Could it be? After a year of thwarted plans, Senate Democrats might actually use their majority to pass a gigantic climate bill that could reduce emissions by a major amount? Well, if the deal that Sens. Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer announced this week holds—and certain other things don’t go awry—this could just be that moment. Build Back Better is dead; long live the Inflation Reduction Act, a big social and climate spending bill that it seems everyone from the Squad to Larry Summers can get behind.
The legislation may not be the multitrillion-dollar treasure chest originally desired by progressives, but it does quite a lot to back the building of better things. As my colleague Jim Newell noted, the act boosts the power of Medicare and the IRS, extends Obamacare subsidies, institutes a 15 percent minimum tax on big corporations, and closes the carried interest loophole. As a bonus, it even bolsters a fund for ex–coal miners suffering from black lung, a Manchin priority. On top of that, it contains about $369 billion for energy and climate measures—a larger amount than ever before, even outspending the approximately $300 billion in climate provisions from last year’s infrastructure bill. Revenue to fund these expenditures will come from taxes on methane emissions, oil production, and corporations.
This environmental victory has a ways to go. Republicans are furious about having been hoodwinked and bamboozled about the process for this bill, so Democrats are really going to need every single caucus member lined up for this one. And the bill itself has some tradeoffs, particularly through incentives for fossil fuel investment and development; more such compromises may come later this year. Still, if this gets done, it will not only be a blessing for the planet, but for taxpayers, like yourself, who’d like to do your green-hued part. The Inflation Reduction Act will make it easier for Americans to reduce their carbon footprints, live far more sustainably, and acquire products that will improve their lives now and well into the future. Here’s a rundown.
Cool It Now
In this era of heat waves, air conditioning can be a lifesaver. The problem is that popular A/C tech—primarily used within the U.S.—requires hefty electricity capacity and utilizes certain hydrofluorocarbons that, when leaked, are even more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping hot gases in the atmosphere and heating the overall planet. To help solve this problem, President Joe Biden signed an executive order last month to spur the production of heat pumps, which require far less energy than a standard A/C and provide both heating and cooling services, through the Defense Production Act. (Some heat pumps also make use of refrigerants with far less warming potential than those found in standard A/Cs.) The issue with the order alone was that the act would require additional congressional funding to reach those production goals. It seems to be here: The Manchin-Schumer deal includes $500 million to fund the DPA’s mandate on heat pumps, helping to make an expensive technology more viable for homeowners who’d like to turn away from both their A/Cs and gas heaters.
What’s more, the act also offers $9 billion in tax rebates for lower-income homeowners to retrofit their houses to become more energy-efficient and to run on cleaner electricity—making such a task, which could include adding insulation to your walls or cooling shutters to your windows, far more affordable than before. And that’s in addition to 10 years of subsidies offered to all homeowners to purchase amenities like heat pumps, electric water heaters, and solar panels for your roof. All this, with some bill money also distributed to improve the siting of transmission lines and, thus, electricity access, and you’ve got a home-clean-energy bonanza.
The richer you are, the easier it is to green your home, but the Inflation Reduction Act includes $1 billion in grants to help affordable housing become more energy-efficient as well. Communities that have been historically marginalized or underinvested will be also the recipients of a “clean energy technology accelerator,” which will spend $27 billion to deploy green-energy tech to “disadvantaged” areas. What if you’re in an area that’s suffered from fossil fuel poisoning and pollution, that doesn’t have well-connected transit, that depends on diesel-powered, heavy vehicles? This bill contains billions of dollars in environmental justice initiatives, including: $3 billion in block grants to support community projects that address the nature and public health harms stemming from climate disasters, another $3 billion to increase affordable transportation access in disadvantaged neighborhoods and fund plans to lay out more public transit routes in a given area, and $1 billion to develop and distribute electric school buses, transit buses, and garbage trucks. These are all especially important provisions, considering that impacts of climate change tend to hit nonwhite populations and redlined neighborhoods the hardest.
The breakthrough of the electric vehicle market seems to be almost here, and it’s long overdue. As I wrote earlier this year, supply shocks plus European warfare have led to shortages of essential materials for EVs, making electric cars more expensive than they should be in a time of high gas prices. Thankfully, the Inflation Reduction Act adds mean-tested subsidies for drivers interested in getting an electric ride, or one powered by hydrogen fuel: $7,500 in rebates for newly purchased cars, pickup trucks, vans, and SUVs at certain price points, whichever make is your speed. If a new EV is still too forbidding, good news: The act offers $4,000 if you want to get a used EV. Unfortunately, as David Zipper has noted in Slate, this investment does not extend to e-bikes, e-scooters, or other nonautomobile forms of battery-powered transport. But hey, it’s a start.
Although some measures to encourage job creation and protection in clean energy sectors did not survive the Manchin grinder, the new bill still has some stuff to help with a “just transition” away from fossil fuel–heavy jobs into a new electricity future. The Inflation Reduction Act has $2 billion in grants to transform auto-manufacturing plants into EV producers, incentivizing those plants and their companies to not only make more clean cars but also ensure these manufacturing jobs stay in their communities. There’s an additional $20 billion in loans to build plants to manufacture EVs, wind turbines, and solar panels, which could bring back many of those heartland jobs that have been shed over the years, whether due to offshoring or poor economic conditions. Plus, the bill offers tax credits to help businesses looking to expand their nuclear energy and carbon-capture operations—thus creating even more jobs along the way. These parts of the bill are not consumer-focused, targeting the overall private energy and automobile sectors, but they no doubt will lead to beneficial spillover effects for everyday Americans: manufacturing workers seeking clean energy jobs, people interested in cheaply decarbonizing their homes and modes of transport, residents of neighborhoods that have lost out on economic opportunities. Looking for a new line of work where you can get your hands on the tech that could help save the world from catastrophe? Well, look no further.
Update, July 30, 2022: This piece was updated to further clarify the differences in how air conditioners and heat pumps work.