Making a Just Transition to a more regenerative economy—from one that relies on digging, dumping and burning coal, oil, and gas to one that is regenerative and sustainable for all—is in large part about navigating contradictions, according to the thought leaders at the Movement Generation collective. It’s not just the question of what fuels we use to power our economy, but to what purpose we apply our energy.
Front and Centered was created under a worldview that when we respect all communities and living things and engage in community self-determination, we can build a participatory economy that restores ecological and community well-being.
The IRA and a Just Transition
When you compare the Inflation Reduction Act just passed by the United States Senate and House against Front and Centered’s strategies for a Just Transition, there are plenty of contradictions. Even if it is the biggest action on climate by Congress ever, that’s an extremely low bar, and while some models project a impressive reduction of 1 billion tons of emissions by 2030, most reports conflate what’s the result from existing policy and practice—a decline in emissions of 27% from 2005—with the important but smaller role the IRA plays, which is closer to just 10 to 15% if modeling holds up.
Policy only puts us a path toward a Just Transition when:
- communities on the frontlines of the crisis are gaining determination over the places they live and in setting and meeting local needs;
- the right of everyone to live free of pollution and climate impacts is acknowledged, and disparities in those rights are being targeted and rooted out;
- we’re directly limiting harmful activities, starting with wealthier corporations and people, and rejecting false promises that put accumulation of money and growth above effectiveness; and
- we’re building the low-carbon and no-carbon economies we need through regenerative resource use and cooperative production toward community and ecological well-being.
We should celebrate Congressional action and motivation to act on climate, and applying analyses from the Just Solutions Collective, the Climate Justice Alliance, and others, we see a couple particular bright spots:
The IRA targets money toward reducing disparities in basic environmental rights and the energy transition. The Act includes:
- funds to reduce air pollution in around low-income and disadvantaged communities, including around schools ($50M), from diesel vehicles ($60M), at ports ($750M), and heavy-duty vehicles like buses and garbage trucks ($400M), as well as $550 million for drinking water;
- home energy investments for lower- and middle-income houses at $225 million, and competitive block grants for disadvantaged communities for greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions, including $15 billion for greenhouse gas projects and neighborhood access and equity ($1.1B); and
- $15 million to support islands bearing climate impacts like American Samoa and Puerto Rico, $235 million for Tribal resilience and $150 million for Tribal electrification, and $25 million for Native Hawaiian climate resilience.
Overall, climate and environmental justice advocates count somewhere between $17 billion and $44 billion generally heading in the right direction for frontline communities out of a $369 billion energy and environment spending package.
The other bright spot—which is not traditionally considered climate policy but does make up a key part of the Just Transition—is that the IRA contains baby steps to curbing the systemic advantage of large corporations. This includes a 15% corporate minimum tax, a stock buyback tax, and a methane leakage tax. The Act also empowers the federal government to negotiate drug prices. This is hardly a reversal of the decades of deregulation benefiting corporations that helped create the climate crisis, but it’s at least a change in direction.
Unfortunately, while we see some progress in targeting disparities and building more regenerative resource use, these aspects of the IRA comprise a minority. The law has major gaps in its approach, including:
- Most importantly, a failure to engage communities on the frontlines in community self-determination: While the funds above may be named to benefit disadvantaged communities, without guarantees of active participation these funds will likely miss the mark. The largest portion for example—the community block grants—allow external actors to receive funds for communities in which they have no relationship or consent.
- The law takes a flawed approach of subsidizing energy corporations as its main thrust instead of investing in energy justice for consumers. This supply-side strategy focused on driving down the cost of clean energy—including $157 billion in tax credits—may disproportionately increase the profits of clean energy companies without creating proportional impacts. Historically, new energy supply has coincided with new energy consumption—not necessarily displacement. We cannot rely on subsidizing energy corporations—some perhaps double-dipping in dirty energy—to displace fossil fuel use. Without real limits on extraction, production and the build out of alternatives ways of running an economy, profit will supersede the priority of emissions reductions.
- The law continues to subsidize private vehicle ownership, with $12 billion going toward buying private electric cars that, even with a subsidy, are still largely unavailable and out of reach for most families. It leaves out the many Americans who don’t drive, and who are in need of the sort of massive investment in public transportation and public housing that would allow people to get where they’re going without needing a car.
- Perhaps the most glaring and gaping of all is that the IRA fails to adequately address the reality that climate impacts are here and now. There’s no where near sufficient resources in the law that will build broader community resilience against the onslaught of heat waves, wildfires, and floods, or even meet the needs of its core focus of energy security outside the programs listed above.
This “all of the above” strategy also allows some attractive energy programs, like the rural electric cooperative loan, to be wasted on false promises like carbon capture that allow local pollution to continue unabated. There are also subsidies for biomass and trash incinerators that worsen local pollution, and for nuclear there are subsidies up to $700 million for uranium that will end up as new sacrifice zones in frontlines communities, too often on Tribal lands.
Still, the IRA missed opportunities to build a strong foundation for the Just Transition we know we need. While promising investments may make a dent in local emissions and home energy, the vast majority of spending is dedicated to subsidizing energy companies, including false promises like carbon capture and new nuclear that call for further sacrifice to frontline communities. The law opens the door for fossil fuel companies to move forward with new extraction plans and continue accumulating power and profit. We can enjoy the brief warmth of the sunny spots this law provides, but our work to bring the power of our most heavily impacted communities to bear at decision-making and policy-making tables must continue to ensure a Just Transition.