Biden Administration Shows Climate Momentum On Buy Clean

The U.S. has an opportunity to grow our clean manufacturing and construction industries to both renew American infrastructure and address the climate crisis by adopting a federal Buy Clean policy. Whether federal agencies are looking to construct high-performance green buildings, build new railways, highways, and bridges, rebuild a road or school after a natural disaster, or make a community more climate resilient, they should seek to use low carbon concrete, steel, and other construction materials. Doing so would not only help these industries decarbonize and the nation meet its climate goals, but also support good jobs and strengthen our manufacturing base.

The Biden-Harris administration clearly recognizes the importance of the federal government leading by example on decarbonization and using federal procurement as a key lever in climate action. As part of this vision, the administration has taken multiple actions in the last year to advance Buy Clean. Most recently, it sought public comment on potential amendments to the Federal Acquisition Regulation to ensure that major federal agency procurements minimize the risk of climate change.

As NRDC and our partners emphasized in our comments, the federal government can play a critical role in building a strong foundation of high-quality and transparent data to underpin low carbon materials procurement. It can also use procurement pilots across an initial subset of materials to reward early adopters of decarbonization techniques and technologies and pull in cleaner alternatives as part of billions in near-term infrastructure investments. Both would lay important groundwork for a comprehensive federal Buy Clean program.

What is Buy Clean?

Buy Clean is a policy that would require all federally funded infrastructure projects to consider the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other environmental impacts generated in the manufacturing of the materials they purchase and preferentially award contracts to manufacturers whose production processes yield lower embodied emissions and pollutants.

Such a program would have the following benefits:

  • Establish a standardized framework for federal procurement of low carbon construction materials;
  • Support American manufacturers of these materials to become more competitive in a global market that values low embodied carbon products and sustainability;
  • Create high wage American jobs across the spectrum of government, materials manufacturing, third-party standards/certification/tool development organizations, and infrastructure project planning and deployment; and
  • Reduce industrial sector GHG emissions in support of the country’s goal of halving emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by midcentury.

Building a strong foundation for Buy Clean

A successful Buy Clean program must be based on an accurate and standardized system to quantify and track the lifecycle GHG emissions associated with widely used construction materials. The federal government can play a unique role in ensuring low carbon materials procurement is based on high-quality and transparent data by:

  1. Requiring contractors and subcontractors to use a common emissions reporting mechanism, such as an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). EPDs are the best practice for tracking embodied GHG emissions in industrial building materials and products, and the federal government is key in encouraging and standardizing their use;
  2. Ensuring harmonization of a set of rules, requirements, and guidelines for developing EPDs for different product categories so that EPDs have comparable measurements; and
  3. Supporting access to reliable and transparent background data used to calculate environmental impact to generate EPDs that can be used consistently in the procurement process.

By playing this role, the federal government will assist federal, state, and private sector efforts to use EPDs in a fair and equitable manner in procurement processes, and in doing so build trust in the integrity of Buy Clean policies. It will also ensure that manufacturers of low carbon materials don’t face a patchwork of different market requirements and rules.

Procurement pilots can drive near-term impact

The federal government also has a unique opportunity to ensure that billions in federal infrastructure investments go hand-in-hand with programs to purchase low carbon industrial building materials. Near-term federal procurement pilot programs would not only signal a market for early adopters of EPDs and high performing manufacturers but help speed the overall rollout of other industrial decarbonization incentives provided federally and at the state level. This would help realize GHG reductions in the industrial sector sooner; surface key learnings for businesses and government; and identify best practices in enabling the government to integrate climate performance into their awarding of contracts, alongside cost. Moving forward now with procurement pilots also adds an important incentive for companies to adopt EPDs, generating data critical to the ultimate establishment of Buy Clean.

Building Back Better with clean materials offers big GHG savings

As we and our partners detailed in our comments, building materials are typically a small fraction of the costs of a total construction project, but are often responsible for the bulk of its GHG footprint. We estimate that with improved information on the embodied carbon emissions of cement and steel, for example, GHG emissions savings of 10-20% are available at very low premiums. Deep decarbonization (60% and more) could be available at a higher but still modest price premium, roughly 10-15%.

Importantly, as more companies adopt cleaner manufacturing processes and/or products to compete for the large pool of federally funded construction business, those same manufacturers will be selling low carbon materials to buyers in the broader private market, alongside the public sector. This “indirect impact” has the potential to significantly increase emissions savings and lower costs compared to public construction projects alone.

The Build Back Better Act would help spur this innovation

The federal government can supercharge the impact of Buy Clean by investing directly to help American companies make cleaner industrial building materials. The most significant and immediate opportunity Congress has to do so is by passing the Build Back Better Act.

Federal tax policy, grant programs, and other types of direct investments could be used to retool existing plants with new technologies and build first-in-class plants to produce ultra low-emission steel, cement, and other materials. Making these investments will not only help meet our climate objectives, but also create good paying jobs and ensure U.S. competitiveness in the growing global market for low embodied carbon industrial products.

The Biden administration is moving forward

Further demonstrating his administration’s commitment, President Biden also signed an Executive Order in December which includes a federal Buy Clean program and establishes a Buy Clean Task Force to take up some of the key opportunities spotlighted above. The Task Force will soon provide recommendations on how to collect data on the lifecycle GHG emissions associated with producing widely used construction materials. It will also make recommendations across two additional areas: 1) grants, loans, technical assistance, or other ways to directly invest in and support domestic manufacturers in reporting and reducing their emissions; and 2) pilot programs that incentivize federal procurement of construction materials with lower embodied emissions.

The President is right to elevate and pursue data transparency alongside procurement incentives for low carbon materials and direct investments in tandem. Advancing all three in tandem will create the most impactful federal Buy Clean program for both our climate and economy.

About the Authors

Sasha Stashwick

Director, Industrial Policy, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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