By: John Hodges, Partner/Principal, Climate Change and Sustainability Solutions, EY
Sustainability issues are front-page news, and citizens increasingly want government to take decisive actions that make the world they live in more sustainable. “Climate change is costing cities billions,” and “as the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events increase, so does the cost to communities and the costs of inaction,” according to a recent report developed for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Over the past few years many government agencies — at the federal, state and local levels — have raised sustainability higher on the list of their priorities. Many have hired sustainability professionals, established sustainability offices, and some have even developed sustainability strategies and targets. However, their constituencies are increasingly looking for tangible, real-world progress as the prospects of severe climate change worsen, and it is still hard to see evidence of that progress in far too many jurisdictions.
Why chief sustainability officers (CSOs) in the public sector
At a senior, decision-making level, CSOs can drive the formulation and execution of an organization’s sustainability strategy and the integration of sustainability into an organization’s mission, services and operations.
In the corporate sector, EY recently surveyed over 500 major corporations in sustainability and learned that 81% reported that they have created CSO positions, and nearly 7 in 10 of those that had not plan to do so. Furthermore, just over a third of those sustainability executives report directly to the CEO and another 25% to other executive leaders. Now, as an established part of the C-suite, corporate CSOs are increasingly being held accountable by stakeholders for turning their strategies into real-world actions and impacts.
Under President Biden, the Office of the Federal CSO (part of the Council on Environmental Quality) focuses on improving federal government sustainability overall. These efforts, supported by Executive Order 14008 and 14057, guide federal agencies in establishing climate and sustainability action plans and procurement policies that include working with state and local governments. Many federal agencies also have their own CSO, who manages agency-specific sustainability programs and their other responsibilities.
State governments, where the CSO title is less common, have senior people in environmental, natural resources or land-use agencies who look after sustainability in what are somewhat CSO-equivalent roles. They are largely focused on clean water, environment and energy.
Nearly all of the 25 largest metropolitan areas across the United States have placed someone in charge of sustainability-related matters at an executive or director level. Around 70% have a CSO, a chief climate officer, and/or a chief resiliency officer. While some report into the city’s chief of policy or the deputy city mayor, others are found in city offices or agencies, and some have dual roles.
Regardless of where the lead sustainability role sits, they are charged with driving the execution and delivery of a sustainability vision and the creation of value that their agency, employees and communities can realize from sustainability. As such, the growing prevalence of CSOs or the equivalent in federal, state and local governments is a positive development.
Many public sector sustainability issues are interlocked, making a central sustainability lead critical for coordination. This individual is responsible for thinking across the spectrum — such as understanding that climate change will impact water resource management, transport infrastructure resilience, and power grid continuity. In the absence of a CSO or its equivalent to support and drive sustainability and coordinate across government, some agencies may fail to adequately invest to fulfill their vision for a sustainable future. For example, many western states are the most reliant on hydro power, but with droughts and increasing water consumption, particularly for agriculture uses, we can see in real time that reservoirs are draining and putting hydro power generation at risk.
Next steps: shape sustainability strategy and implement
As governments move to turn sustainability visions into reality, their CSO or equivalent will need to establish sustainability programs and oversee operational compliance requirements across departments and agencies. To influence the myriad of city government services (such as transit operations, sanitation, welfare and health, fleet management, and land management and zoning) the need for CSO designees to sit at a mayor’s management team table — with real authority — is essential. The CSO can set common standards to achieve economies of scale and ensure agencies are rowing in the same direction to achieve carbon neutrality goals and meet other established sustainability-related objectives.
For instance, New York City plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. As laid out in 2019, it outlined 30 strategic initiatives with the intent of driving “environmental sustainability, economic equality and social justice,” spanning everything from “green” buildings, terminating the city’s purchase of single-use plastic items, vehicle use restrictions in certain city zones, subway repair and enhancement funding, etc. Importantly, the city also issues an annual OneNYC Progress Report, with goals, metrics and status achieved to make residents aware of the progress.
Two more recent examples: In 2022, the city of Baltimore announced its goal to be carbon neutral by 2045, building on its 2012 Climate Action Plan, and the Des Moines City Council in 2021 passed a resolution calling for the city to “achieve 100 percent, 24/7 carbon-free electricity by 2035 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.” Increasingly, some corporations that have set similar goals to achieve carbon neutrality are being challenged to live up to their commitments. Therefore, it will add transparency and credibility when the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, the Des Moines City Council, and other governments that have set similar sustainability goals also issue regularly cadenced progress reports on the achievement of their ambitious plans, including interim goals achieved and next steps so that they keep their residents informed.
Now that most local, state and federal government entities have taken the critical first step of establishing senior sustainability officers in government, it is time to take the next steps to convert their commitments into reality. The senior officials and teams who execute on their visions can lead the way for others, implementing programs and changing the way governments work to achieve a more sustainable future.
About the author:
John Hodges is a Partner/Principal in EY’s Climate Change and Sustainability Solutions, leading EY’s U.S. Sustainability Advisory practice as well as EY’s sustainability work with Government and Public Sector clients. John has two decades of ESG and impact investing experience in asset management, private equity, and risk analysis, and specializes in infrastructure policy, project finance, transaction advisory, and public-private partnerships.
The views reflected in this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.
 “Investing in Resilient and Equitable Neighborhoods,” The United States Conference of Mayors website, www.usmayors.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/Wells-Fargo-white-papers-011823_830pm.pdf.