Tackling the Climate Crisis from the Inside

The State Department is using its embassies and consulates as strategic platforms to demonstrate climate solutions and leadership overseas.


Ambassadors, diplomatic officials and Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, eighth from left, pose on stage with joined hands at the launching of the Eco-Capitals Forum in 2016.
U.S. Embassy Bangkok

Just one week after entering office, President Joe Biden signed Executive Order 14008: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, placing the climate crisis “at the center of United States foreign policy and national security.” The president appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as his Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, returned the United States to the Paris Agreement, and hosted a Leaders Summit on Climate on Earth Day, April 22.

To increase climate resilience and sustainability in our operations, the State Department’s 12-year-old Greening Diplomacy Initiative (GDI), managed by the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions (M/SS), embarked on a new burst of planning and activity to help meet the White House’s ambitious goals to further reduce our environmental footprint and improve our climate resilience. The department aims to support eco-diplomacy efforts by leveraging our worldwide talent, facilities and operations to advance the conservation of natural resources and highlight U.S. environmental, technological and policy successes. Some of the goals will focus on implementing the White House orders, including transitioning State Department facilities worldwide to carbon pollution-free electricity, zero-emission vehicle acquisition and a net-zero emission building portfolio.

With more than 22,000 real property assets, 90,000 personnel and a fleet of 14,000 vehicles worldwide, the Department of State has a unique opportunity to lead by example in the fight against climate change. Our embassies and consulates act as strategic platforms to demonstrate climate solutions and leadership overseas. By taking advantage of this opportunity, we demonstrate the importance and impact of climate mitigation and adaptation. Perhaps no other foreign policy issue lends itself so readily to integrating policy and operational practice.

As has been the case to date, our success will depend critically on the 120 “Green Teams” in the field championing sustainable operations at posts around the world. Partnering with other countries and leveraging U.S. expertise in environmental technology and sustainable solutions will also be essential. The work will require mobilization across the department’s functional and regional bureaus, as well as support from dozens of internal and external experts, senior department officials and interagency partners. Reframing climate resilience—i.e., anticipating and preparing for increasingly hazardous climate conditions—to be a top priority across our management platform and shifting our operations to meet climate change mitigation goals will be a decadeslong process.

A New Working Group

To meet White House goals and ensure a coordinated approach, State assembled a new Climate and Sustainability Working Group to identify the best path forward. Established in March, the group contains representatives from more than a dozen offices across multiple bureaus, including the bureaus of Administration, Overseas Buildings Operations, Information Resource Management and Diplomatic Security, as well as the six regional bureaus.

Each year, climate resilience and sustainability goals and milestones will be articulated through two main plans. The Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan will identify how the State Department is adapting to the effects of climate change around the world and protecting its investments. The 2021 plan, the first since 2014, identifies five priority adaptation actions to improve our overall climate resilience. Over the next year, State will enhance resilience by improving the mobility of our workforce and services; assessing our emergency preparedness for climate-related disasters; building out the capacity to make data-informed decisions and assessments of our overseas climate vulnerabilities; evaluating our supply chains for climate-related vulnerabilities; and working with host governments to improve local infrastructure.

Since 2009, Green Teams have logged more than 300 success stories as a testament to their ongoing efforts.

The Sustainability Plan spells out the department’s mitigation goals and the actions being taken to meet them. State has published sustainability plans annually since 2010; however, our overseas operations have not previously been measured in a systematic way or had goals applied to them, in part due to the nature of operating in hundreds of different countries with varying policies, conditions and infrastructure. Moving forward, the department will set an ambitious agenda for meeting White House goals on energy, water, waste, buildings, fleet and procurement, including developing baselines for our overseas operations.

Together, these actions will help us not only to improve the safety and security of our personnel, operations and facilities, but also to protect the investments of the American taxpayer, especially at overseas diplomatic posts.

Building on Experience

To be successful, the department must develop a climate-literate workforce, one that possesses foundational knowledge of climate change and an understanding of how everyday actions affect and are affected by climate change.

We are not starting from scratch. For more than a decade, the GDI has provided sustainability guidance and led departmentwide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, implement energy and water efficiency, waste reduction technologies and programs, and engage with host nations and the private sector on sustainability. Spearheaded by committed and knowledgeable Foreign Service officers and specialists, eligible family members (EFMs) and locally employed (LE) staff, the “Green Teams” at embassies and consulates around the world volunteer their time to create specific eco-diplomacy and sustainability goals to align with their location’s particular needs, making our diplomatic posts exemplars for sustainable and resilient operations.

Since 2009, Green Teams have logged more than 300 success stories as a testament to their ongoing efforts. In Cape Town, a team helped drive a conservation campaign that successfully reduced their water consumption by 70 percent during a yearslong drought. The Bangkok Green Team instituted a “Turn It Off” campaign that reduced their embassy’s electricity usage by 13 percent over a three-month period. Green Teams are also responsible for implementing more than 30 Resilience Innovation Grant projects over the last three years, supported by the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. In Panama City, the embassy used the grant to install a rainwater harvesting system to reduce their daily water consumption by 4 percent.

