What’s Not in Biden's Climate Bill Is Just As Vital As What Is

Now that the IRA is signed into law, we are seeing how it actually plays out in the real world.

President Biden Signs Inflation Reduction Act Into Law

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

There's been plenty of excellent analysis about the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and its impact on the future of the climate fight, from Treehugger contributor Marc Carter exploring what it means for electric vehicle adoption to The Coolest Show’s roundtable discussing why so many on the frontlines of environmental justice feel betrayed. Now that President Joe Biden signed IRA into law; however, we're starting to see how it actually plays out in the real world.

Talking to a friend in the solar industry earlier today, her prediction was simple: It’s going to be a game changer—at least in the world of clean energy. And while the sheer amount of money set aside for subsidies is certainly significant, my friend was at least as excited about the stability that the bill’s provisions offer. We have never, she told me, had a clear idea of what solar and renewable energy policy is going to look like a decade from now. That kind of clarity is likely to boost the confidence of investors and funders who are placing bets on the energy landscape of the future. 

But I’ve been thinking about a different piece of the puzzle. Specifically, I’ve been reflecting on the significant aspects of the climate fight that either isn't featured at all or are strongly overshadowed by the focus on clean tech, cars, and carbon capture. Here are just a few worth mentioning: 

  • Plant-based diets and broader shifts in eating patterns
  • Food waste reduction and management
  • Bikes, e-bikes, and cargo bikes (there are some provisions for highway removal, and climate-related block grants, that may help here) 
  • Significant restrictions on fossil fuel supply, production, and/or distribution—e.g. pipelines 

On the one hand, these feel like huge missed opportunities. And as NPR reported, especially for the folks living on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction, there is a legitimate reason to be deeply angry about the horse trading and politics that led to where we are today

In the case of the other missing pieces, however, there is a glass-half-full way to read this situation. Yes, on the one hand, it is maddening that there isn’t more money set aside for e-bikes, for example. (An earlier version of what was then called the "Build Back Better Act" did include funding for e-bike rebates.) On the other hand, however, the relative affordability of this tech means that cities, local authorities, philanthropic funders, and even private individuals can potentially move the needle on e-bike adoption independent of federal action. 

In Denver, Colorado, for example, generous climate rebates from the city have meant thousands of new e-bikes hitting the road. 

And in my own hometown of Durham, North Carolina, the city is embarking on a pilot e-bike project that will not only introduce new riders to this technology, but will also collect data that will be used to promote e-bikes, bike ridership, and safer streets for the city as a whole: 

This pilot comes on the back of a growing number of e-bikes that are appearing on the roads of Durham—and a growing number of neighbors who are talking to their neighbors about their new favorite toys. As someone who has evangelized about my own experiences with e-bikes, I’m very aware of the transformative experience that access to an e-bike, even temporarily, can provide. So yes, a federal subsidy or tax rebate would have been nice, but e-bikes are one area of a lower carbon future that I suspect will keep rolling on regardless. 

Similarly, given the huge positive impact that red meat reduction and plant-based eating would have, it’s maddening (although hardly surprising) that the IRA has little or nothing to say about this beef-flavored elephant in the room. As Kenny Torella wrote recently in Vox, even a relatively small federal investment into R&D for plant-based meats could lead to huge climate gains

Yet again, given the (relative) affordability of this tech (if you can call beans "tech"), we can also hope that local, institutional, and even individual action to prioritize and promote lower meat diets could have an outsized impact on our culture as a whole, and our diet-based emissions. (Many cities, for example, are promoting more plant-based eating in school cafeterias.) 

And finally, as has been discussed in detail elsewhere, the IRA’s biggest failing is inherent in its structure: It’s a carrot-rather-than-stick effort to promote cleaner technologies, and really does very little to restrict dirtier fossil fuels. (To be fair, methane fees will, if properly implemented, add some additional costs—and EV incentives should put a dent in oil demand.)

But we can take some hope in the fact that those battles are being fought on many other levels. Boston, for example, is looking to ban natural gas hookups in new buildings. Massachusetts as a whole has just passed a climate bill allowing municipal fossil fuel bans.

Some California towns are banning new gas stations. And all this is before we even get into the fact that the Mountain Valley Pipeline and related permitting reforms—which Senator Manchin won significant concessions for in exchange for support for the IRA—still face huge opposition and legislative hurdles that mean they are by no means a done deal. 

My point with all this is not to paper over the shortcomings of the IRA. And it’s not to make excuses for what did and didn’t make it into the bill. But it is to reinforce a point that’s been made by many activists and advocates since the IRA was announced: This bill marks a significant inflection point in the fight for climate sanity and environmental justice. It is as significant for the new battles ahead as it is for the battles that have actually been won.

And if models are correct that show as much as 40% emissions cuts by 2030 from the provisions in the IRA, then I believe we can take heart from the fact that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit—above and beyond that 40%—that really could see us reach 50%, or even more, within the space of the next decade. 

So let’s get moving. Lend your neighbor your e-bike (or borrow one from yours). Donate to your local pipeline opposition groups. Choose plant-based meals in your workplace. Push your boss, priest, or city council to do more. Let’s build on the momentum that the IRA can deliver to win even more, faster. And, as we do so, let’s work to ensure that no community is left behind.