The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The climate bill won’t stop global warming. But it will clean the air.

A model of the Cooper SE, an electric vehicle that is eligible for tax credit under the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Senate Democrats to support families, boost infrastructure and fight climate change. (David Zalubowski/AP)
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The higher temperatures observed today across the world, implicated in everything from extreme heat to drought and worsening wildfires, are the result of many decades of rising greenhouse gas emissions that trap heat and warm the globe. And there are many more emissions to come, as people around the globe keep on living, driving cars, conducting business.

All of which explains why the economic and climate deal announced last week by Senate Democrats, which would represent America’s biggest actions ever to curb climate change, can scarcely be expected to have an immediate, measurable impact on the warming planet.

Yet, in ways Americans may not yet appreciate, the legislation could have much more direct, soon-felt effects — on what people pay to drive and power their homes, as well as the quality of the air they breathe.

The deal, announced by Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), would spend $369 billion on tax credits and other spending to transition the country away from fossil fuels.

By doing so, the Inflation Reduction Act would further lower the costs of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar, as well as many other less glitzy but important energy-saving appliances and devices around the home. If it spurs other countries to act in concert with the United States, it would be at the cutting edge of a global coordinated effort to cut down on emissions and limit warming.

The legislation “is important symbolically and internationally,” said Rob Jackson, an expert on global greenhouse gas emissions at Stanford University. “Its biggest benefits are to provide longer-term certainty for renewables development and to promote sales of lower-cost electric vehicles. It’s critical the U.S. do something."

Yet, the bill won’t lead to a much cooler planet, at least not immediately or on its own. The climate problem is massive, which means that even when the United States takes decisive action it can appear relatively small.

For instance, new modeling from the Rhodium Group puts the U.S. emissions reductions from the new legislation at about 470 to 580 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2030, compared with where policies will take us without the bill. Princeton University’s energy modeler Jesse Jenkins appears more optimistic and initially puts the emissions reductions at between 800 million and 1 billion tons.

That’s a big chunk of the U.S. total, currently estimated by Rhodium at around 5.5 billion tons. Yet in the global context, where current emissions of greenhouse gases amount to over 50 billion tons per year, that’s just a 1 to 2 percent reduction by decade’s end from this legislation alone.

And even if other major emitters — developed countries like the United Kingdom, Japan and Germany and developing countries like China and India — follow the United States and cut emissions further, the story will be one of worse outcomes avoided — not, anytime soon, a stop to global warming.

The atmosphere holds carbon dioxide for a long time. And more keeps accumulating. That will only continue, unless a more complete transition occurs that sees the world move largely off fossil fuels, and begin sucking enormous volumes of carbon dioxide gases back out of the air. That would happen through expanded forests or carbon capture technologies (which the new bill also seeks to incentivize).

And yet, from the new legislation, some changes will be felt more quickly.

Lower energy bills

While Earth will remain stubborn, experts say that many Americans would in the coming years see their lives noticeably change because of the legislation.

Perhaps the most immediate impact would be to lower the price of using clean energy — especially for those who make use of the incentives contained in the bill to purchase electric vehicles or highly efficient energy technologies for their homes, such as heat pump-based heating and cooling systems.

One of the key points of the new legislation, for instance, is to further incentivize buying an electric vehicle, through a $7,500 tax credit for new purchases and a $4,000 one for buying a used EV. Insofar as car buyers take advantage of these offers — the sticker shock of the purchase price of an EV has been a disincentive for many — mobility itself will cost them less.

Simply put, it is generally cheaper, mile per mile, to drive an electric vehicle than it is to drive a gas-powered one. That becomes especially true at times of high gas prices, like now. But the actual cost difference also varies regionally, as it depends on the cost of electricity.

Still, the price edge for driving EVs comes across in multiple studies. The U.S. Department of Energy has calculated the cost of an eGallon — defined as how much it costs to drive an EV just as far as you’d be able to go on one gallon of gasoline. As of March 2021, the U.S. average eGallon price was just $1.16.

The influential solar investment tax credit for residences (although not businesses) would also be extended by the bill, reducing the cost of installing a home solar system by 30 percent between now and 2033, after which the reduction phases down.

Like an EV, a home solar system is fairly expensive when it comes to the initial start-up cost, which is precisely what these incentives are aiming to reduce. But for individuals who take advantage of the rebate, they can expect a steep lowering of home energy bills, since they’ll be generating a substantial portion of their own power, rather than buying it from somebody else.

