Biden orders federal buildings, vehicles to adopt renewable energy by 2050

It's a long timeline, but still presents some huge challenges.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

The White House's renewable energy push now includes a transformation of the federal government. President Biden has issued an executive order that would require the government to stop buying combustion engine vehicles by 2035, and to switch all buildings to renewables and other zero-carbon energy sources by 2050. The administration willbuy only carbon-free electricity by 2030, and aims to cut building emissions in half by 2032.

Biden saw the measure as a way to "lead by example" and encourage both a "carbon pollution-free" electricity industry by 2035 and net zero emissions for the entire economy by 2050. The federal government is the largest employer, energy user and land owner in the US, the President said, and its shift to renewables could influence private businesses.

It's a modest goal in some ways. The timeline is very long, for a start. Multiple states will have banned gas-powered car sales by 2035 — why would it take the federal government that long to switch a relatively modest 600,000-vehicle fleet to EVs and other emissions-free machines? The 300,000 buildings are more daunting, but the order gives officials roughly three decades to make the transition.

At the same time, there are plenty of challenges. The feds depend on a wide range of buildings and vehicles across the country, many of them with different requirements. It may take a highly coordinated effort to transition everything to zero-emissions transport and renewable energy, even if the scale is relatively modest. And then there's the question of future administrations. As we've seen before, a new presidency can undo environmental regulations and delay or even thwart emissions reduction plans. The targets offer plenty of opportunities for reversals.

The order is still notable even if there are setbacks. It's an acknowledgment that efforts to limit climate change aren't confined to the private sector, and it could prompt contractors to transition to environmentally friendly products in a bid to win federal deals.