Should the Inflation Reduction Act Make Us Less Pessimistic about the Climate?: Professor Evan Barba’s perspective on the climate impacts of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022
By Evan Barba, Ph.D. Associate Professor at Georgetown’s Communication, Culture, & Technology Program
I have never been shy about my climate pessimism. But it doesn’t take much reading between the lines of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report to reach the conclusion that two degrees of warming– and all the turmoil that implies– is unavoidable at this point. The question we are grappling with now is whether or not we can collectively do enough to prevent something far worse.
However, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 gives us all cause to be slightly, cautiously, less pessimistic. That is not to say the bill is cause for optimism, as some have reported. If this were 1982, I would be awash in optimism at this timely, forward-looking, and morally responsible piece of legislation, but seeing as it’s 40 years behind schedule, I’m going to have to settle for being just a bit less pessimistic.
The bill supports numerous critical climate initiatives, with electric vehicles (EVs) a significant focus. In many respects, electric vehicles are a big win. They are far less polluting at the point of use which, in addition to global climate benefits, will make a big difference for the health and well-being of those living in large, traffic-congested cities. Moreover, most analysis indicates that they also produce fewer greenhouse gasses over the course of their life-cycles.
On the flip side, as a recent analysis points out, EVs are getting bigger, and that’s not necessarily an efficient use of electricity. If commuting 30 miles into the city each day uses as much electricity as powering a house for a day (about 30kwh), then one day of commuting basically operates two homes. In the long run, that’s not necessarily a win for the environment.
It’s the things that change the paradigm of how we get to work that will make the biggest differences in the long term, but there seem to be few incentives for bike lanes, car-free zones, or other ways that might actually get people to use resources more efficiently, and to me, that’s a missed opportunity. Not to mention, there is still quite a bit of support for fossil fuels in this bill that will potentially make the climate crisis worse or, at the very least, mitigate some of the potential benefits we might realize.
Still, I understand the pragmatics of legislation enough to know that perfect can’t be the enemy of the good, and this bill still does a lot right.
For instance, this bill includes incentives aimed at creating a national supply chain for EV batteries. It’s often true that legislation like this will assume that carbon emissions outside U.S. borders (like those currently associated with mining and manufacturing battery materials) don’t exist, and therefore are not accounted for in the total emissions. This bill– to the great credit of those who put it together– does not try to use that trick, and instead, provides a fair accounting of pollution associated with mining activities. Moreover, in the long-term transition off of fossil fuels, an in-place national supply chain will also offer important opportunities for recycling batteries into new EVs and home battery systems. As recycling becomes more common, the national supply chain may even look more like a “supply circle.”
All in all, there are many parts of this bill that really do make me less pessimistic– cheaper and better batteries are a necessity for a more resilient and distributed power grid, it takes environmental justice more seriously (although probably not seriously enough) with provisions to support underserved communities, and it includes enough incentives to both private citizens and commercial industry to potentially reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 40% from 2005 levels before 2030. These are reasons to be happy, but we must keep in mind that they are only the beginning of what we ultimately need to accomplish, and many of the bill’s effects will not be felt for years.
Passing the Inflation Reduction Act is not an excuse to rest easy now. If we are to actually diminish the effects of climate change for the next generation, we still need more drastic, societal change. This bill starts us down that path, but we still have quite a way to go.
Professor Evan Barba teaches at Georgetown’s Communication, Culture, and Technology Program. If you’re interested in learning more about him and his work, you can access his website here.