The Green Transition Is Happening Fast. The Climate Bill Will Only Speed It Up.
CarbonPlan’s Danny Cullenward is less sure. The co-author, with David Victor, of “Making Climate Policy Work,” Cullenward says he’s broadly enthusiastic about the new law and believes that C.C.S. could play a significant role in the country’s decarbonization future. But, he asks, “What happens if we throw a whole bunch of money in subsidies into fossil-adjacent infrastructure? What do we lock in? What happens? Who builds what? You can tell a story where that goes well, and you could tell a story where that goes poorly. And the difference between those stories is administrative capacity and regulation that guides the massive amounts of money that are coming out of the federal government.”
With the I.R.A. now signed into law, debate among climate activists and technocrats will move to the permitting reform measures that formed a “side deal” to the major bill — a foreshadow of future fights at the state and local level about, among other things, C.C.S. infrastructure. And fights like these will invariably shape the ultimate impact of the bill. But even Jenkins’s bullish C.C.S. projections make up less than a quarter of the bill’s projected reductions. And the fact that this much climate progress appears even remotely possible for less than the annualized budget of the State Department, as Ben Dreyfuss recently put it, is a remarkable reflection of the state of green energy today, even without the new law. When it comes to emissions, we are no longer fighting an uphill battle, at least in the United States and many other countries like it. We are deciding how quickly to race downhill.
That speed really matters; as the writer and activist Bill McKibben put it, when it comes to warming, “winning slowly is the same as losing.” Simply moving in the right direction isn’t enough, and too much time has been squandered — within the United States and globally — to avoid what was once described as a catastrophic climate future.
But it is nevertheless better to be moving too slowly than not at all. And that direction of change both predates this bill and undergirds it. The headline projection of the I.R.A. impact appears, if inadequate by the standards of the Paris agreement, nevertheless impressive: a 40 percent reduction in just eight years. But already today the United States has reduced emissions 20 percent from 2005 levels, and was projected to reduce them further even without the benefit of the I.R.A. As recently as a few weeks ago, before the bill was revived, it might have felt like the United States was permanently stalled on climate action, but in fact the country was already moving to decarbonize, if not fast enough.
And it still isn’t moving fast enough, even trusting the optimistic models. A “fair share” analysis suggests the United States — today the world’s second largest emitter, and historically the largest by far — should be moving faster than any nation in the world. Instead, it is struggling to stay within reach of countries like Britain, which has already almost halved its emissions since 1990. If the United States achieves that 40 percent reduction, that’s still well short of the country’s target of a 50-52 percent reduction by 2030. The gap may seem relatively small, but it represents more than half a billion tons of carbon each year. That’s a lot.
To listen to the law’s supporters, though, it may be possible to close that gap even in the absence of major future climate legislation. As I wrote when it was first announced, the I.R.A. is a compromise, obviously and outwardly, tying new leases for wind power development to new ones for oil and gas, only moderately reducing the country’s demand for oil and gas over the next decade and investing less in environmental justice measures than Biden himself promised not too long ago. (Not to mention the “side deal” on permitting reform for pipelines and other infrastructure, which will likely produce the next big fight between climate activists and energy establishmentarians.)