E&E News: Infrastructure law could thwart CO2 goals

December 22, 2021

"The bipartisan infrastructure package signed into law last month could lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions depending on how its transportation funding programs are implemented, according to a new analysis.

The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act contains provisions to advance electric vehicles, renewable energy, high-voltage power lines and carbon capture technologies. Supported by many clean energy groups and Democratic members of the Senate, the measure has been touted by the White House as a tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But the legislation’s surface transportation provisions could be used to expand highways or build new major roadways, potentially leading to higher emissions in the long term, according to a study from the nonpartisan Georgetown Climate Center. Whether or not emissions go up or down depends on how states, local planning agencies and the Department of Transportation ultimately allocate funds, the analysis found.

"We found IIJA could be an important part of the U.S. response to climate change. Or it could lead to more greenhouse gas pollution than the trajectory we are currently on," said researchers at the center, which is part of Georgetown Law, in a post about their findings.

The transportation sector is currently the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, according to EPA. Altogether, the infrastructure act allocates about $599 billion for spending on "surface transportation," which includes highways, public transit, sidewalks, bike lanes, roads and related infrastructure, the researchers estimated.

But once federal dollars are distributed to states, state officials typically have flexibility in terms of how the funds can be used. As an example, the researchers note that the law will distribute $70 billion over the next five years to the Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) Program, which states can use to invest in mass transit and electric vehicle charging stations, but also for road and bridge construction projects.

By analyzing various options for spending the law’s funds, the researchers determined that emissions could dip below a business-as-usual scenario by 2023 if policymakers "prioritize low-carbon transportation strategies" and maintenance work for existing roads.

The report’s reference case assumes that the administration’s proposed corporate average fuel economy standards for cars and light-duty trucks built between 2024 and 2026 would be fully implemented and that the cost of EV batteries continues to decline.

However, if funds are instead used to expand highways, the law could have the opposite effect, increasing emissions by 1.6 percent relative to the baseline scenario by 2032, the analysis said. Emissions would increase because of a phenomenon known as "induced demand,” a concept referring to gradual increases in traffic volume that have been observed when new roads or lanes are built."

Read the full article by Miranda Wilson in E&E News.