These projects helped to enhance readiness and adapt to local climate effects on operations. Green Teams, and senior-level support for their efforts, will continue to be a key component in identifying regionally and locally important mitigation and adaptation activities to drive and amplify action.

Engaging International Partners

With more than 85 percent of GHG emissions coming from outside the United States, engagement with our international partners is vital. Limiting the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires every country to commit to ambitious action, especially national governments, whose operations often have the largest workforce, fleet and real property footprint in a given country.

Through the Greening Government Initiative, a new program launched this year and led jointly by the U.S. and Canada, the State Department will support White House efforts to create a community of practice aiming to green national governments’ operations. This initiative will enable countries worldwide to broadly share lessons learned, promote innovation and, where relevant and possible, set common goals to support the work underway by countries to meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

We will also work with diplomatic partners to advance the Eco-Capitals Forum, an avenue for diplomatic missions to support the sustainability goals of host and local governments. These forums leverage the vast footprint of the diplomatic community to share best practices, create markets for sustainable products and services, and promote cooperation on a local level. In 2018, the D.C. Eco-Capitals Forum worked with the private sector to collect individual embassies’ energy demands to create a new solar project in the region. By creating a joint project, embassies were able to access renewable electricity at lower costs. The project advances sustainability goals of the District of Columbia and participating foreign nations, and serves as a model that can be replicated in other countries.

We will also work with diplomatic partners to advance the Eco-Capitals Forum, an avenue for diplomatic missions to support the sustainability goals of host and local governments.

Working with the interagency will be a key component of ensuring the State Department is maximizing the full breadth of experience from around the federal government. Partnering with the Department of Energy, the General Services Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and other departments will help ensure we are modernizing our operations and implementing best practices to meet our goals.

Cooperation and coordination will be especially important with the Department of Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development to mirror efforts in all our international work and take advantage of economies of scale where possible. Leveraging the best available scientific support from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will also help us integrate the most advanced climate data into our decision-making processes.

Achievements and Challenges

The State Department is on its way to meeting some of the sustainability goals and priorities of the new administration. Since 2008, State has reduced GHG emissions in its U.S.-based operations by more than 46 percent, and more than 35 percent of our domestic electricity needs now come from renewable energy, thanks to an offsite wind farm in New Jersey. Overseas, more than 50 U.S. embassies and consulates are U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified, and more than 40 have renewable energy installations on site. Six domestic buildings and 98 diplomatic posts have integrated MeterNet, the State Department’s smart metering system, to track real-time data on energy demand and identify energy conservation measures. The department is also partnering with universities under the Embassy 2050 initiative to identify and evaluate emerging technologies, innovations and best practices to respond to long-term drivers of change.

There are also considerable challenges. Capturing relevant environmental data and developing the data infrastructure to baseline and set goals will be a complex undertaking. But as Janice deGarmo, director of M/SS, observes: “The importance of data cannot be understated for helping the department prioritize where to expend its limited human capital and financial resources to get the biggest climate impact.” In recognition of the importance of the issue, the Center for Analytics in M/SS will focus on data as one of its strategic themes in the department’s Enterprise Data Strategy.

While State ranks number one among federal agencies for domestic renewable energy use and has significantly reduced water consumption, according to the department’s annual sustainability scorecard produced by the Office of Management and Budget, we lag behind federal domestic goals in energy intensity, sustainable buildings and fleet management. Overseas, host-government or local regulations, and the lack of availability of environmentally friendly products and services, make full implementation difficult.

To address some of these challenges, State is investing in new technologies. In 2021 the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations rolled out EnergyCAP, an automated system to capture utility bill data, a process which had previously been done manually. This new system, currently integrating data from 180 posts worldwide, will help us develop baseline energy and water usage and costs, evaluate and prioritize locations for conservation projects, and track progress of conservation efforts.

As guests in nearly 200 countries, the State Department must act to both reduce our impact on the climate and address climate resilience. In some locations, we may have to enhance preparedness for increased wildfires or drought, and in others adopt measures to tackle heavy rain and flooding. The critical nature of our operations means that we need to identify and prepare for the whole gamut of climate impacts around the world and ensure we are mitigating the risks associated with those vulnerabilities.

The United States strives to demonstrate leadership and innovation globally. As we look to the future, the State Department and the federal government are integral to meeting our climate objectives, both at the policy and operational level. All our employees—Foreign Service, Civil Service, LE staff, EFMs and contractors—will need to act together. Policy and management, both in Washington and at all our diplomatic posts, must work toward a common goal and with a common voice to ensure that we are tackling the climate crisis effectively.

Stephanie Christel Meredith is an eco-management analyst with the Department of State’s Greening Diplomacy Initiative in the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions. She joined the department in 2018 as a Presidential Management Fellow, and has served with State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and the Department of Defense.