on climate action as a way to grow and evolve more quickly. The climate risk disclosure and sustainable reporting industry needs more explicit support.. While Biden’s first Executive Orders do address the need to enhance resiliency and climate change studies, the disclosure component was not explicitly highlighted. In February, SASB published a blog that highlighted the opportunity to ‘use existing regulatory powers to unlock sustainable growth, stating that “Mr. Biden should use the existing regulatory powers to strengthen corporate disclosure of climate and other ESG risks. He should also rally US participation in multinational efforts to establish global standards.”
SASB’s call to action comes after BlackRock’s Larry Fink’s recent Letter to CEOs about climate risk disclosure and following the global statement of these segmented disclosure organizations to unite towards a global standard. In fact, the Biden Campaign’s Climate Plan explicitly addresses climate disclosure, highlighting the point that “We will require public companies to disclose climate risks and the greenhouse gas emissions in their operations and supply chains.” While this hasn’t been integrated into policy yet, the Administration is expected to mandate these now optional reporting guidelines.
After less than 3 full months in office, many of the actions that will result from the Biden-Harris campaign’s initial commitments are still unclear. What is clear, however, is that the US Executive Branch is giving unprecedented attention to solutions that mitigate and minimize climate change risk. For those of us in the business of addressing Climate Change, this is a very welcome step in the right direction.