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The IRA: Market forces alone won’t reach the people at greatest risk of climate change

Environment, From the President

With passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022, our nation made a seminal turn in the seriousness of its commitment to investing in our planet’s future. It authorized necessary and unprecedented investments in transitioning our economy from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy while generating high-quality jobs and upgrading our infrastructure. As we reach the first anniversary of the Act, however, it has become increasingly clear that we need vigilance in how each of the Act’s provisions is implemented if we’re to ensure that its benefits reach the people most at risk from changes in the climate.

The IRA provided $381 billion in tax and other incentives for the private and social sectors to invest in projects that reduce the pollution that causes climate change. Using the tax code to mobilize private capital markets is a laudable and comfortable public policy tool. But it also carries the risk of agnosticism – or worse – toward whether and how those activities benefit communities and people often relegated to the margins of market activity, particular communities of color and low-wealth.

We, unfortunately, have seen that movie play out too many times. Federal programs that fail to bake in mechanisms that explicitly drive equitable outcomes simply don’t achieve them.

Take, for example, the Solar Investment Tax Credit contained in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The credits were there to be used by those who could use them. Because the average installation cost of a residential solar panel system could run $10,000 or more – even after applying the credit – the vast majority of installations were, and are, concentrated in upper-income communities.

Predictable. Not because of ill-intent – the program sought to accelerate the uptake of an important alternative energy technology. But instead because of the failure to design mechanisms to reach beyond the default positions of private markets. Private capital markets rely on credit scores and homeownership to make their risk assessments. That’s a good way to create efficiencies and expand a program’s scale, but a bad way to avoid pushing renters, or those with lower credit scores, or places deemed to be high-risk, outside the fence-line.

Every morning, news reports underscore the disproportionate vulnerability low-income communities have to the heat ravaging the Southwest, the flooding afflicting coastal communities, the power outages visiting the Southeast, and the countless other manifestations of a changing climate. These communities have fewer resources to anticipate disasters, fewer to cope with their effects, and fewer to rebuild after the event.

It is intolerable for these communities not to enjoy the benefits and protections of air conditioning, generators, solar panels, heat pumps, and other mitigating technologies. That is precisely why the Biden Administration’s Justice40 initiative seeks to ensure that there is sufficient market development in low-wealth communities.

Which brings us back to the Inflation Reduction Act’s one-year mark. Because we have a tool that, if properly calibrated, can help us address these inequities.

We don’t need to go the way of the 2005 Act. We can instead follow the example of another tax credit program: the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, created by the federal Tax Reform Act of 1986. That program contains explicit devices that enable the construction of affordable homes where the private sector alone could not meet demand. Utilizing those provisions, banks, nonprofits, and foundations have carved new distribution channels to ensure that smaller projects, rural projects, and supportive housing projects would receive an equitable share of investment.

That is a template that, creatively applied, could help the IRA accomplish similar ends.

And that, in turn, would help ensure that the unparalleled. aspirations and promise of the IRA are fully realized. But it will require another turn of the wheel to ensure that the nation’s energy future benefits people of all walks of life. We know how to accomplish that. We have the time. We now need to summon the commensurate intentionality and will to get it done.