Biden's Infrastructure Law Is Good for the Climate But Not Enough

The legislation contains funding for clean energy transmission, electric vehicles, and climate resilience but won’t significantly reduce emissions.

President Biden Signs Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill
Alex Wong / Getty Images

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package is widely considered as the Biden administration’s most significant legislative achievement so far but critics say that when it comes to tackling climate change, it falls short.

At first look, the bipartisan legislation, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden this week, reads like a wish list for climate action advocates. It includes $65 billion for clean energy transmission, $7.5 billion to build a network of charging stations for electric vehicles, $2.5 billion to electrify school buses, and $6 billion to support the battery industry.

There are also billions more to develop technology that could help reduce emissions, such as carbon capture, clean hydrogen, and battery storage, and to improve energy efficiency in buildings and help low-income families weatherize their homes. There is even a program to cut methane emissions from orphaned gas wells.

The legislation also includes financing to make infrastructure more resilient to the ravages of climate change, including extreme weather events. The White House estimates that events such as heatwaves, catastrophic wildfires, and severe drought have affected 1 in 3 Americans in recent months while costing the U.S. economy $100 billion last year alone. 

Experts and activists celebrated the climate solutions in the package but noted that it has limitations.

“The infrastructure bill contains helpful policies including funding for EV charging stations, clean electric buses, lead pipe replacement and the clean up of polluting orphan oil and gas wells. But it is just one step toward meeting the threat of climate change,” wrote Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp

The REPEAT Project, an energy and climate policy research group, estimates that the legislation will help slash emissions by 30% by 2030, from 2005 levels, a marginal increase from the 29% reduction that the U.S. was expected to reach before the infrastructure package was approved and well short of the 50% target announced by the Biden administration in April. 

To make matters worse, the package will temporarily boost fossil fuel demand. That’s because the legislation includes $110 billion for roads that will be paved with asphalt, which is made with crude oil, while demand for carbon-intense construction materials, including steel, aluminum, and cement is expected to soar.

Standard & Poor’s analysts published a report last week highlighting how the infrastructure package will benefit the fossil fuel industry, in part because it includes financing for “natural gas fueling infrastructure, hydrogen fueling infrastructure, and propane fueling infrastructure.”

Transformative Policies

If Democrats were able to push the Build Back Better Act (BBBA) through Congress, the U.S. would be able to significantly reduce emissions but not enough to reach the 50% target because a key provision called the Clean Electricity Performance Program was dropped from the legislation due to opposition from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

Still, the BBBA, which the White House describes as “the largest effort to combat climate change in American history,” includes plenty of provisions that would allow the U.S. to significantly decarbonize its economy, including $555 billion for clean energy. 

Industry groups and climate action advocates agree that the BBBA contains transformative policies that would allow the Biden administration to tackle the climate crisis.

“We now urge Congress to swiftly pass the Build Back Better Act, which will spur much-needed investment in renewable energy, energy storage, and advanced grid technologies through a stable, predictable, and long-term clean energy tax platform,” said Gregory Wetstone, President and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy.

Ongoing infighting in the Democratic ranks means that it is unclear if the BBBA will be approved by Congress in its current form — the package was approved by the House on Friday in a 220-213 vote but its future in the Senate is uncertain. For the time being, clean energy experts say that the approval of the infrastructure package is good news.

“Not suggesting anyone should settle for this. Fight like hell for the most robust climate provisions possible in BBBA, get that passed, and keep fighting,” tweeted Ryan Fitzpatrick Deputy director of Third Way, an energy think tank.

“But it’s OK to acknowledge that, even if they don’t take us to our emissions targets, these infrastr investments will make it a HELL of a lot easier to get there...and they’ll deliver tangible economic and jobs wins across the country.”