Going green is in vogue. Many businesses and individuals are all too eager to accept government handouts in the name of saving the planet by using less energy and creating green jobs to support a brave new sustainable economy. The problem is that most of the claims regarding energy savings and job creation are seldom realized and almost never verified.

The state of Washington provides an example of the discrepancy between predicted and actual energy savings from so-called green schools. The Washington Policy Center analyzed the results of a 2005 law that required new public schools be built to meet standards based on the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) criteria established by the U.S. Green Building Council. The LEED standards include variables such as reduced carbon emissions and the use of recycled materials. The findings of the Washington Policy Center analysis include:

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  • In no case was the green school the most energy-efficient in the district.
  • In some cases the green schools were more efficient than the most recently built non-green school, but the difference between them was often very small.
  • In no case were the energy costs for a green school 30 percent less than at comparable schools as supporters had projected.

In an effort to bring transparency to this issue, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has adopted model legislation for use by states titled the Climate Accountability Act. Highlights of the model legislation include:

The state shall regularly audit to ensure that climate expenditure contracts are meeting performance standards for cost per ton of CO2 emissions. If contractors are not in compliance, they shall:

  1. Provide certified carbons offsets equivalent to the difference between actual emissions reductions and contracted emissions reductions, or
  2. Refund a portion of the contract funds until the cost per ton of CO2 emissions reduction meets the benchmark included in the contract.

Agencies managing climate expenditure contracts shall regularly provide reports to the legislature outlining the performance of those individual contracts including:

  1. Total tons of CO2 emissions reduced.
  2. Total contract amount.
  3. Cost per ton of CO2 reduced.

Agencies that fail to complete audits and legislative reports shall have all funding for all climate expenditures suspended until they meet the requirements of this act.

State legislators should adopt a Michigan-specific "Climate Accountability Act." Elected officials have a duty to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars rather than just accepting claims of companies eager to win state and local government contracts. Government contracts that require building to green standards usually result in increased cost to construct government buildings. Taxpayers have a right to know if those increased costs are resulting in the promised benefits.

Critics of a "Climate Accountability Act" will claim this is just another attempt by the right to discredit the threat of climate change and thwart energy conservation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The "Climate Accountability Act" has little to do with environmental policy and everything to do with government transparency and fiscal accountability. It is time that those benefiting from government contracts are held accountable regarding their claims. Hiding behind the "green is good" claim is not good enough.

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Russ Harding is senior environmental policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.