Systemic change is often opaque. Our own behavioral change occurs gradually, over time. Because the systems we live in are complex and made up of many influential people, our causal relationships and feedback loops often lead us to question change outside our immediate influence. In fact, those intimate feedback loops may be stifling the Biden administration’s attempts to gain consumer support for its climate action efforts and its attempts to reduce emissions.
President Joe Biden has made a strong commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. This quest is woven into the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which includes $369 billion in investments to fight the climate crisis. The IRA increases access to lower cost clean energy, improves energy efficiency, expands climate-smart agriculture and conservation, and looks to create good paying jobs.
But it’s become increasingly evident that climate-based systemic change can’t work until we focus on solving the needs of the consumer. All too often governments optimize production first, then — almost as an after-thought — the consumer. In today’s messy melange of politics and science, it’s imperative to highlight everyday people’s efforts to reduce emissions and how doing so makes them feel safe, comfortable, and proud of money well-spent.
President Joe Biden has linked the climate crisis and job creation, and the newly-coined Bidenomics’ focus has resulted in over 13 million jobs, achieved an historic unemployment rate of 3.8%, and funded more than 35,000 projects that spur job growth. Sure, companies are designing strategies to drive change and create new value in the climate-aligned economy. After all, it’s the economy of the future—and its design is vastly different from today’s. But are consumers choosing to make comparable clean energy changes, even when rebates and incentives are available?
Relinquishing the comfort and familiarity of fossil fuels is difficult for many of us. For example, I love the control I have over the gas stove I have in my summer bungalow, but I recognize the electric stove in my full-time home doesn’t produce the same carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and formaldehyde — compounds that are harmful to the environment and human health. This contest between gas vs. electric is part of a larger win/lose dynamic in our world today. Which should I choose: gas or electric? The two oppositional choices promote individualism and allow me and the rest of us to be a bit strident as we adhere to what is likely an outdated mental model.
When we step back and acknowledge what win/lose systems are costing us in terms of the climate crisis, we can experience what’s possible with win/win systems. The US can invite real social, environmental, and emotional systemic change if the federal government takes more of a consumer centric approach to clean energy transformations.
The World Economic Forum calls upon leaders to meet the cost-of-living crisis and to build a sustainable and inclusive marketplace. They say that the solutions need to focus on short- and longer-term measures which are inclusive of the consumer voice.
Listening to the consumer is more important now than ever before.
Recent Efforts to Reduce Emissions
An approach that foregrounds the consumer voice as integral to climate action starts with concrete measures to empower consumers in clean energy transitions. Consumers need access to better information on low-carbon options, and the marketplace concurrently needs to provide affordable, available, and safe options. Consumers need to know where to invest and how to install new systems. They need help to understand emerging technologies to create sustainable homes. They need guidance so that repairs and accommodations can increase consumer buy-in and confidence in the options available.
And they need to know about the rebates and incentives for clean energy in their own homes and lives. Here are some of the most important ways that the Biden administration has translated climate priorities into tangible opportunities for government, businesses, and consumers.
Transportation: Transportation emissions take up a huge hunk of today’s share of US GHG emissions, so it made sense that IRA would incorporate as a cornerstone piece of the legislation consumer actions to improve fuel efficiency. Congress and the administration approved new and continued subsidies for electric vehicles (EVs) while tying in requirements for domestic production goals. The Clean Vehicle Motor Credit within the IRA offers $7,500 as a tax credit, which appeals to middle- and low-income US drivers, as it’s a rebate for the consumer at the point of sale. The IRA includes a $4,000 credit for previously owned EVs sold at a dealership. (I’ve taken advantage of that latter incentive to reduce emissions.) In the do-as-I-say category, an executive order directs federal agencies to purchase 100% zero emission light-duty vehicles by 2027.
Building electrification at scale: The IRA contains nearly $9 billion in rebates meant to help people upgrade and decarbonize their homes. For example, the Department of Energy is accepting applications for the IRA Home Efficiency Rebate and Home Electrification and Appliance Rebate programs. A look at the success of Maine’s program demonstrates how incentivizing the installation of more than 100,000 heat pumps in a state with 570,000 homes can happen. Not only that — 60% of electric water heaters sold in Maine were heat pump water heaters. Efficiency Maine’s best practices fall under 4 broad categories: prioritize deployment; engage directly with contractors, distributors, and retailers; build on positive outcomes; and, maximize accessibility and ease of use.
Rural electrification: The USDA has invested more in rural electrification than at any time since the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. Nearly $11 billion is available to build electrification infrastructure in rural US with clean, affordable, reliable energy and enhance the quality of life in rural communities.
Agriculture: Food producers have never faced such challenges as they work to feed the US and world. Changing weather patterns, weather extremes, and climate change-triggered droughts are among the key drivers of food insecurity. The USDA has provided $1.15 billion to date to over 20,000 distressed direct and guaranteed Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan borrowers, helping them reach long-term stability and operate successful, thriving agricultural businesses.
Clean electricity standards: The President has oft repeated his goal to reach 100% clean electricity by 2035 and signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to procure 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2030. Deployment of new power generation, transmission, distribution, and storage technologies at the scale and pace required will have widespread impacts on communities, job creation, industrial supply chains, equity, and ecosystems.
Final Thoughts about Consumers & the Need to Reduce Emissions
If US consumers are going to embrace climate actions, they’re going to need to see actual, live models of people a lot like them who are buying into systemic change to benefit the environment and future life on earth. We need social media emissaries, artists, successful small business people, high schoolers, justice advocates, human rights activists, and — especially — early cleantech adopters. You’re the group of visionaries who understand how electrifying everything is full of economic and environmental promise. You are the ones — in addition to the Biden administration — who have the potential to transform US society to a clean tomorrow.
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