The cheers you hear today for the new climate law might be tomorrow’s screams.
With environmentalists calling the climate act everything from a suicide pact to historic, you can be excused for being confused. The 725-page bill is filled with arcane language and acronyms for new programs, tax credits and subsidies across a range of goods and industries. Climate reporter Kate Aronoff says $370 billion in new spending for clean energy is “genuinely exciting.” Others say the bill, known as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), is a fossil-fuel giveaway.
The bill is not a triumph, as Bill McKibben called it. It is a disaster that fails at every level but will lull many people into thinking Washington is genuinely addressing the crisis.
The IRA will only move the needle slightly on US emission cuts by 2030, with estimates ranging from 9 to 17-percent if no bill had passed. But the cuts are suspect. Food and Water Watch found one widely cited study from Princeton University assumes “an astonishing turnaround” for carbon capture and “a massive increase in the deployment of clean energy.” The study also unrealistically assumes all cars sold by 2030 will be electric and solar and wind farms will proliferate because they will be cheaper than fossil fuels.
Another problem is virtually all funding is for private profit and private consumption of renewable energy while excluding funds for vital public goods for a green economy such as mass transit, affordable housing, community utilities, urban agriculture, and public schools.
Even if the bill worked perfectly, it will still have no impact. Joe Manchin, the coal baron who wrote the bill, designed it as an all-of-the-above energy bill stripped of sticks, that is, bans, penalties, or prohibitions on fossil fuels. This means dirty energy development will continue untrammeled.
This is confirmed by the U.N. Environmental Program. It found nearly every major fossil fuel producing nation plans to expand production significantly over the next 20 years—Saudi Arabia, Russia, Brazil, Canada, and Australia. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects oil and gas production and consumption will be higher in 2050 than it is today.
Even as we are supposed to be at a zero-carbon economy by 2050, the government says we will be burning 15-percent more oil and producing 24-percent more natural gas by then.
The IRA is the endgame of U.S. politicians sabotaging climate negotiations since elected leaders gathered for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to dial back global warming. Instead, we turned up the heat. In the last 30 years, carbon dioxide emissions have grown 38-percent and we have added as much CO2 to the atmosphere as we did in the previous 250 years of the Industrial Revolution.
The fossil-fuel industrial complex has pushed humanity off the cliff of climate catastrophe. The mind-numbing drumbeat of droughts, heat waves, floods, pandemics, rising sea levels, oceanic collapse, deforestation, melting glaciers, and species extinction will only worsen.
The confusion over the climate bill stems from the media’s lack of history and environmentalists’ desperation to praise crumbs as transformative. When it comes to the new spending, it will amount to less than a tenth of a penny out of every federal dollar.
Much of the spending is genuinely grotesque. The bill funds oil industry scams like $13.2 billion for clean hydrogen that is dirtier than natural gas and $3.2 billion for carbon capture and storage (CCS), including $60 for each ton of carbon dioxide used in oil recovery.
CCS is diabolical. When drilling for natural gas, energy companies release boatloads of carbon dioxide. Sometimes they capture the CO2 and pump it down old fields to force up more crude. In effect, then, the climate bill will subsidize oil companies to release a slew of GHG emissions from producing more natural gas, more oil, and releasing CO2 that’s naturally locked away under the guise they are removing CO2.
CCS is also a boondoggle. Last year’s infrastructure bill threw $12 billion at CCS after Uncle Sam previously spent $7 billion for a technology that has been an utter failure and is used almost exclusively for oil recovery. And CCS may boost ethanol production, which one study pegs at 24-percent more polluting than gasoline once land use changes and processing of corn is included. This is in addition to $9 billion in tax credits for biodiesel and alternative fuels that includes ethanol.
Most funding, more than $200 billion, is for clean energy. But it is in the form of subsidies for corporations and private consumption. This includes at least $170 billion for manufacturers of electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines, biogas, power generation and storage in heavy industry.
