The Inflation Reduction Act – just more time-wasting pretend mitigation?

inflation reduction act

“(T)he technological and institutional status quo is a precarious predicament from which societies need to escape….If we act wisely, the coming century will be defined by the recognition of what we owe the future, and our grandchildren will look back at us with gratitude and pride. If we mess up, they might never see the light of day.”  William MacAskill

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is a big win for the Biden Administration, for Democrats and progressives in the US, and for those seeking action on climate change globally.

But is it the leadership in effective climate mitigation that is needed or just a last hurrah of a paralyzed old guard and merely a continuation of pretend mitigation? Will it actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions of a scale now needed?

Joe Manchin’s hard ball politicking has certainly watered down the climate provisions of  Biden’s Build Back Better legislation (his Admin’s attempt at implementing a Green New Deal) while adding provisions supporting increased fossil fuel production, but that is a minor quibble – “for every ton of emissions increases generated by IRA oil and gas provisions, at least 24 tons of emissions are avoided by the other provisions” . The real problem with the IRA initiative is that it consists mostly of policies in the now dated and obsolescent ‘energy transition’ conception of mitigation  – instead of focusing action on actually reducing the production and use of fossil fuels.

Those in the US (and globally too) who are most active in mitigation science and policy are trapped in this energy transition conception of mitigation and really want it to work but that doesn’t mean that it will:
Energy transitions take decades we no longer have; historically new energy sources add to instead of displacing existing sources of energy; renewables aren’t decreasing fossil fuel use, and building renewable capacity of a scale needed to displace 50% of fossil fuel use by 2030 is now delusional.

The $369 billion investment in renewables over the next decade is a very good thing – good for the economy and Americans in general – but climate change is accelerating faster than predicted with worrying tipping points getting way too close; what if speeding up the energy transition with IRA type funding doesn’t reduce emissions by 2030 as predicted? It is ideological intransigence, denial and wishful thinking to believe that just investing and building new renewable capacity will displace fossil fuels enough to reduce emissions of a scale now needed without using the other arm of the policy scissors – supply-side policies to wind down fossil fuel production.

There may well be an inflection point sometime in the future when renewables will crush fossil fuels but not before 2030, and if we don’t meet and exceed this 2030 target it will then be probably too late. The challenge – now life or death considering the existential dangers – is reducing emissions by at least half before 2030.  Where is the open and full debate about what mitigation paths and policies are now necessary in what has become an emergency?

But you argue, what about the science; as this analysis of the ‘gamechanging’ bill points out:

“These investments, spread out over the next decade, are likely to cut pollution by around 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, according to three separate analyses by economic modelers at Rhodium GroupEnergy Innovation, and Princeton University. The legislation helps move the US a little closer to its stated goal of cutting pollution in half within the decade.”

More GIGO fun with IAMs (integrated assessment models). Dr. Joeri Rogelj wrote an insightful look at IAMs modeling leading up to the AR6 GW3 report release; while a very useful tool he cautions “Scenarios can be thought of as stories of what could happen in the future. What they are not, it is important to note, are forecasts or predictions for the future”. You can play with a lot of economic projections in an effort to understand what is possible and what might work, but if there is a low percentage chance that the sum total of these economic projections will actually happen then your conclusion that reducing emissions by even 40% by 2030 is suspect.

The IRA bill success could just mask the scale of action now needed keeping the US in a time-wasting false sense of action. What about the huge investment in new fossil fuel exploration and infrastructure that is continuing unabated? Doesn’t the pretend mitigation conception of the energy transition just allow fossil fuel production to continue?

Shouldn’t we be using both arms of the mitigation policy scissors considering it increasingly looks like climate is a do or die emergency? Isn’t it a worrying sign that there is little or no debate at all allowed about actually regulating a winding down of what has become a possibly fatal toxin?

Steven Feit, senior attorney at the Center for International Law, commenting in The Guardian nailed it: “Solving the climate crisis requires eliminating fossil fuels, and the Inflation Reduction Act simply does not do this”. Big Oil looks to be happy with the IRA – it’s still money making, unstopped  business as usual, and the focus continues to be on renewables instead of fossil fuels.

Because the existential risks haven’t been properly weighted the climate dangers remain underestimated and the IRA continues to try and shoe horn climate mitigation into economic and political business as usual.  Greta Thunberg understands where the blah-blah-blah comes from: “We live in a strange world. where we think we can buy or build our way out of a crisis that has been created by buying and building things.”

We greatly benefit from the production and use of fossil fuels but the severe climate impacts will fall upon innocents in more vulnerable countries today and all generations in the future. Of course we can’t just quit producing fossil fuels immediately, but is it ethical to restrict emission reduction to just what is possible without negatively effecting the economy? Without diminishing our energy supply, without considering powering down? Without even considering a regulated wind-down of fossil fuel production?

Put yourself in the position of one of your descendants in the future – would he or she be happy with the IRA legislation or would they be adamant about regulating a wind down of fossil fuel production?

Bill Henderson is a long time climate activist and Countercurrents contributor – bhenderson(at)dccnet(dot)com

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