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The Manchin Climate Compromise Doubles Down on Car Culture

Here are some words you won’t find in the text of the 725-page Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the climate compromise between Senator Joe Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a bill described by Ed Markey, one of the Senate’s most reliable climate allies, as “the most significant investment in environmental justice and climate action in American history”: Public transportation. Bicycles. Electric bicycles. The word “walk” or derivatives appear once in a $1.9 billion appropriation to improve walkability or otherwise mitigate pollution impacts from new highways or other power infrastructure. If history is any guide, very little will actually go to improving walkability; almost all will go towards noise barriers and pollution monitoring systems. Rails, as in trains, are mentioned five times, only to explicitly make them ineligible for funding.

This is just a bill, and most bills never become law. But, by nature of the agreement between Manchin and Schumer, along with Markey’s sign-off, the bill is the closest this administration has come to achieving something resembling a climate law. It includes a number of provisions which will obviously help reduce emissions—electric vehicle tax credits, incentives for companies to build solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries in the U.S., to name a few—and also many that are concerning. The words “offsets” and “carbon capture,” in particular, are in there too often for comfort given how little evidence there is to support the efficacy of these ideas.

The bill’s proponents claim it will reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030. It might. But 40 percent by 2030 is merely a weigh station on the way to 100 percent reduction by 2040 (or 2050, or ever, but preferably yesterday). The goal has to be to achieve the 40 percent reduction with a clear pathway to then get from 40 percent to 100 percent. Unfortunately, from a transportation perspective—and transportation is the biggest sector for carbon emissions in the country—this bill, in conjunction with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will make it harder to get from 40 percent to 100 percent by cementing wasteful, inefficient car culture for decades to come.

Although Manchin’s press release stated the bill is about “truly all of the above” rather than any political agenda, from a transportation perspective, it is about only one thing: Cars. This thread by Politico transportation reporter Alex Daugherty is a helpful rundown of the transportation provisions. It is about subsidizing people’s purchases of electric cars and it is about subsidizing the manufacturing of electric cars and the precious metals required to build batteries. 

Electric cars are quite obviously a necessary tool in the energy transition, but they are not sufficient. Electric cars may be marketed as “zero emission,” but they are incredibly energy intensive, especially the pickup trucks and SUVs with batteries in some cases large enough to power an apartment for an entire month. And the bill not only subsidizes those trucks and SUVs, but even accommodates their wastefulness into its provisions. Trucks and SUVs can cost up to $80,000 to qualify for the credit—an increased cost to account for the massive batteries that have to make up for the vehicle being so damn inefficient and non-aerodynamic—whereas more efficient cars can only cost up to $55,000. (This is entirely separate from commercial vehicles that have to be bigger and less efficient, which are covered under other provisions.) A $55,000 ceiling for credit eligibility for all personal vehicles would have made perfect sense and may have even discouraged the mass production of big, expensive, inefficient EVs that are hardly any better for the planet than gas cars. Despite Manchin’s claim in his press release that “this legislation ensures that the market will take the lead,” this bill goes out of its way to intervene in the market to encourage inefficient vehicle production. 

One of the most surprising revelations I’ve had covering electric cars and sustainability in the transportation sector is just how few people understand that electricity does not magically appear at their outlets, that it quite often comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels, and that simply using an electrical device has an emissions impact of its own. On one memorable occasion, someone I know who is generally a smart person tried to assert that electric cars and all other electrical devices have zero climate impact because they do not have tailpipes.

Along similar lines, most people don’t understand just how much electricity EVs use, so let me give you an example. Electric car owners today would generally be thrilled to get an efficiency of four miles per kilowatt-hour. Most get less. But if you’re traveling at 65 mph on the highway, that means using 16 kilowatts to travel for one hour. In that same time, a whole-home air conditioner running at full tilt is using something like four kilowatts. So driving on the highway uses, at a bare minimum, as much electricity as running four air conditioners at once. But realistically, most EVs get less than four miles per kwh, and most people drive faster than 65 mph on the highway, so the actual effect is probably more like five or even six air conditioners.

This is why transportation experts are near-unanimous that we not only need to replace gas cars with electric cars as soon as possible, but also allow people the option to make some trips by much more efficient modes like walking, public transportation, or cycling. (There is also ample evidence that traveling by such methods drastically increases mental and physical well-being, a not-insignificant consideration for a country struggling to cope with mental and physical health epidemics.) The number I hear most often is that a quarter to a third of car trips need to be replaced with more sustainable modes, a goal that is a lot more attainable than it sounds because our streets and neighborhoods are designed, like this bill, solely around the car. E-bikes are a powerful tool here because they use a tiny fraction of the electricity cars do but provide effortless, fast trips across dozens of miles. So are smaller EVs like golf carts and “neighborhood electric vehicles,” things that look a lot like small cars but have a top speed of 35 mph and use a fraction of the electricity. (They’re not in the bill text either.) This bill ignores all of this, doubles down on car culture—big car culture at that—and calls it a win.

Much of Manchin’s statement on the bill is dedicated to ensuring “energy independence”—a George W. Bush-era talking point that ignores the actual workings of a global commodity market—and reliability. He doesn’t want us to end up like Europe, dependent on a foreign power for our heat in the winter and cooling in the summer, to make our cars go and our factories run. It sounds like a sensible goal. It also completely ignores that one of the best ways to accomplish this goal is for us to use less electricity and become a more efficient society. Instead, the only time the word “efficient” appears in his statement is about the infrastructure to export fossil fuels for profit.

For those of us who have been writing about, covering, and advocating for a cleaner, more efficient, and sustainable transportation landscape in the U.S., this bill is a bittersweet moment. It is very much a compromise between what needs to be accomplished today and what must be done tomorrow by locking in the very status quo that needs to be changed. With no provisions for the most lasting improvements like encouraging the development of neighborhoods where people don’t need to nearly double their electricity usage to get to work or the store or the park or anything else in life, we’re very much doubling down on the world and the mentality that got us into this existential crisis in the first place. 

Markey is probably right, that this is “the most significant investment in environmental justice and climate action in American history,” and he is also probably right that it needs to pass if we have any hope of achieving any semblance of the country’s emission reduction targets. But, paradoxically, it makes true zero emission goals that much harder. It ensures we are just shifting the excesses and waste, not eliminating them, from the tailpipe to the power plant.

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