The U.S. diplomatic corps has never been known for its environmental stewardship. But it’s now taking climate change by the horns by mandating that all its overseas missions become bastions of energy efficiency and pioneers in using the latest environmental technologies.
The U.S. Consulate here in Hong Kong stands out among diplomatic posts in the region for its aggressive program to cut waste, reduce energy costs, and shrink its carbon footprint. But the Consulate is not alone.
Almost all U.S. diplomatic posts overseas are now part of a larger U.S. government effort to tackle climate change and reduce Uncle Sam’s carbon footprint around the world. The high cost of energy in many capitals, particularly in places like Hong Kong, is also creating new incentives for the U.S. to improve energy efficiency in the hundreds of overseas buildings managed by its diplomats.
The U.S. State Department, as America’s foreign ministry is called, began its push for more sustainable diplomacy in 2009, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the “Green Diplomacy Initiative,” or GDI, to cut the State Department’s overall environmental footprint, by “putting the environment at the forefront of its foreign policy agenda,” she said.
The State Department is but one of many federal agencies in the U.S. now required to implement a sustainability plan to reduce the USG’s environmental footprint. Its own plan calls for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020, using 2009 as a base year.
At home, what sets the State Department apart is that it has its own wind and solar power farms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that provide around 55 percent of the energy needs for its massive main building and annexes in Washington DC. Since the launch of GDI, America’s diplomats have reduced their carbon footprint at their headquarters by one third, according to Kurosh Massoud Ansari, the US diplomat in charge of environmental and health affairs at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong.
While the U.S. Consulate here does not have the luxury of tapping into vast farms pumping out renewable energy, its aggressive in-house programs rank it the third most sustainable U.S. diplomatic mission in the Asia-Pacific region and twelfth among over 100 posts worldwide. In the past year, the facility has reduced its carbon footprint by five percent.
Last year, it conducted its own carbon footprint assessment with the help of the Business Environmental Council, an organization that helps companies develop sustainable practices. BEC’s audit showed that 81 percent of the Consulate’s carbon footprint came from electricity, with another 15 percent from water, paper, and waste. According to Ansari, this is the typical mix to be expected at the average company or organization in Hong Kong.
While still a long way to go to meet its targets, the Consulate has already embarked on a recycling program for paper, metal, and plastics. And it recently switched to sustainable paper supplies and got rid of printers at everyone’s desks. It also banned Styrofoam and plastic cups from the cafeteria and reduced e-waste by auctioning off or donating old computers. Its management converted all lighting to energy efficient light bulbs. That was the easy part, Ansari said, and it only represented a small percentage of the diplomatic mission’s overall environmental footprint.
Moving ahead, the biggest challenge remains the task of cutting energy costs, both in its offices and at staff residences. Given the difficulty in enforcing energy use, particularly in people’s homes, the Consulate’s efforts are directed at changing behavior and educating incoming staff who all get briefed on sustainable practices from senior management. Staff members also now receive recognition for low energy usage.
“One of the most effective programs at the Consulate has been the introduction of e-meters that monitor real-time energy use,” Ansari said. This was demonstrated at the Consul General’s residence on the Peak, where energy consumption was reduced by over 30 percent by controlling spikes and overuse of certain appliances, such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Reducing wasteful use of appliances and setting thermostats at 26 degrees greatly contributed to efficiencies and lower costs, according to the Consulate’s in-house assessment.
Despite the U.S. Consulate’s aggressive efforts, there is only so much it and other large organizations in Hong Kong can do. Given that roughly 80 percent of Hong Kong’s carbon footprint comes from energy use, any prospect of reducing emissions will greatly depend on Hong Kong’s overall energy mix, which is not likely to change radically any time soon from the current 54% coal, 24% nuclear, and 22% gas. Any reductions, therefore, will have to come from fundamental changes in attitudes and behavior.