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GSA's Chief Sustainability Officer reflects on half century of public service

| GSA Blog Team
Post filed in: Sustainability

GSA’s Chief Sustainability Officer has been working for the agency for more than 18,207 days. 

But who’s counting?

“The only reason I counted was curiosity about how many days makes 50 years,” Kevin Kampschroer said. “I’m really looking forward to my 50th anniversary working for GSA. I think it’s an achievement, and I’m really happy to have made it.” 

In Kampschroer’s 50 years at the agency, working mostly in the sustainability realm, he’s seen significant movements in the agency’s environmental efforts. 

As Earth Month comes to an end and Public Service Recognition Week begins, we sat down with Kampschroer to discuss his significant environmental moments, what drives him about sustainability, and what exactly is low-embodied carbon.

Q: What is your definition of sustainability?  

KK: I still think the answer to that question is still the same one out of 1987’s United Nations Brundtland Commission Report: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Q: What would you say is one of your top environmental moments?

KK: In 1984, I had a little life-changing event: I donated one of my kidneys to my younger brother. It was a tough operation and a tough recuperation. And my boss said he had a part-time project for me that “shouldn’t be too difficult,” to find out why people were getting sick in one of our buildings. We discovered the problem was with how air circulated in the building, and once we replaced the ductwork, the problem was solved.  

Now we construct buildings that actually help keep people healthy and make their lives better. And we’ve actually proven through GSA’s own research that if we get the lighting right, and we get the construction of the building right, we can make people physically healthier and less stressed mentally.

Q:  What would you say is responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions and what are the key things GSA is doing about it?

KK: There’s an easy answer – people. But that’s a little bit too easy, and you’re not gonna let me off the hook that way.  

If you look at the three sectors of the economy – building, transportation, and manufacturing – they pretty much consume most of the energy in the country: buildings about 40%, half commercial and half residential. Transportation about 40%, and manufacturing about 20%. 

Most of the emissions we can actually control very closely – such as the fuel we burn for furnaces or hot water, for example, or the electricity we buy – are from buildings. We need to double down on greenhouse gas emissions, but that’s not enough. We’re going to have to adapt buildings to climate change. 

This might mean that the building has to have much better filtration because of wildfires, or we might have to relocate essential services from the basement to a higher level because of water level rise. Or we might have to figure out ways to use the building in the absence of adequate water supplies. None of these adaptations happen quickly, but we need to be thinking about them today.

Also, we need to fully electrify GSA’s fleet, and we’re getting there. We manage about a third of the federal fleet of 600,000, next to fleets of the U.S. Postal Service and the Department of Defense. Adding to the 8,000 already in use across the government, we’ve ordered over 58,000 ZEVs and begun installing more than 26,000 charging ports, adding to the 7,000 already in use across the government. Everybody is working on that because it has a huge impact. GSA put together its first energy conservation plan in 1973, before I worked, if you can believe it. 

Q: Exactly what is low-embodied carbon?

KK: First, operational carbon – what most people think of when talking about greenhouse gas – is the carbon we emit when we drive a car, when we turn on the furnace, or build fires outside. Those carbons trap heat close to the Earth’s surface, creating what we call climate change and extreme weather. 

Embodied carbon is created and released when we manufacture buildings, transport the materials to build them, and that they emit after they are built. For example, how concrete is manufactured in the U.S. – through a chemical process that releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide – and transported, produces as much greenhouse gas as the entire country of India.

By GSA’s definition, low-embodied concrete, asphalt, glass and steel give off less greenhouse gas during manufacturing. For example, if you mix asphalt at lower temperatures, with a slightly different mix of ingredients, you can use significantly less energy to produce the asphalt than traditional methods. Basically, the manufacturing process needs to get more efficient. This is also true and possible for steel, for concrete, and for glass, and these are the four materials we are concentrating on. We’re pushing for substantially better. There have been different breakthroughs, and it’s a relatively new industry. 

It’s worth noting that the embodied carbon of a new building – the amount of carbon dioxide released during the manufacture of its construction materials – is greater than the amount of carbon it will release over the next 30 years of its life, and that includes the emissions its machinery will release over that 30 years. So that gives you a sense of scale.

To manufacture in ways that are better for the environment, we’re going to have to use lower bodied carbon material. To steer clear of dirty electricity – electricity that is created using oil, gas and coal and emits more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – to achieve clean or pollution-free electricity, we’re going to have to use lower bodied, or lower embodied, carbon materials.

Q:  How can individuals contribute to environmental sustainability?

KK: Changing our behaviors is one of the things that we can do. It’s generally not the easiest, but sometimes it is forced upon us. Covid has changed our behavior pretty radically, and now we are adapting to a new future. Adapting, I believe, will lead us to using fewer resources in the future for better outcomes. 

Q: Anything we didn’t ask you that you’d like to add?

KK: I have a granddaughter who just turned 3, and we started taking trips to the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings. It’s wonderful because everything is new in the world for her. She’s very cute and outgoing. Of course, I’m the grandfather, I would say that right? But we have conversations with the vendors, some of whom are local farmers or farmers’ children, and it’s a wonderful way to teach her where our food comes from, how it gets to us, and the people involved in every aspect of how we live in the world.