Last month, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law. The landmark bill features provisions around health care, tax breaks, and most notably, climate change. The climate related portion of the legislation is significant enough that the whole is often referred to more broadly as the “climate bill.”
The Inflation Reduction Act is the largest climate investment in American history – including roughly $369 billion in investments toward energy security and climate change mitigation. This legislation sets a goal to slash carbon emissions 40% by 2030. It features five main climate investment areas:
- Lowering energy costs
- Advancing U.S. energy security and domestic manufacturing
- Decarbonizing all sectors of the economy
- Aiding disadvantaged communities and supporting environmental justice
- Increasing resiliency of rural communities
Naturally, we as PAN are most interested in the last two priorities on this list. Is the climate bill a win for farmers, rural areas, and disadvantaged communities? We don’t have a simple answer.
Environmental justice advocates divided
While the climate bill is definitely an improvement on what came before, there are concerns about how it addresses the impacts on the folks that bear the brunt of environmental pollution and climate hazards – sometimes referred to as environmental justice communities.
The last major climate-focused bill, the 2010 American Clean Energy and Security Act (which died in the Senate) barely mentioned disadvantaged communities and did not offer funding for them. This go-round, environmental justice leaders and advisers were at the table, ensuring that billions of dollars were committed to climate justice networks and causes. However, confoundingly, this climate bill also promises billions to oil and gas industries, and funds carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) programs that allow fossil fuel and agribusiness companies to continue to take advantage of and harm these communities.
Will the benefits of the bill outweigh the potential harms for the people who bear the brunt of the negative impacts of climate change? The bill sets somewhere between $40 and $60 billion in environmental justice funding to clean up and protect neighborhoods near heavily polluted ports, monitor and reduce air pollution at industrial facilities, and install energy-efficient and renewable equipment at affordable housing developments.
This is progress, but it’s a difficult dynamic for communities to be accepting this money from the same source that also funds the industries that have been abusing them for years. Another significant concern is how funding will actually reach the communities that need it the most – strong accountability measures must be put in place.
What it means for farmers and agriculture
The bill’s stated goal to “increase the resiliency of rural communities” does include some exciting provisions in the food and farming realm. Indirectly, action to curb emissions from any sector would benefit farmers by reducing the real-time impacts of climate change, such as changes in precipitation amounts and increases in the severity of extreme weather events. We also know that insect pest damage is expected to worsen as climate change progresses, likely leading to increased pesticide use. So the goal to reduce carbon emissions by 40% is an important one for our food system!
More directly, the climate bill earmarks $20 billion for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs that incentivize climate-friendly growing practices like crop rotation and the planting of cover crops. Ideally, this money will allow the agency to accept more farmers into existing programs and fund projects that “directly improve soil carbon, reduce nitrogen losses, or reduce, capture, avoid, or sequester carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions, associated with agricultural production.” However, the biggest question is how USDA will interpret that language – in the past, similar funding hasn’t actually incentivized the most effective climate-smart practices.
On the other hand, it is frustrating to see the inclusion of $500 million for increased biofuel infrastructure and market expansion. Many climate experts see ethanol as a false climate solution with environmental consequences, including increased pesticide use and the production of ethanol waste products. But the bill does establish a 15% minimum tax rate for the largest corporations in the country, which should impact agribusiness giants.
Finally, the bill includes a $3.1 billion fund for loan relief and restructuring for farmers in financial distress. This replaces the similar provision in the 2021 American Rescue Plan that has been tied up in lawsuits, but also expands on it by earmarking $2.2 billion for farmers who have been discriminated against by USDA. This law features a stipulation that USDA bring in third-party organizations to help with implementation of the program. While this won’t make up for hundreds of years of oppression and hardship faced by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) farmers, it will help ensure they get support they’ve been waiting on.
The bottom line?
We are celebrating this landmark climate bill, but as a step toward more transformative climate and agriculture policies. The Farm Bill is coming around again, and we’re hopeful the Inflation Reduction Act will lay some groundwork for a package that boldly addresses the primary drivers of climate change in agriculture, and paves the way for health, resilience, and justice in our food system.