2022 on Climate Change: Almost a disaster, but hope prevails

IIf you’re like me, there’s a kind of momentary terror that comes from remembering things that could have gone very, very wrong. Your mind is wandering, and then all of a sudden you remember a moment when you almost turned your bike into oncoming traffic, and along with that comes a little spike of panic at how horrible it could have turned out if things had happened. they would not have gone as it was. they did it. I’m not sure if there is a name for the feeling. If not, I suggest we call it Particularly Horrible Events We Go Without Syndrome: PHEWWW for short.

I get a little PHEWWW when I think about what US climate action was like in 2022. Or rather, how it almost was. Because the biggest bright spot in that story this year, and quite possibly the most important action in US anti-emissions history, almost didn’t happen.

I’m referring to the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA), the most important climate legislation ever adopted by the US Congress, which was passed this summer along party lines by the chambers. controlled by the Democrats. That action unlocked billions of dollars in funding to help the country move away from CO2-emitting fossil fuels and embrace renewable energy, battery-powered vehicles, heat pumps and other climate-friendly technologies, and it all came down to months of negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and stubborn coal state centrist in the Senate Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Those talks broke down in mid-July, and for more than a week, it seemed that the prospect of significant climate action in the US was dead. Since the Republicans are likely to take control of at least one house of Congress in the next election (they got the majority in the House of Representatives in November) the window was closing to pass something that would lead to the US. Then, in late July, startling news broke: Manchin and Schumer had been talking in secret. And, somehow, they had reached an agreement that would contribute more than ever to the fight against climate change. More spats followed, this time with Senator Krysten Sinema of Arizona, another holdout centrist, who had a problem with a tax provision that incredibly rich people annoying. “I thought we would not pass the bill”, Schumer told politician. “It was hard to figure out how to make it work.”

But the bill passed. There were commitments on emissions and commitments on taxes. Yet all of a sudden, out of the blue, the US had an industrial climate policy that was the envy of the world. “We have technologies that are cost-effective and ready to go, and now you have policy certainty to go with them,” says Dennis Wamsted, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “The combination will lead to a transformation over the next five years that I think people have yet to understand.”

Still, the IRA fell far short of what had been promised in President Joe Biden’s original climate plan. Gone are provisions like the one that would pay utilities to switch to clean power generation and penalize those that don’t. There were concessions to the fossil fuel industry that Manchin had championed, such as mandates for the federal government to auction off the rights to drill for oil on federal lands and waters. “We will look back on 2022 as the year America finally invested in a clean new economy,” says Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, an environmental nonprofit. “At the same time, we are still experiencing an oil and gas rush, and unfortunately the US is investing more in long-lived fossil infrastructure than ever before.”

Still, the good that the IRA will do mostly outweighs the bad. But it’s far from easy to transition green from here. Persistent supply chain issues from the global pandemic are likely to slow clean energy buildout in the coming year. The lack of electricity transmission infrastructure may be a longer-term problem. And while House Republicans won’t be able to repeal the IRA this session thanks to Democrat control of the Senate (and there are enough red-state benefits in the bill that there’s some doubt the GOP will even want to do it), it is likely that they will try to use their new power to slow down implementation. Nor will the IRA get us where we need to go on its own. The Biden Administration’s goal is to cut about half of all US emissions by the end of the decade; the IRA is likely to take us to about 40%.

But thinking about where we would be without the IRA is also important, if a little scary. There has been a lot of bad news on the weather front this year, with disasters like hurricane ianrecord heat waves in Europe and China, and a mega-flood in Pakistan. COP27 achieved notable progress in payments to poor countries affected by climate change, but delivered much less progress about emissions. Imagine, on top of everything else, that we also had a US climate policy failure of historic and global dimensions: the collapse of the most ambitious presidential climate agenda in history, due to opposition from a single member of one’s own party. of the president.

That reality almost came true. If it did, 2022 would have been the year that seemed to prove that real change to avoid climate catastrophe was impossible. Instead, the right things were said in the right rooms in Washington DC, a bill passed, and we got a glimmer of hope—not what many of us expected, but far more than anything we’ve gotten before.

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write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com.

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