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Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Climate Struggle Literally Hit Home in 2022

A year ago, I lambasted politicians for missing a huge opportunity for climate action. Recovering from pandemic lockdowns, the United States could have juiced the green economy to reduce emissions and prepare the country for the ravages of climate change. Yet even though the Democrats controlled the whole federal government … crickets. The winter of early 2022 passed, and then the spring. But July brought a legislative miracle, as President Joe Biden announced a surprise deal on the Inflation Reduction Act, the nation’s biggest-ever investment in climate mitigation.

If 2021 was a huge missed opportunity, 2022 was a huge turnaround. “I feel a lot more heartened about climate change now than I ever have,” says Jonathan Foley, executive director of the nonprofit Project Drawdown, which advocates for climate action. “We're a lot less screwed than we would have been. And I'll take that as kind of encouragement—a little more wind in the sails. Like, Hey, wait a minute, things are really starting to pivot.

“2022 has proven to be a landmark, watershed year for climate action,” agrees Leah Stokes, a political scientist who studies climate and energy policy at UC Santa Barbara. “We really, I think, are at a tipping point when it comes to climate action.”

My fellow Americans, meet the new approach to climate action in the US: the carrot. Whereas previous proposals wielded a stick, like levying a tax on carbon emissions, the Inflation Reduction Act (aka the IRA) rewards taxpayers for making greener choices. It allocates nearly $400 billion in rebates and tax breaks for people to buy electric vehicles and solar panels, or outfit their homes with heat pumps or better insulation. “If you electrify your life, you can save $1,800 a year on your energy bills,” says Stokes. “That's really the promise here, to get people onto clean, efficient, and affordable electric machines.”

(If you’re not sure exactly what this entails in terms of home upgrades, updating insulation typically requires plugging leaks that let in outdoor air, then spraying either an expanding foam or pulverized newspaper into walls and attic surfaces. A heat pump extracts heat from outdoor air to warm a home, then reverses in the summer to act like an air conditioner. The appliance runs on electricity, not gas, so it can be powered with renewable energy like rooftop solar. They are so efficient that even if you had to run them on energy generated with fossil fuels, you’d still be way better off emissions-wise than with a traditional furnace.)

All of this will help rapidly decarbonize the economy and boost climate adaptation, as buildings in the US account for a quarter of total emissions. Better-insulated homes use less energy and keep people more comfortable as temperatures get more extreme. And that $400 billion from the Feds is just a start—more money for rebates will come from state governments. “This landmark policy is going to invest hundreds of billions of dollars, if not a trillion dollars, of government money in climate action, and that's going to just be leveraged many times over with private investment,” says Stokes. “We're already seeing private companies put forward billions of dollars for everything from battery manufacturing in the United States to electric vehicles, and hopefully soon heat pumps. So that investment is going to be really transformative.”

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That transition to an all-electric life—no more gas stoves or water heaters, either—will also create jobs. One estimate reckons that the IRA will create nearly a million per year over a decade. These should serve both red and blue regions: Rural areas might have solar or wind farms that need building and maintenance, while bluer urban areas have lots of buildings that need better insulation and heat pumps. “What a great opportunity for us to create jobs that are going to be highly skilled, well-paid labor that can't be outsourced very easily,” says Foley. “You can't insulate your attic from China.”

In an increasingly polarized US, the green economy stands to benefit the whole political spectrum. November’s midterm elections showed just how serious American voters have gotten about climate change. Democrats focused in large part on the end of Roe, to be sure, but also on climate, with candidates like Nevada senator Catherine Cortez Masto and Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer running—and winning—on the issue. “You can see that it created no backlash at the polls,” says Stokes. “Voters are really concerned about this.” 

Meanwhile, European nations are racing to engineer their own climate turnarounds, thanks in large part to Russia cutting gas shipments following its invasion of Ukraine, and to the explosions that shut down the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines between Russia and Germany. (Germany, for example, pledged this summer to cut its gas use by 20 percent, and in Poland, heat pump installations—which quadrupled since 2017—accelerated after the invasion.) “When it gets cold—sort of like January, February—it's going to be a problem,” says Philip Webber, chair of Scientists for Global Responsibility, who studies UK home efficiency and the impact of the Ukraine war on the energy system. 

Some of that response has been governmental, like negotiating gas deals with other suppliers, boosting solar energy production, and limiting energy use in public spaces. Some cuts have come from industry, both in factories and office towers. But as in the US, much of this conservation is focused on households. In March, the International Energy Agency published a 10-point plan to wean the European Union off Russian gas, and four of them were aimed directly at consumers: reducing energy prices, boosting energy efficiency in buildings, turning down thermostats, and, yes, installing heat pumps.

But not all energy-focused funding efforts are a done deal. In November, as its energy system descended deeper into crisis, the government of the United Kingdom announced it would spend $7 billion to make housing more energy-efficient. Homes in the UK are notoriously leaky, meaning people have to use more energy for heating, while the cost of the energy is soaring and supplies are dwindling. (And burning more wood for home heating isn’t a sustainable solution.) That $7 billion, though, won’t land until 2025, after the UK’s next general election in May 2024, when climate-forward Labour politicians could take power and enact much more ambitious low-carbon plans anyway. They’re calling for $70 billion—10 times as much—just for home insulation over the next decade. 

Better insulation and heat pumps are decidedly unsexy solutions—and they are not yet well distributed enough to stave off a cold winter for people in the places worst hit by the energy crisis. But they’re absolutely critical going forward. Although the events of 2022 have provided plenty of incentive, Webber says, it’s a transition that will take some time—and will be well worth the effort. “Even if you don't care about climate change, you'll be more comfortable and spend less on energy,” says Webber. “I think it's about modernizing your living standards as much as anything else.”

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