The Inflation Reduction Act is a Climate Breakthrough: But It’s Only Half the Story

The Biden administration and Democratic congress have taken flak from allies for not doing more, faster to address climate change. It’s a charge that could be leveled at each of us. Dig a little deeper though, and you’ll find that the Democrats have overcome internecine squabbles, Republican stonewalling, and Supreme Court rulings to enact an impressive array of measures that will make a determinant difference in our climate future, provide for a thriving economy, benefit the health of all Americans, and make major steps to address the injustices and discrimination that still surround us all.

Biden, the Democrats, and all of us who’ve been working on this issue for so long have accomplished more in the past two years than we collectively have since our realization of climate threats. We currently revel in the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act, but it’s not even half of our recent material progress on climate solutions. Here’s the play-by-play.

The Jump Start: In December 2020, with a lame duck president and impending control of the house and senate, progressives were able to include $53 billion in tax credits and incentives for renewable energy, energy efficiency, low-income aid for renewable energy, and sustainable transport in the Coronavirus Relief & Omnibus Agreement. This wasn’t just the largest investment our federal government had ever made on climate change, it was a learning moment — no regulations, no taxes, and no “price on carbon,” only incentives and spending were in the bill.

Executive Orders: The first time many of us heard the phrase “whole of government” was the day after Biden took office. It sounded good, and the reality has been even better. Except for an Emergency Powers Declaration and all that could come with that, it is hard to think of anything the Biden team could do that they haven’t done to address climate change — rejoining the Paris accord, stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, protecting ANWAR, creating new administration leadership positions specifically to deal with climate change domestically (Gina McCarthy) and internationally (John Kerry), setting national climate goals (50-52% reduction in emissions by 2030), reinstating the social cost of climate, federal government clean energy procurement mandates, and a “whole of government” review and reversal of Trump-era executive orders and administrative action on climate change. This quick, comprehensive federal government reset laid the foundation for all the climate action that was to follow.

Build Back Better: If you can’t get the federal legislation you want, change the name, and take as much as you can get. After almost a year of congressional haggling about the American Jobs Plan component of the Build Back Better Act, it was renamed and passed in November 2021 as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), better known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. The IIJA contained about $550 billion of new spending, of which $300 billion went toward climate mitigation and adaptation measures including $90B for public transportation, $65B for grid transmission, $50B for community adaptation, and $7.5B for EV charging. These investments are critical for a successful transition to a clean energy future.

Defense Production Act: 2022 looked like it was going to be a replay of the prior year — progress on climate solutions stymied by Senator Joe Manchin. The talk was heavy that President Biden should invoke the Emergency Powers Act to force a shift away from fossil fuels — no new drilling, no exports, no investment. As the legislative calendar was effectively closing in the summer, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to boost domestic production of renewable energy including solar panels, heat pumps, and fuel cells. Then in July he issued another round of Executive Orders on resiliency, low-income home energy assistance, and freeing up 700,000 acres of the Gulf of Mexico for wind energy production. Combined, these actions were a signal to all that the Emergency Powers Act might be next if congress didn’t act.

Inflation Reduction Act: Things looked bleak for major climate legislation in 2022 just before Senator Manchin reversed course and senate majority leader Chuck Schumer pulled the Inflation Reduction Act out of the abyss. While it also addresses corporate taxes, prescription drugs, and inflation, $369B of the bill’s total $430B in new spending goes toward aggressive, direct, climate action. About 80% of the $369B is tax credits for solar, wind, nuclear, and other clean energy sources for corporations and individuals.

The IRA is designed to take us toward the Paris Climate Accords 50% reduction in emissions by 2030. It will double the rate of wind energy deployment and increase solar deployment fivefold, creating as many as 1,000 new companies and 9 million new jobs in America. We were on a path to a 24% reduction prior to the IRA. With the new provisions, we are now headed toward a 40% reduction — within striking distance of 50%. The bill is all carrots and no sticks — no regulation or climate taxes. It indicates the political end of ‘price on carbon’ as a federal strategy to reduce emissions.

