Feds point purchasing power at low-carbon construction

By Andres Picon | 05/16/2023 01:26 PM EDT

A new pilot program is meant to spur American manufacturing of materials such as steel and cement that have below-average carbon footprints.

An aerial photo shows the Washington Memorial with the Capitol in the background.

Aerial photo of the Washington Monument with the Capitol in the background in Washington, D.C. Andy Dunaway/Getty Images

The Biden administration will begin purchasing lower-carbon construction materials under a new pilot program designed to reduce federal buildings’ climate impacts.

The General Services Administration on Tuesday announced new requirements for the procurement of “substantially lower embodied carbon construction materials” for agency construction projects. It’s part of a broader effort by the administration to shrink its carbon footprint while stimulating American manufacturing of more environmentally friendly products.

The new purchasing plan, funded by a $2.15 billion program in the Inflation Reduction Act, builds on the administration’s “Buy Clean” initiative, designed to spur the markets for materials that have lower levels of embodied carbon, or greenhouse gas emissions associated with manufacturing, transportation and construction.


“Today’s announcement marks a major step forward in our efforts to use the federal government’s buying power to catalyze innovation and strengthen American leadership in clean manufacturing and jobs,” GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan said in a statement.

“We look forward to acting on what we learn from this pilot to accelerate progress toward the government’s urgent climate goals, and achieve the sustainability triple-win of good jobs, value for taxpayers and a healthier planet for future generations,” she added.

The pilot program for the new purchasing requirements will last six months and will apply to 11 GSA construction and modernization projects that are expected to use more than $300 million worth of lower-embodied-carbon materials. Projects span eight states and the District of Columbia and include construction work for a courthouse, a port and a parking garage.

The requirements are based on guidelines developed by EPA to help GSA meet the Inflation Reduction Act’s requirements for cleaner construction materials. EPA defines “substantially lower” embodied carbon as carbon levels in the bottom 20 percent compared with other products, according to an interim determination released in December.

GSA plans to use the pilot program to learn about the market availability of certain products and supply chain gaps. It will use feedback to develop a final set of procurement requirements.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, which advocates for clean energy investments, said in a blog post this month that the “Buy Clean” requirements will be particularly important for the iron and steel industry, which accounts for about 7 percent of industrial carbon emissions in the United States.

“By encouraging further industry investments and driving down the costs of lower-embodied-carbon steel, government procurement can help accelerate the growth of a decarbonized domestic steel industry geared for the long term,” the blog post states.

The interim requirements mean that manufacturers will need to provide environmental product declarations for any materials that the federal government purchases with funds from the Inflation Reduction Act. The pilot program provides an extension for certain products that do not yet have such declarations, including structural steel plates, according to GSA.

Correction: This story previously incorrectly said the Department of Transportation worked with EPA to develop the guidelines to help the GSA meet the law’s requirements for cleaner construction materials. EPA developed the guidelines.