Experts explain how the Inflation Reduction Act helps fight climate change

Advocates are lauding the bill as a “big deal” but say it still falls short.

August 12, 2022, 1:52 PM

After decades of congressional inaction to curb climate change, advocates and experts are calling Democrats' multibillion-dollar Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) one of the country's most important steps to address the issue and potentially decrease energy costs for households nationwide.

"It's a big deal because it's the for the first time that we have the full financial weight of the federal government behind the clean energy transition," said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of engineering at Princeton University.

The Inflation Reduction Act includes $369 billion in investments in climate and clean energy programs, mostly toward tax credits for renewable energy.

Analysts like those at the REPEAT Project at Princeton found the IRA's investments would reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% below peak levels by 2030 -- most of the way to President Joe Biden's goal of cutting emissions in half.

Moving toward forms of energy that don't release carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases into the atmosphere is one of the most important steps the world can take to slow down the impacts of climate change, according to the United Nations climate panel that has called for a drastic decline in the use of fossil fuels.

There’s also sweeping potential for job creation as part of the climate section of the IRA: as many as 1.5 to 9 million new jobs in construction, manufacturing and service over the next 10 years, according to some analyses.

And the package includes a $9.7 billion loan program designed for electric cooperatives that buy or build clean energy systems.

Wind turbines operate at a wind farm near Highway 12 in Rio Vista, Calif., March 30, 2021.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

Experts say the IRA will help speed up the energy transition through incentives that will make so-called clean energy cheaper and ultimately decrease demand for fossil fuels and in turn decrease energy prices for Americans.

Some analyses expect retail costs of electricity to decline over the next decade due to the expected natural gas prices, saving electricity consumers $209-278 billion.

"The bill works primarily through carrots, not sticks. So it's designed to make it financially cheaper and easier and more attractive to adopt cleaner energy technologies and not to make it more expensive to consume fossil fuels or to restrict fossil fuel production," Jenkins, the professor, told ABC News.

Various programs in the bill target individual households and businesses with tax credits to buy electric vehicles and make homes more energy efficient -- although there are some requirements that will make the EV tax credits more difficult to access in the short term.

The bill offers $4,000 in tax credits for low- and middle-income drivers to buy used electric vehicles and up to $7,500 in credits for those drivers to purchase new electric vehicles. (Experts are debating which, if any, of the current EVs will be eligible for the credits.)

The clean energy programs also include incentives to make it cheaper for local utility companies to switch to forms of power like wind or solar and will ultimately make those sources even cheaper and shift markets away from using oil and gas by decreasing demand, according to the Princeton REPEAT analysis.

The IRA includes billions of dollars in additional programs such as initiatives to reduce emissions from agriculture, drought relief, efforts to decarbonize manufacturing for products like cement and steel and a new fee on methane emissions to limit the release of the highly potent greenhouse gas from oil and gas operations.

A Tesla charges at a station in Topeka, Kan., April 5, 2021.
Orlin Wagner/AP, FILE

Jenkins believes that the momentum the bill creates will make it easier and cheaper to create more ambitious climate policies going forward, either through federal regulations or additional actions from state and local governments, individuals or the private sector.

But the bill doesn't get the country all the way to its goals of reaching a point where no new greenhouse gas emissions are being released into the atmosphere, also known as "net zero." Under the Paris climate agreement, the U.S. and other countries have committed to reducing emissions as quickly as possible to try to keep worldwide warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius or about 3 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point the impacts of climate change are expected to get increasingly worse.

"We're moving in the right direction, but we're not moving at the speed and scale that's required in order to avert a real climate catastrophe," said Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Bapna acknowledged that while he sees the IRA as notable progress in the right direction, it still reflects some political compromises -- "this bill is not what we would have written," he said.

"It contains provisions that would expand oil and gas leasing, both on shore and offshore, in ways that we think is actually quite unhelpful. It's unnecessary from an energy standpoint and, quite importantly, they can impose significantly more pollution on already overburdened communities," he told ABC.

Environmental justice advocates and Native American tribes have expressed frustration that any plans to expand fossil fuel infrastructure or projects like pipelines to capture carbon dioxide don't consider their concerns about the health risks of living near those projects.

Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Environmental Justice Coalition, works closely with communities affected by fossil fuel projects in places like the notorious "Cancer Alley" in Louisiana. She said those groups, on the front lines of excess pollution from fossil fuel production and other industrial facilities, feel this bill is another example where Biden has broken his promise to avoid further harm to them.

"That's how we got where we are: They're not looking at equitable climate solutions -- oftentimes they're looking at what they call 'the greater good,' but the greater good is harming a whole lot of people and the same people over and over again," Wright told ABC News.

Wright said she hopes the Biden administration will continue to develop new regulations that will require strict health and environmental standards from any new fossil fuel or other energy projects near communities already disproportionately impacted by air pollution.

ABC News' Isabella Murray contributed to this report.

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