There is $30 billion for nuclear power. While cleaner than natural gas, nuclear energy produces three times as much carbon as solar energy and 16 times that of offshore wind farms, along with radioactive waste that must be safely stored for tens of thousands of years, and carries risks of catastrophic meltdowns like Fukushima and Chernobyl.
A huge amount of spending is for private goods. At least $50 billion is for homeowners and property owners for clean and efficient energy systems and appliances. While some of the measures are aimed at lower-income households, homeowners are wealthier and whiter on average than the general populace, and most savings will go to those who can afford big ticket items like heat pumps and solar power, and have a high enough income to realize the tax savings.
A similar problem exists with the over $20 billion in EV tax credit, subsidies, loans, and grants. Typically, only households earning more than $100,000 a year pay enough federal taxes to take advantage of the full $7,500 rebate. Because the credit extends to households making $300,000 a year, taxpayers could end up subsidizing crypto bros to buy Teslas at $80,000 a pop.
The flawed bill stems from the history of climate negotiations. In 2009, during climate talks in Copenhagen, then President Obama led wealthy countries in sabotaging forceful action. Naomi Klein said the resulting Copenhagen Accord was “nothing more than a grubby pact between the world’s biggest emitters.” On top of the Global North abandoning any pretense of repaying the South, which was grist for the Industrial Revolution and will suffer hideously as the climate continues to destabilize, the Copenhagen Accord lacks any “legally binding components or compliance mechanisms,” according to scholar Patrick Bond.
With compliance off the table, the 2015 Paris Agreement enshrined self-regulation, the foul heart of neoliberalism. That pact is a thicket of shall, may, and should—avoiding bans, penalties, and force like the plague. The Paris Agreement is so toothless it begs countries to “ensure the avoidance of double counting.” That’s Enron-style accounting where corporations and countries double count “carbon offsets” from reforestation, renewable energy, and other conservation projects. Double counting has such a failed track record in past climate mitigation schemes, the Environmental Defense Fund, a pro-corporate green outfit, warns double counting could negate all national pledges under the Paris Agreement.
At this point if you guessed that carbon offsets are also a scam, you are right. After investigating decades of carbon offsets, Pro Publica graded them a “solid F.” It found they double counted, didn’t “offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or they had brought gains that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with.”
Carbon offsets and credits are a foundation made of quicksand for “Net Zero by 2050.” It’s the idea that we can’t reach zero carbon through renewable energy alone. To completely decarbonize the economy, net-zero proponents claim we need carbon credits, offsets and technologies to capture and store carbon. But Greenpeace, which calls for 100 percent renewable energy, points out that oil companies, power plants, and airlines love using net zero pledges to greenwash their pollution.
Put it together and it’s a regulatory framework powerless against an energy industry whose business model is to destroy the planet. The climate bill may perversely incentivize fracking, one of the dirtiest energy production methods. One expert told Marketwatch that the rhetoric about a green transition combined with the lack of action is incentivizing investors to bet on fracking, which takes only a few years to return a profit, over traditional oil drilling, which takes decades to pay back investors.
Outside the United States, it’s full speed ahead for oil drilling. Exxon is positively giddy over its oil mega-project off the coast of Guyana that it expects to uncork 1.2 million bpd of oil by 2027. Downstream from Guyana, Brazil recently upped predictions on its offshore fields to 3.2 million bpd by 2026. Offshore fields are giant climate bombs as the massive and expensive projects produce oil and gas for decades.
Think about that. We are doubling down on dirty energy as we are barreling toward doubling atmospheric CO2 levels from its pre-industrial concentration of 280 parts per million. The cheers you hear today for the climate bill will be the screams tomorrow of those dying from flood and fire on an overcooked planet.
ARUN GUPTA is an investigative reporter who has written for the Washington Post, The Nation, Raw Story, The Guardian, Jacobin, and The Intercept. He is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and author of the forthcoming “Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry Into Taste” (The New Press).