Sustainability Diplomacy: How the U.S. State Department is Changing Its Operations in Response to the Climate Crisis

This Feature appears in vol. 75, no. 1, "Insecurities: The 75th Anniversary Issue, 1947-2022" (Fall/Winter 2022).

An Interview with Caroline D’Angelo

Caroline D’Angelo is the Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer and lead for the Greening Diplomacy Initiative for the U.S. Department of State. She is also acting Deputy Director of Consulting and Advanced Projects directorate in the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions (M|SS). As Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer, she is responsible for overseeing the Department’s compliance with energy and environmental sustainability and climate executive orders and statutes, as well as greenhouse gas reporting and internal and external communications. The Journal spoke with Caroline to learn more about State’s efforts at implementing sustainable practices in facilities around the world, the importance and opportunity of the U.S. government setting a strong example around climate change and sustainability, and the people who make these efforts happen every day.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): You are currently the State Department’s Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer. What do you do in that role?

Caroline D’Angelo (CDA): It’s a fantastic role to have. With 22,000 facilities, about 14,000 vehicles, and about 75,000 personnel across the world, we have a huge footprint from which we can demonstrate best practices on sustainability, climate, and cost saving. So my role is to look at that portfolio and think about how we can improve our environmental footprint and how we can leverage that in our outreach with our host nation partners, within our employee population, and just making sure that we’re aligning our management operations with our public diplomacy and policy goals.

I support the Chief Sustainability Officer and make sure that we’re aligned with the administration’s climate and sustainability goals, which are enshrined in several executive orders. I also support him in making sure we’re aligned with and meeting our congressional goals. Congress has passed several laws that mandate different energy and sustainability performance targets, so we are constantly trying to make sure that we are meeting those targets and working towards compliance.

The Chief Sustainability Officer is the U.S. Department of State’s Undersecretary for Management, John Bass. It’s been wonderful working with him, as he has a long career in the State Department and has served as ambassador three times. He has seen firsthand the importance of sustainability, not only in making sure that our operations are as effective and efficient as they can be in terms of making sure that we are providing value to the American taxpayer, but also so that we can demonstrate to our host nations that we take the climate crisis seriously.

I also oversee a small team that works on several innovative projects and programs to meet these executive orders and statutory goals and look towards the future and see how we can mitigate our climate risks and improve our operations.

The reason this is so important is not only because of where we’re going as a country and how we are looking on the global stage to lead by example on climate, but it’s also impacting our operations today. We have embassies and consulates in nearly every country. That means that we’re in a wide variety of environments. We’ve had embassies that have flooded, we’ve had embassies that have almost run out of drinking water, embassies that have been impacted by wildfires, embassies that have experienced extreme heat, and embassies that are experiencing increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

Climate change for us is very tangible—it affects our actual ability to operate. If we’re not able to operate, we can’t provide citizen services or services to American citizens and we can’t advance our foreign policy goals. It is very important that we are looking not only at how we can reduce our carbon footprint so that we’re not part of the problem, but also anticipating how we can best protect our operations from the impacts of climate change.

I have that two-pronged part of my portfolio where I’m thinking both on mitigating the emissions from the Department’s operations but also anticipating risks from climate.

This is a really interesting portfolio because things are moving so quickly in the private sector as well. There are new technological advances every day that provide us with new opportunities. One example is our embassy in Niamey, Niger, where we have installed our first large battery system, drastically reducing our impact on the local grid. It means that, one, we’re saving money from not having to use expensive power; two, it’s protecting our equipment because our energy is not oscillating and fluctuating all the time and causing damage, three, it’s showing that we care about our impact on the local grid; and four, because it’s connected to the solar array, and when visitors come to the embassy, they can see that we are walking the walk on climate. I love that example because it’s something that wasn’t possible 20 years ago—the technology wasn’t there.

But it’s not just the technology that matters. It’s also how we act. That’s the third part of my portfolio, where I’m looking at employee engagement. We’ve seen that employee engagement actually makes a big difference. We have something called a “Turn It Off” campaign. It’s a behavior change campaign based on the idea that turning off the lights, turning off your equipment, turning off your computer—all those little changes can add up. We’ve seen benefits of 10 to 15% reductions in energy consumption, simply from these low hanging, easy-to-implement actions. So we try to encourage that as much as possible by highlighting best practices internally and externally.

We also have an awards program, where we recognize our government personnel, our locally employed staff, and our Green Teams, which are voluntary groups of employees that work together on reducing their embassy’s or facility’s environmental footprint. It’s really heartwarming to see these wonderful stories about people who really care and really want to make a difference in their day-to-day work.

JIA: You mentioned the importance of employee engagement in leading to these different success stories. Do you have any particular examples that stand out to you of how the Department can leverage its operations to serve as examples of the American commitment to the climate crisis?

CDA: Oh, absolutely. I love that we have these success stories because they’re just so wonderful as cross-cutting examples.