Putting it all together: Climate action taken during the Obama Administration dramatically accelerated the electric car, solar energy, and battery storage industries in America. All the Executive Orders, the Defense Production, and the three pieces of major climate legislation over the past 2 years will do much, much more. The $722B in total spending and tax credits over the next 10 years will transition us from combustion to manufactured energy in America, creating millions of new good-paying jobs, improving our air and water quality dramatically, and providing a foundation for a thriving economy for decades. It’s not enough — we need to do much more — but it gives us a fighting chance at slowing, stopping, and reversing climate change.

Shortcomings: Inflation Reduction Act pundits rightfully criticize new fossil fuel incentives in the bill, the fact that it does not get us to a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030, and especially that it falls short of addressing the environmental justice issues we face in America. All three are true. The clean energy benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act are projected to be 24-fold of the fossil fuel negatives. We traded away a small amount of bad for much more good. And while it doesn’t get us all the way to 50% by 2030, the IRA coupled with state actions like Massachusetts and California’spost-IRA legislation, additional federal efforts, and un-accounted for corporate benefits give us a real chance not only to meet but to beat the 50% by the 2030 goal.

Climate Justice: Despite Biden administration claims, all the climate and environmental justice provisions in the administrative orders, legislation, and the defense production act fall well short of what’s needed to meet Biden Administration’s Justice40 commitments. Instead of 40% of incentives going to disadvantaged communities, the combined package provides only about 8% of the $722 billion in total spending directly to disadvantaged populations. It is more than the federal government has ever done before but in keeping with our COVID and TARP and other economic and environmental initiatives, the vast majority of benefits benefit corporations and wealthy folk, not marginalized communities. 44%+ (57% in 2021) of households in America — disproportionately people of color — have no federal tax liability, so tax credits don’t help them. When we take care of the least of us, we take care of all of us, and we need to keep climate justice at the forefront of our work.

Three IRA Hidden Benefits: Even with the negatives, the IRA is a landmark, game-changing, historic act that, coupled with other legislative and executive actions in 2020-2022. Embedded in it are provisions that will extend and deepen the impact of the bill significantly. First, in addition to the $369B in tax credits and spending the bill authorizes $350B in federal loan guarantees that will provide a massive boost to clean energy and automotive businesses investing in climate change solutions. Then, there’s the official definition of carbon dioxide as a pollutant. This puts CO2 regulation clearly under the auspices of the EPA under the Clean Air Act – a major challenge in the past. And third, there are those specific 91 climate incentives and investments in the IRA act, addressing the recent SCOTUS ruling on the “major questions doctrine” for specific vs. general direction to federal agencies on significant new spending.

What Next? If you were despondent, depressed, or resigned about our climate change future, it’s time to reconsider. There’s much out there to keep you concerned. The pace of climate change is occurring much faster than we thoughtMethane and related tipping points might be out of control. The global droughts, wildfires, and floods are displacing tens of millions of people. Our battle isn’t over.

Having set the stage for the 50% emissions reduction by 2030 that we need, the question is, can we maintain and build upon that? The biggest determinant of our climate future is politics and democracy in America.

Politics: President Trump overturned over 100 Obama executive orders and rules on climate change and issued many supporting fossil fuels. Biden reinstated most of the Obama orders, overturned the Trump orders, and issued many more supporting climate solutions. Republican governors and congresses tend to go the same way. Current Republican leadership will shift us toward climate catastrophe.

Democracy: You might say that this is just political and with climate being the most polarizing of all issues, these shifts should be expected. Yes, but election deniers are overwhelmingly climate deniers. If election deniers take charge in congress or win the presidency, they will do everything they can to reverse our new path toward climate solutions. So, we need to elect people who will support climate & democracy in America, not destroy them

What you can do: We need to do everything we can to continue to build public support to build political action for climate solutions. And we need to get out the vote. With a supportive federal government and the climate impacts all around us, we have the opportunity and unique positioning to help shift social and political norms for definitive climate solutions now. All of us can and need to be part of solutions.

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