August 8, 2022

The best that can be said about the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is that it is far better than its alternative. Two weeks ago, the only alternative appeared to be complete climate inaction under the current Congress and likely for many years to come. The IRA may be a breakthrough for the U.S., but it is far from the victory some are claiming. Significant investments in clean energy do not mask the inevitable harm to communities from other provisions of the bill.

It is a relief that some meaningful federal action on climate change is now close to reality, and that it is being funded by new taxes on corporations and elites. But calling the IRA a comprehensive climate bill, or a bill that meets the moment that humanity faces, is a huge overstatement. A truly comprehensive piece of climate legislation would be orders of magnitude larger, and just as importantly, would directly address centuries of environmental injustice built into our fossil-fuel-driven economy.

Most estimates have the IRA reducing U.S. emissions by 40% from 2005 levels by 2030. But these estimates appear to rely on a dramatic increase in carbon capture and storage (CCS), an unproven and deeply problematic set of technologies. Without evidence that CCS could reliably work at scale, the estimate of 40% reductions is suspect.

Even if we take the 40% estimate at face value, the U.S. fair share of global climate action is the equivalent of 195% reductions by 2030. The IRA at its very best would represent only about one-fifth of the necessary action that we must undertake in order to keep a 1.5 degree future in reach without putting an unjust burden on countries with less responsibility for causing the climate crisis.

Furthermore, while the IRA invests significantly into renewable energy expansion, it also commits funding towards fossil fuel infrastructure, at a time when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been clear that new fossil fuel infrastructure is incompatible with climate goals. These new fossil fuel investments would also disproportionately impact communities of color and other oppressed groups, exacerbating climate and environmental injustices that any comprehensive climate bill should instead be aggressively seeking to make right.

If this bill becomes law, the Biden administration will use it to bolster its claims of climate leadership. We would do well to remember that the U.S. has had a dismal record on climate action and that this one law that might reduce domestic emissions by 40% at best (without providing much assurance that its provisions will be implemented justly and equitably) is barely a dent in our responsibility. The IRA also does not address our climate debt to developing countries; the U.S. provision of finance to support climate action in poorer countries remains pathetically low. 

The IRA is certainly better than nothing. But only aggressive follow-up domestic action to build on its best aspects, and redoubled efforts towards climate action in the context of global solidarity, can make it the turning point we need in the fight to solve the climate crisis.

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