Before I go into some of my favorites, I’ll just mention that the Greening Diplomacy Initiative (GDI) is our term for our umbrella effort of sustainability across the Department. It was launched in 2009 by Secretary Hillary Clinton, and it’s the idea that everybody is trying to green diplomacy—it’s part of the way that we are trying to do business.

Embassy Green Teams are a key part of this—we have over 120 of them around the world, and they are open to anybody. We have locally-employed staff, we have eligible family members, and we have other agencies overseas that are participating in Green Teams. So the GDI, for which my team serves as the Executive Secretariat, is the hub of how we’re really trying to drive that employee engagement.

With the GDI Awards, which have been running since GDI’s start in 2009, it’s been amazing to see how different posts have used sustainability as part of their diplomatic platforms. One quick example is that our embassy in Belmopan, Belize installed a rainwater harvesting system to reduce the amount of drinking water they use by capturing and reusing rainwater, and then they invited local engineering students for a tour of both the rainwater harvesting technology and other sustainability features on the compound. What I love about this is that it’s highlighting these actions that we’re taking, because otherwise people might not know that our embassy personnel take this very seriously.

Another example is that several of our embassies have worked with the governments in their respective host countries to import electric vehicles. Our embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan imported the first electric vehicle in the country for diplomatic use. And it’s really wonderful because it’s an opening to show the government that electric vehicles are in demand.

It’s also a tangible platform to work on the variety of laws and policies that might need tweaking or changing to enable the use of these climate solutions. For example, it could be that the import laws might need to be tweaked to allow for the import of electric vehicles, or it could be that the country needs to look at installing charging infrastructure to support them. There’s a lot of different elements of how to enable climate solutions. What a lot of these GDI Awards have highlighted is the creativity of employees, looking at what they need to reduce their own environmental footprint, and then connecting it to the host government’s needs as well.

Another example is our air quality monitoring program, which started in Embassy Beijing in China and then became a global program. The program uses reference grade technology that’s approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, built in the United States, and then installed at embassies and consulates around the world, where the host countries often do not have access to reliable air quality data.

Because we believe in open data, we publish this data, both on the EPA AirNow website and in an app called ZephAir. This data is available to not only US citizens and our personnel and their families, but also the host nation’s citizens as well. That way, they know what their actual real-time air quality is. The old adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” comes into play here—having reliable data can help a country understand how to change their practices to protect the health of their citizens.

That program has led to amazing stories in Pristina, Kosovo. The management officer at the embassy when they installed the monitor said it was the most impactful thing he’d done in his whole career, because it gave a tangible way for him to work with the host government and for him to help and give back to the country. And, most importantly, it gave a way for him to protect his people at the embassy by saying, “All right, the monitor is showing very high pollution right now, so we’re going to cancel all outdoor events or whatever else to make sure that we’re mitigating the impact of pollution on our health.”

I think another great example of that—in that air quality vein—is we worked with the EPA to install a new type of reference grade technology that uses lasers versus the old technology, side by side at our embassy in Sarajevo. The reason that EPA was interested in doing this is because, sadly, many of our embassies overseas see pollution levels far exceeding what we see in the United States. The closest we have in the United States is when there’s a wildfire. But a lot of embassies overseas see that level of wildfire smoke and pollution for many days, if not months, at a time. So Sarajevo provided an opportunity for the EPA to see these two things side by side in a high pollution environment and compare the two technologies. This is representative of our all of government approach to how we think about technology.

Since that program started, we have seen dramatic increases in interest in American technology for air quality monitoring. It has provided an excellent platform for supporting our commercial priorities for highlighting American businesses and highlighting American solutions that we’ve had from decades of policy and technology advances.

JIA: It seems like the Department—and GDI specifically—are able to stay on the cutting edge of sustainability innovation. How do you think the department has still been able to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation and changes that are happening so rapidly?

CDA: I think one of the best things about working in this space is that people are so passionate.

People are really passionate at the Department of State about making a positive difference for the American people and the world. And especially when you get into the environmental realm, people are all the more passionate about the environment and climate. So we’ve just benefited from people, not just the people on my team who get to do this as their job, but people who’ve gone above and beyond to think of these solutions.

I’m thinking of the GDI Award winner for locally-employed staff last year, Naresh Jindal, who is in our Embassy in New Delhi. He has just volunteered for every type of initiative that we want to pilot, he’s always willing to think differently, think outside the box, or engineer a solution.

Back here in D.C., the GDI award winner for U.S. direct hires, Jennifer Faupel, has literally been slogging away at a problem that the Department of State has had about how we have institutional barriers to managing energy more strategically, so she built a new system for tracking our utility costs. And we are technically required to do this. But before, it was a manual data entry solution, and she now has a solution that uses optical character recognition to pull in utility bills from around the world in 44 different languages and in 1345 different rate schedules or ways that we’re actually charged for utility. I mean, this is a type of data we’ve never had in a centralized fashion before. And it’s because of the diligence and the excitement of people like Jenna and Naresh who are just looking for ways to solve problems and are willing to do what it takes to make change happen.

