Last week, US President Joe Biden announced his support for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, a spending package crafted and agreed upon by a group of 10 senators — five Democrats and five Republicans. The framework proposes a total of $1.2 trillion in infrastructure investments, but only about half of this constitutes new spending. Although the White House is touting the framework as the “largest long-term investment in our infrastructure and competitiveness in nearly a century,” it is far smaller than the $2.2 trillion American Jobs Plan that Biden outlined earlier this year.
Given the narrower scope of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, a number of prominent Democrats have criticised it for omitting more ambitious measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Some have even threatened to not support the framework unless they are assured that it will be followed by the passage of a more expansive infrastructure package through a reconciliation bill, a tenuous prospect that would be likely require the support of all 50 senators in the Democratic caucus. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts captured the reservations of some of his fellow Democratic lawmakers on 24 June: “I’ve said all along: no climate, no deal. The bipartisan framework doesn’t get us there.”
The framework is worthy of support now, even by those who hope to build on it in the future
It’s true that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework leaves out key climate-focused provisions of Biden’s American Jobs Plan. For instance, it does not include the federal clean electricity standard to achieve a net-zero emissions electricity sector by 2035. The framework also omits incentives for renewable energy, leaves fossil fuel subsidies in place, and does not provide funding for clean energy R&D.
‘Steps in the right direction’
Despite its limitations, however, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework would fund critical infrastructure investments to help the US make the transition to a more sustainable economy that produces lower greenhouse gas emissions and is more resilient in the face of climate change. Adopting a glass-half-full perspective, the framework contains several meaningful provisions that would lead to badly needed progress on developing more climate-friendly infrastructure.
The framework is worthy of support now, even by those who hope to build on it in the future. The infrastructure investments it proposes would be major steps in the right direction for three main reasons.
First, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework recognises the growing importance of the transportation sector for decarbonising the whole US economy. In the last decade, transport surpassed electricity as the sector responsible for the most greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and its dominance as a source of emissions from the country continues to grow. Although electricity-related emissions are already falling rapidly due to the displacement of coal by natural gas and increasingly cost-competitive wind and solar power, transportation emissions remain on a slightly upward trajectory (aside from the temporary impact of covid-19). A push by the federal government is clearly needed to scale up climate solutions in the sector, so the framework’s $49 billion for public transit, $66 billion for passenger and freight rail, $7.5 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure, and $7.5 billion for electric transit and school buses would all have important climate benefits.
Second, the framework wisely prioritises infrastructure investments that have many other benefits in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions – what researchers refer to as “co-benefits”. These are often highly salient in people’s everyday lives, and can justify the upfront costs of infrastructure programmes without even accounting for climate benefits. For example, replacing diesel buses with electric ones not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions but improves local air quality – with large health benefits – and reduces noise along routes. Investing in urban rail transit additionally eases traffic congestion for those who drive and promotes active lifestyles.
Third, the framework would dedicate $73 billion to upgrading the nation’s power infrastructure, including building thousands of miles of new transmission lines. This electric transmission buildout would have benefits in terms of mitigating and adapting to climate change. On the mitigation side, more transmission would allow for greater use of renewable energy, encourage more investment in renewables in parts of the country with the best wind and solar resources, and help balance the variability of wind and solar generation. On the adaptation side, modern transmission lines should be built to withstand more severe weather events and thus reduce the frequency and severity of power outages.
Minding the gaps
Although the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework would be a good start towards building infrastructure fit for the 21st century, it certainly has gaps when it comes to climate change, and these gaps should be addressed in the reconciliation bill and other bills in the near future. From my perspective, there are four main types of infrastructure that are not addressed in the framework, but which should be high-priority infrastructure investments for climate action by the federal government.
This electric transmission buildout would have benefits for both mitigating and adapting to climate change
First, the framework does not adequately address greenhouse gas emissions from the buildings sector. When emissions associated with the electricity used in buildings are included, buildings are responsible for 30 percent of all US emissions, slightly more than even the transportation sector.
A second important omission from the framework is investment in energy storage. Like transmission, energy storage – such as batteries – would help the electric grid accommodate more wind and solar generation without suffering from diminished reliability due to the natural variability of these weather-dependent power sources. Deeply decarbonising the grid would be likely to require hundreds of billions of dollars in storage investment. Distributed energy storage, where batteries are installed onsite in homes and businesses, would additionally support resilience by providing back-up power in the event of a grid blackout.
Third, the industrial sector is entirely absent from the framework, even though it produces 23 percent of emissions. Industrial processes for producing steel, cement, chemicals and other products are considered some of the most difficult and costly parts of the economy to decarbonise using currently available technologies. Federal government support is therefore needed to modernise the nation’s manufacturing infrastructure by improving energy efficiency, electrifying various processes, deploying carbon capture technologies, and piloting the use of hydrogen. Such an investment would also boost the competitiveness of US manufacturing in the growing market for low-carbon products.
Fourth, the American Jobs Plan wisely proposed $35 billion of funding for climate-oriented R&D that did not make it into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. Historically, federal clean energy R&D has had high net positive returns, so more of it would be likely to have substantial economic benefits. Furthermore, a large portion of the $35 billion would have gone towards physical infrastructure, including R&D facilities and advanced technology demonstration projects.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework should be seen as a win for climate change mitigation and adaptation in the US. It certainly omits important climate-related infrastructure investments, and these should be high-priority targets for other legislation in the near future. Nevertheless, the framework is a solid foundation to build on. It deserves to be embraced for what it includes instead of rejected for what it leaves out.
Benjamin Leibowicz is assistant professor, operations research and industrial engineering at the University of Texas at Austin