To be sure, critics of the plan argue that there will be unintended side effects that cost the economy. The bill pays for many of the climate investments through greater tax enforcement and measures that Democrats label the closing of tax loopholes. And by design, the bill would incentivize investment in clean energy technology over fossil fuels.

“The Democrats are doing nothing to help solve their problems. Instead, Democrats want to raise taxes, pass more reckless government spending, and attack American energy,” Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), top Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said in a statement last week.

Cleaner Air

And then there’s the air, which has been barely discussed in the wake of the bill’s release. Simply put, the fewer fossil fuels that are burning to power cars and homes, the fewer offshoots of that burning — particulates — make their way into the air.

“Getting off polluting fuels and switching to non-combustion electricity and zero emissions vehicles also has immediate air quality benefits,” said Laura Kate Bender, national assistant vice president of Healthy Air for the American Lung Association.

In a 2020 report, the association found that a full transition to zero emissions vehicles on roads, accompanied by a shift to renewables in power generation, would prevent over 100,000 premature fatalities, some 3 million asthma attacks, and 13 million lost days of work by 2050 — all by dramatically lowering air pollution.

No one is saying that the current legislation goes nearly this far, but it would capture some fraction of these improvements.

Indeed, the REPEAT Project at Princeton studied the effect of the Build Back Better bill — not the current legislation, but an ancestor of it — on premature deaths from air pollution. It found that the bill would avoid over 20,000 deaths by the year 2030.

Noelle Selin, an expert on the movements of atmospheric pollutants at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concurs that the bill will have a major impact on air quality.

“It’s generally the case for virtually any type of CO2/fossil fuel reduction of that magnitude that there will be substantial benefits for fine particulate matter across the U.S., especially in the eastern U.S., as any shift away from fossil energy to cleaner sources generally has large benefits to air quality,” Selin said via email.

Indoor air in homes can also be bad for health, due in part to causes such as gas or oil burning appliances, which emit particulates indoors.

But Leah Stokes, an energy policy expert at the University of California at Santa Barbara who also advised Senate Democrats on the legislation, points out that incentives in the bill would help a lot of households replace these appliances, thus cleaning up the air that people — especially children — breathe.

Electric water heaters, stoves and heat pumps don’t require people to burn fossil fuels within their homes, and could ultimately make features like propane tanks and gas lines obsolete. It’s part of a larger climate-driven push to reduce our home energy use to a single fuel — electricity — which, in turn, can be generated by renewable sources and stored in batteries.

“There’s a bunch of really interesting provisions in the bill that help people electrify their homes,” Stokes said.

Making the world take notice

U.S. emissions quickly mingle in the atmosphere with emissions from all over the globe and trap infrared heat, preventing it from escaping into space, traveling wherever the winds take them.

That’s why when the planet warms and the odds of extreme weather events shift, it is difficult to blame that on any one country. And when one country reduces emissions, it is hard to discern the climatic effect amid all the other pollution from all the other countries.

And yet, the legislation will likely have at least some cooling effect on its own, and could have a far bigger one if it serves as an economic or political catalyst that gets other countries to also up their climate ambitions.

Until now, with its pledge of reducing emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030, the Biden administration has promised more climate progress than existing policies are actually capable of achieving. The result is an “implementation gap,” as Joeri Rogelj, an expert on emissions policies and trajectories at Imperial College London, puts it.

But the new legislation helps to change that. While experts generally say it would not go all the way toward reaching the Biden goal for 2030, it brings the country a lot closer than before.

But even if the United States does make its goal, the world will remain off course.

“Closing this gap is of course good, but it doesn’t address the ‘ambition gap,’ ” said Rogelj. “The latter is the gap between [countries’ promises] and the emissions reductions that should be achieved to put the world” on a path toward limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times.

It’s possible, however, that the new U.S. actions could inspire other countries to act too. Many have been skeptical about lowering their emissions when the country that has emitted more greenhouse gases than any other, over the course of history, seemed not to be keeping its word.

The new legislation “gives the U.S. a bit more credibility with the rest of the world that we are serious about cutting our emissions,” said John Sterman, a climate policy expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We cannot expect to influence China, India, and other large emitters to take serious action on climate change if we are not willing to do so ourselves.”

For Stokes, there’s another global benefit. If clean energy technologies become cheaper due to investments made in the United States, that means they become cheaper everywhere. Which means that emissions reductions from the legislation could impact the progress of many other countries as well.

“It reduces the technology cost, which spills over across borders,” Stokes said.

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