I think the other way that we’ve been able to stay innovative is that we look at laws and executive orders not just as a “check the box” exercise, but how can we leverage this requirement or this congressional or administration interest into a way of how we can do business better. And for us doing business means both, like I said, the operational side of dollars and cents, the way we use energy, the way we use water, but also our foreign policy goals. So we want to use these requirements to do our business better.

We had Congress put together a requirement for federal agencies to install smart meters for electricity consumption. The reason to do that is so that you get a real-time picture of how your building is performing and this can be really, really beneficial. You can see stuff like if there’s a cheap eight-dollar sensor missing, your air handler may be turning on and off because it doesn’t know when to let the outside air in and when to just stay shut. That can lead to up to $200,000 of extra expenses. I’m speaking from experience here, but if you don’t have the real-time sensor data, you don’t know where to look. But if you look at the real-time data, you can see the spiking and then you can do analysis to figure out what could be responsible for that repeated cycling or spiking of energy consumption. So it’s not just a requirement or a law that is just for the sake of making a law, it is about doing business better. But, in the past, we didn’t have a way to do this. We didn’t have a way to connect sensors in a secure way. And so my predecessor built an Internet of Things network to support the smart metering requirement.

But it also was built in a manner to support flexible use. So we can use it for the air quality monitoring program, we can use it to connect water sensors, and more. The idea was, how do we build something that meets the requirement but also enables us to be prepared for future use cases? So that Internet of Things network has really helped in that way of staying relevant.

The last thing I’ll mention for how we can stay relevant is that we are benefiting from a global presence, which means we have relationships with so many different civil society organizations, private sector companies, and host nations. We get to benefit from seeing solutions and creative ideas from around the world. That type of exposure is really, really valuable because you get to see something in action somewhere else, and then think, how can I make this work for me?

JIA: When you refer to employee engagement, and securing that passion from different sources to drive the Department’s sustainability efforts, how important has the way that the Greening Diplomacy Initiative talks about sustainability been in achieving those goals? And have there been occasions in which GDI has had to shift the way it discusses sustainability or the way it brands itself to continue to achieve success?

CDA: GDI has evolved over time as technology changes and as policy is updated. I wouldn’t have guessed 15 years ago that we would have had an air quality monitoring network, but as academia and governments have seen just how bad air pollution is for us, we’ve moved in that direction. We found out through NASA data and satellite modeling that 84% of our embassies and consulates are in locations that exceed our standards, so this is an issue that came up organically for us and now we prioritize making sure that we’re doing everything we can on that front.

We now have electric vehicles, which 20 years ago, we may not have thought would be a significant opportunity for us because we just operate in so many different environments. But now the industry has changed so much that it’s really an opportunity to highlight U.S. technology and U.S. companies building EVs. And now with the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, there will be more U.S. companies producing more components of these electric vehicles and batteries. So we have this opportunity that we’ve never had before to electrify our fleets in a way that supports all these Congressional and administration goals.

The really neat thing about working on this portfolio is it is a bipartisan effort, because we’ve had executive orders and congressional statutes on sustainability running back decades. That’s been a constant since GDI was born—requiring us to be thinking strategically about our performance and thinking: how can we do business better?

JIA: Are there any lessons or best practices that GDI has learned through its 14 years that you believe could be implemented in other federal government offices?

CDA: One of the things I really love about this job is I get to talk with other Chief Sustainability Officers and Deputy Chief Sustainability Officers across the U.S. government. My colleagues are doing great work, and it’s definitely a two-way conversation where I’ve learned so much from them and have taken in some of their ideas to try to implement at the State Department and vice versa.

So the thing that I think is of interest to a lot of folks is our Internet of Things network. A lot of agencies are struggling with the same problem that we have: “How do we do this in a secure way?”

The other benefit that we have is that global operation, that global lens. A lot of agencies have some sort of foreign policy nexus—they might have an Office of International Affairs or they might have presences at embassies overseas to support one thing or another, like exchange of technical capacity, support for law enforcement, or a wide range of other things. So this group and this U.S. government-wide lens is really helpful because they can work with us, they can understand us, and they can appreciate what we’re trying to do with our global operations.

But in terms of best practices that other government agencies or other industries can implement, I think that that employee engagement piece is just so important. It’s tough because it requires a lot of work. But, at the end of the day, I think it is about the people. You can have all the technology that you want, but you still need the people to be able to identify where it makes sense to do the simple things like turning off the equipment or lowering the thermostat.

That’s what I try to think about the most—how do we make sure that the champions that are out there feel connected, supported, and recognized for the important value that they bring, not just to the Greening Diplomacy Initiative, but to the Department of State writ large.