President Obama has been pushing an environmental agenda since he stepped into office in 2008. He has made statements, called for the lease of more federal land for renewable energy generation, and created policy to ward off climate change, the most recent of which provides further restrictions on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. But perhaps it’s Congress that’s making the big impact. The government shutdown, which has furloughed an estimated 1 million federal employees—almost half of the government workforce—and put a halt on many operations in almost every agency, may be doing the environment a favor. It seems cutting back on the workforce might reduce the nation’s emissions.
The government will cut about 100,000 tons of CO2 emissions every week by eliminating the commutes of its furloughed employees, assuming every worker uses about 10 gallons of gasoline commuting per week. In addition to saving a massive amount of emissions, it will save about 10 million gallons of gasoline every week.
Most office buildings are filled with computers, and the federal government is no different. Using a computer for eight hours a day uses about 9 kilowatt hours (kWh) per week. With the average electricity price of 12.54 cents per kWh in the U.S. for 2013, it can be assumed that those 1 million furloughed employees will save the government about $1.1 million every week on energy costs.
But that’s just energy savings from computers. The cost of powering an entire federal building is much more expansive. It can range from $200,000 to $1 million per month according to a news report. The Department of Commerce racked up a $794,000 electric bill for one month in June 2010. Even the Department of Energy’s bill is high. The agency’s electricity consumption averages about $260,000 a month.
Assuming that on average each government building uses $500,000 worth of energy—39,872 kWh every month—a single building is responsible for about 8 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each week. Multiply that by the dozens of government agencies that have shut down and the environmental impact is massive.
Additionally, the shutdown will cut back on energy consumption in federally owned museums. The Smithsonian has closed 19 museums and galleries to the public and only essential personal—such as security and those who feed the animals—will be allowed to work. And at the National Zoo, the baby panda cam will go dark and eliminate wasted electricity from the users all over the world spying on the young creature.
But the shutdown’s environmental impact seeps well beyond the government’s facilities. Since most national parks will be closed to the public, the shutdown will help eliminate waste and preserve the natural beauty of these protected locations as well.
However, is the shutdown—even the environmental benefits—worth the $300 million expense it’s likely to cost the recovering U.S. economy? Does the unpaid leave of so many government employees and 100,000 ton reduction in commuters’ carbon emissions even make a difference in the nation’s 6,052 million tons of carbon emissions every year? Probably not.
Paul Batistelli freelances in the energy field for the promotion of a greener society and energy means. He works to raise awareness on ecological issues, energy dependency, and reducing carbon footprints.