The sun sets at a wind farm in McCook, Texas. States such as California, New York and even Texas have long been ahead of the US federal government in supporting renewables, but that could be about to change with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. Photo: AP
The View
by Gernot Wagner
The View
by Gernot Wagner

Inflation Reduction Act shows US means business in global clean energy race

  • US President Joe Biden’s latest legislative victory could be a game changer for the transition to clean energy sources in the US and around the world
  • By doubling down on forward-looking industrial policy, the US is poised to give Europe, China and others a run for their money
The United States has entered the clean energy race in a big way with the Inflation Reduction Act. Not only will the law subsidise US renewable energy producers and consumers to the tune of US$369 billion over 10 years, it authorises the Department of Energy (DOE) to lend up to US$250 billion to US companies investing in the clean energy transition. Between the act and the recent US$52 billion package to boost US semiconductor production, it is clear that industrial policy is back in vogue in Washington.

These figures might sound modest. According to Bloomberg, global investments in the energy transition topped US$750 billion last year, with China spending US$266 billion compared to US$47 billion in Germany and US$114 billion in the US. McKinsey offers an even more generous accounting, putting total current investments in clean energy and its supporting infrastructure at US$2 trillion.

But these figures refer to total new investments worldwide. They come primarily from the private sector, which is still a long way from where we need it to be. Although global deployment of renewables, electric vehicles and other low-carbon infrastructure is accelerating, there is still a widening gap between what is being done and what needs to be done to manage the climate crisis.

Hence, Bloomberg’s analysts think global investments in clean energy need to triple by 2025 and then double again by the end of the decade. McKinsey calculates that total annual investments of more than US$9 trillion will be needed between now and 2050 to reach net zero, with around US$2.7 trillion per year shifting from dirty to clean energy sources.

This is where the additional US government funding and incentives come in. The point is not to replace or simply add to private investment. Rather, government subsidies – when properly designed – promise to mobilise a much larger multiple of private investment dollars.


US Senate passes bill that would be country’s single-largest investment in fighting climate change

US Senate passes bill that would be country’s single-largest investment in fighting climate change
The act also shines a light on questions that might otherwise have been overlooked, such as the issue of “ embodied carbon”. Right now, consumers are generally left in the dark about the amount of pollution produced in the creation of a given product. The act allocates funding to help manufacturers measure embodied carbon and create a labelling programme for materials used in federal construction projects.
Moreover, those provisions come on top of more than US$4 billion for federal government purchases of such materials. Decarbonising the US federal government’s own operations is critical, both for its own sake and as a way to jump-start the broader transition to low-carbon buildings and transport infrastructure throughout the economy.
There are important trade-offs to consider given the wider interplay between “greenflation” and the much larger problem of “fossilflation”. No one disputes that higher fossil fuel prices have created significant inflationary pressures in the US and elsewhere in the past year. Energy alone accounts for an estimated 33 per cent of US inflation, and it is reasonable to assume that some of the food and other commodity price increases are also because of higher energy inputs and transport costs.

Investing in energy efficiency and clean energy would thus be broadly deflationary, at least in the medium to long term. More investment in the green transition could lead to temporary upward pressure on clean energy and decarbonisation prices, but that is why the Inflation Reduction Act places so much emphasis on investing in production capacities and supply chains.

China ‘faces US$6.5 trillion green funding gap’ to reach emissions goal

While no legislation is perfect, the act is worth celebrating. Until this past month, there was a clear transatlantic divergence as Europe mobilised to accelerate its decarbonisation efforts while the US did not. Now, the tables might have turned. US climate tech stocks surged as the bill made its way to US President Joe Biden’s desk.

US states such as California, New York and even Texas have long been ahead of the federal government in supporting renewables. But now that the federal government has finally made it to the starting gate, the clean energy transition has turned into a global race to the top. The US has lit a fire under other countries and supranational blocs such as the European Union.

While the EU has had a considerable lead on climate policy issues for many years, its political structure prevents it from moving as quickly as many would like. The EU’s European Green Deal was announced in 2019 but not adopted until July 2021, and its provisions are still winding their way through the European Parliament and national governments.

Still, Europe’s goal is significantly more ambitious than America’s. The EU is pursuing carbon neutrality by mid-century and a 55 per cent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by the end of this decade. By contrast, the Biden administration has committed to cutting emissions by 50 per cent from their peak levels of 2005, and the act is expected to reduce emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, surrounded by House Democrats, signs the Inflation Reduction Act during a bill enrolment ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington on August 12. Photo: AP

A strong performance in the clean energy race will be good for business, the economy and national security, and this is not just a transatlantic affair. China arguably has a solid lead in the race to manufacture much of the energy transition’s hardware. It produces about two-thirds of all solar panels and lithium-ion batteries and around half of all wind turbines sold globally. But, by doubling down on industrial policy, the US could peel off some of this market share.

It remains to be seen who will emerge as the relative winner in this jockeying for position, but it is already clear who the absolute winners will be. Consumers will have more stable energy supplies, younger generations will grow up with a more stable climate and we will all benefit from breathing cleaner air.

Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School, is the author, most recently, of “Geoengineering: The Gamble”. Copyright: Project Syndicate