Architectural voices respond to the Inflation Reduction Act, “the first real piece of climate legislation to make it through Congress”

Building Back Kinda Better

Architectural voices respond to the Inflation Reduction Act, “the first real piece of climate legislation to make it through Congress”

A set of wind turbines in Turlock, California (American Public Power Association/Unsplash)

In Elizabeth Kolbert’s feature “Climate Change A to Z,” published in The New Yorker’s recent climate issue, some readers may have wondered why the item for the letter I wasn’t the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) but the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). For efforts to mitigate global warming and adapt to the warming that’s already locked in, is this bipartisan compromise legislation actually more consequential than the world climatological community’s most authoritative body of experts?

Though skeptics might view Kolbert’s selection as unduly U.S.-centric, the IRA is a clear victory: Kolbert describes the act as “the first real piece of climate legislation to make it through Congress.” Its passage gave advocates of a greener built environment cause for at least some guarded optimism. The IRA’s success last August, passed after a year of negotiations and the narrow defeat of its predecessor the Build Back Better Act—and renamed to pacify holdout  Senator Joseph Manchin (D-WV), a coal baron and the Senate’s leading recipient of fossil-fuel-industry contributions—was a welcome surprise.

The IRA is a budget-reconciliation bill which provides $370 billion in energy and climate-related spending, the largest investment in fighting climate change in U.S. history. Measures affecting the built environment include grants and tax credits (new and extended) supporting renewable energy, cleaner vehicles, emissions reduction in manufacturing and natural gas production, energy-related research, greener agricultural and forestry practices, and environmental-justice measures driving investment in disadvantaged communities.

Along with changes affecting taxation, prescription-drug costs, and health-insurance subsidies, the IRA aims to cut the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions by an estimated 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030; the figure is not quite the 50–52 percent reduction goalpost that President Joe Biden announced before an April 2021 climate summit, but still a step in a more sustainable direction. Funding sources to cover the investments include a minimum corporate tax, drug pricing reforms, tougher tax enforcement, and an excise tax on corporate stock buybacks. Analysts at the investment bank Credit Suisse have speculated that federal spending under the act will catalyze so much activity in the green manufacturing, carbon capture, and clean hydrogen sectors that its long-range multiplier effects on combined public and private environmental investment could range as high as $1.7 trillion.

The national AIA took a position in favor of the IRA and issued a celebratory statement upon its adoption by Congress, noting that the bill “addresses the association’s policy priorities including provisions for building codes, climate tax incentives, and affordable housing.” “Congress heeded the calls from AIA members to ensure that the building sector was included in this important law,” 2023 AIA President Emily Grandstaff-Rice told AN recently. “AIA applauds Congress for including $1 billion in incentives to adopt updated/stretch building energy codes [and] enhance 179D energy efficiency tax deductions, and for investing billions of dollars in energy-efficient and electric homes. AIA will continue to work with federal agencies to implement these investments and with bipartisan leaders in Congress to pass additional legislation to support a resilient, efficient, and equitable building sector.”

Not everyone who monitors relations between the built and natural environments, however, views the IRA as grounds for a victory lap. “I’m very impressed that the Biden administration got the Inflation Reduction Act passed, but that’s the equivalent of getting yourself to the starting line—there’s still the race to run,” said Mic Patterson, a designer/researcher with the Facade Tectonics Institute. “The implementation will play out over months and years, and I expect there will be many hurdles thrown up by conservative politicians and industry groups with vested interests to protect. The system is still largely gridlocked, so the big question is, how effectively can the IRA be used to leverage cash flow to these various initiatives? The IRA is a watered-down version of the Build Back Better plan, but the clean energy part of the Act still has great potential to improve the carbon footprint of buildings and urban habitat, primarily through the conversion of grid-supplied electricity from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources. It’s important to note that the IRA still leaves critical work of building (both existing and new) performance improvements to the building industry itself.”

Developer/planner Jonathan Rose, author of The Well-Tempered City (2016), likewise saw the IRA as a positive step, though far from a slam dunk. “I am very pleased that the United States is investing significantly in climate impact reductions and appreciate its focus on creating good green American jobs. I hope that the funds will be allocated in ways to also increase biodiversity. But these investments alone will not solve the issue of global warming. We also need to evolve our economic system to more explicitly enhance the environmental and social commons.”

Transportation, which accounts for 27 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 according to the Environmental Protection Agency (ahead of the next-highest sectors, electricity at 25 percent and industry at 24 percent), receives too little attention in the IRA, according to Yonah Freemark’s analysis for the Urban Institute. Acknowledging that its support for transportation electrification through manufacturing-plant upgrades and incentives for consumer and commercial green vehicles makes important headway toward honoring the Paris Agreement, Freemark commented, “Focusing on electric cars and trucks is unlikely to quickly reduce U.S. emissions and fails to account for the resource intensity of car manufacturing, noncarbon pollution produced by vehicles, and the unsustainable land uses car dependence produces.” The emissions footprint of electric cars, he added, depends on how the power is generated, and the U.S. grid still leans heavily on nonrenewables.

Lance Jay Brown, president of the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization, understood the IRA as “the most potent motivation produced by Washington to date to encourage the dramatic architectural, urban design, and environmental design retrofits and resets needed if we are going to meet the challenges of the next 25 years.” Its omissions include “issues of migration and relocation caused by climate change,” though “these issues might be married to [its] rural-opportunities policies.” Overall, he noted that “the IRA if enacted in a robust way could be a path towards re-evaluating and right designing the environment we want for our children and grandchildren.”

The IRA stands out as a highlight this year for those concerned with reducing the carbon footprint of the built environment. It may mark a tipping point in a national transition from being a large part of the global problem to being part of the solution. Conversely, it may amount to yet another too-little-too-late measure by a government structurally constrained against taking the most effective approaches to climate adaptation and mitigation. To the extent that it demonstrates that paralysis is not inevitable, however, it has earned the cautious applause of informed observers. If one is inclined to read meaning into coincidences, there may be some grounds for good cheer in the IRA’s position in Kolbert’s alphabetical list, as a connecting letter that links an abstraction with something more concrete: between H for “hope” and J for “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Bill Millard is a regular contributor to AN