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The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Could Be a Carbon Bomb

An analysis found the Manchin-backed bipartisan infrastructure bill could actually increase emission if states focus on building new roads.

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When the bipartisan infrastructure bill was signed into law, Sen. Joe Manchin said it was a “major investment in the needs of America.” Just don’t tell that to the climate.

Manchin recently torpedoed the current iteration of Democrats’ actual climate agenda, the Build Back Better Act. But a new analysis reveals why the bipartisan bill he championed is no substitute. In fact, the analysis from the Georgetown Climate Center found the legislationofficially called Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—could actually have the unintended consequence of adding more carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

According to the analysis, the bill could potentially increase emissions by 1.6% compared to a baseline scenario by 2032 if funds from the legislation are used primarily to invest in new surface roads and highways rather than mass transit and green energy.

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That might sound surprising given that the infrastructure bill that the Biden White House promoted as a no-nonsense piece of legislation that “boosts clean energy jobs” and “advances environmental justice.” In some ways, it does just that. The bill includes billions to invest in electric vehicles, mass transit, and green energy technologies, but it also sets aside big bucks for surface transportation. Here’s where things get tricky.

Surface transportation can include a variety of things, ranging from investment in public transit and sidewalks to highways and roads. However, each individual state gets to decide how specifically it wants to allocate these funds. If states decide to use these funds to maintain current roads and invest in public transit, electric vehicles, and charging infrastructure, the Georgetown Climate Center expects the initiatives would be an emissions reducer. If, on the other hand, states decide instead to use those funds to build more roads and add additional road lanes, the bill could have the opposite effect.

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New roads are a major source of carbon pollution because, rather than reduce traffic, they encourage more driving. The researchers refer to this as “induced demand.” Invoking Field of Dreams, the researchers summed up this effect with the phrase, “if you build it, they will come.” (Road construction itself is also quite carbon-intensive.)

If states go on a roadbuilding bender, the bill could increase emissions by 1.6%. The researchers note that’s roughly equivalent to the annual emissions from 4.5 million passenger vehicles. That’s a worst-case scenario. If states do everything right, the bill could end up cutting emissions by 1.3% by 2032.

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The analysis indicates that a more middle-of-the-road (sorry) scenario is more likely than either of these two relative extremes. A number of states have climate plans in place, and the money from the bill could help them meet those goals. Transportation is the largest source of U.S. emissions so getting funds used the right way is vital to getting a handle on them as well as air pollution.

“In the end, we expect that actual investment levels for most strategies will fall between these approaches and will depend on the choices state, local, and federal policymakers make about how to spend these funds, given the discretion and flexibility that they are afforded under the law,” the authors wrote. “Importantly, decision makers looking to achieve climate goals have the opportunity to steer decisions in the direction of the lower-emission scenario.”

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Even if all states end up doing the right things with the funds, though, there’s still a long way to go to actually do the hard work of cutting emissions. Biden has pledged that the U.S. will reduce carbon pollution at least 50% by 2030, and the Build Back Better Act is one possible route to get closer to that track.

Manchin has fought his fellow Democrats on key climate issues in the act every step of the way. (Republican senators, for their part, have done absolutely nothing.) The West Virginia senator has been the top recipient of fossil fuel money this election cycle for any senator and has a friendly relationship with fossil fuel bosses. But the main coal union in the U.S. just came out asking Manchin to reconsider his opposition to the bill. That puts the ball in his court on if he comes around because it’s never been clearer the bipartisan legislation alone isn’t enough.