Column, 493 words

Saving Tax Dollars by Treading More Lightly

The federal government will save money by shrinking its carbon footprint.

Jill Richardson

I can’t easily reduce my own footprint on the planet in some of the ways that I’d like. Sure, I can walk and take the bus instead of driving some of the time, and I can turn off the lights when I leave a room.

What about the big stuff?

I’m talking about retrofitting my home for efficiency, installing solar panels, or buying a more efficient car. Those big changes will really make a difference in greenhouse gas emissions — particularly if lots of us take those steps together.

Unfortunately, many people like me don’t own our homes. And plenty of homeowners can’t afford to go solar or buy a new car — even if those things would save money in the long run.

But the federal government can. And President Barack Obama just announced that it will.

Under a new executive order, Uncle Sam will cut its carbon emissions by 40 percent over the next 10 years while ramping up renewable energy. It will be the equivalent of taking 5.5 million cars off the road.

The plan calls for a variety of changes: reducing energy use in government buildings, swapping out less efficient vehicles for plug-in hybrids and all-electric models, and obtaining more power from clean sources like wind and solar.

endless fields of solar panels

Gilles Paire/Shutterstock

This won’t increase spending. In fact, these changes will save taxpayers up to $18 billion in energy costs.

It’s not a perfect fix to our country’s contribution to the climate crisis. The federal government, after all, isn’t the nation’s only polluter.

The 26 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions Obama’s executive order will curb by 2025 are just a drop in the bucket compared to the 7 billion our country releases into the atmosphere each year.

But it’s a start. And it’s moving us in the right direction.

With its 360,000 buildings and 650,000 vehicles, Washington can make a much bigger impact in reducing emissions than a family with one home and two cars, even if that family does everything right. And it’ll save tax dollars to boot.

So that raises the question: Shouldn’t all state and local governments follow Obama’s example?

Imagine a nation in which all government buildings — city halls, public schools, post offices — are lit by natural lighting during the day and surrounded by native plant landscaping that doesn’t require much maintenance or water.

We’d see rooftop-solar energy powering most schools, and government vehicles getting up to 60 miles per gallon — if they ran on gasoline at all. We’d have a cleaner environment, and we’d free up taxpayer money for better priorities than high utility and fuel bills.

What do we have to lose?

State and local governments and even large corporations should follow the federal government’s example and plan now to slash their emissions over the next decade.

Because they don’t have to choose between saving the planet and saving money.

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OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix ItOtherWords.org.