Clean Energy Isn’t Enough to Avoid the Worst Consequences of Climate Change

Fortunately, the Inflation Reduction Act includes support in other key areas.
An illustration of an electric car at a charging station and a map of the US covered in location pins.
Illustration: Delphine Lee

Climate change is predicted to make droughts longer, heat waves more frequent, and storms more intense, and put hundreds of North American bird species at risk of extinction. The worst consequences of climate change may still be avoided, however, if we can slash greenhouse gas emissions and prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Last year President Biden set an ambitious climate goal: reduce emissions 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. By modernizing our energy system, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) could help us get an estimated 40 percent of the way there. Hitting the target, experts say, requires innovation in four other key areas, too—all of which could get a boost from IRA funds.

Transportation (27% of U.S. emissions)
Light duty vehicles emit more than half of this sector’s greenhouse gases. The White House wants half of new cars sold to be electric by 2030, and the IRA includes new tax credits for electric vehicles. Yet lack of plug-in sites remains a big barrier to wide-scale adoption. That could soon change: In September states got $1.5 billion to build highway charging stations, the first wave of $5 billion allotted in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Industry (24% of U.S. emissions)
Burning fossil fuels to produce materials creates a huge carbon footprint. “The industrial sector emissions, especially around steel and cement, glass, plastics, waste processing—those kinds of thornier problems still need some kind of breakthroughs,” says climate scientist Jonathan Foley, executive director of the nonprofit Project Drawdown. The IRA includes $5.8 billion to make these processes more efficient.

Buildings (13% of U.S. emissions)
The IRA provides $1 billion for states and local governments that enact strict energy-efficient building codes and offers business owners and homeowners incentives to invest in energy-efficient water heaters, heat pumps, solar panels, and more. While it’s a good start, there’s still more that can be done, says Ben King, associate director of the energy and climate practice at Rhodium Group, an independent research firm: “Even more aggressive policies could really make a difference.” 

Agriculture (11% of U.S. emissions)
Livestock and crop production are also significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The IRA invests $19.5 billion in climate-smart farming and ranching to reduce emissions, increase carbon storage in soils and trees, and make operations more productive. On the flip side, Foley notes, the IRA doesn’t mention the carbon-intensive American diet and high levels of food waste. The USDA estimates that Americans waste 30 percent of the food supply at the retail and consumer levels; discarded comestibles account for roughly 3 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. And while emissions associated with American eating habits have fallen over the last 15 years, “the US diet is still exceeding established GHG limits to meet global targets, such as the Paris Agreement,” researchers reported in the Journal of Cleaner Production in June. 

This piece originally ran in the Winter 2022 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.