Published: Jan. 17, 2024 By

In an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming, the U.S. has enacted several ambitious federal laws, such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed in 2022 and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021. 

These provide significant investments in clean energy projects and encourage technological innovations. Some analyses suggest they could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. 

However, in a paper published Jan. 16 in the journal Nature Climate Change, CU Boulder researchers and their collaborators suggest that these estimates may be overly optimistic, with everything from consumer decision-making to political polarization influencing how well they work. 

Leaf Van Boven

Leaf Van Boven

Matt Burgess

Matthew Burgess

“America stands at a pivotal moment with the passage of its ambitious climate legislation, said Leaf Van Boven, a co-author of the paper and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder. “The nation's ability to unite behind these transformative policies will either ignite a sustainable energy revolution or fumble into the familiar deadlock of political discord.” 

CU Boulder today spoke with Van Boven and co-author Matthew Burgess, assistant professor of Environmental Studies, a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research and Environmental Sciences (CIRES), and director of C-SEF, about the challenges U.S. climate legislations face and ways to unleash the policies’ full potential. 

What needs to happen for these climate policies to work effectively? 

Burgess: These climate laws will only have their intended effects if the invested money is deployed effectively. For example, on the supply side, whether renewable energy or infrastructure projects funded by these policies can actually be built at speed and at scale will affect how effective the policies are. 

It will also depend on whether consumers are incentivized to take up green behaviors, like switching to electric vehicles, at speed and at scale. The laws also won't work if they become so polarizing that the next Congress repeals them, or state and local governments refuse to spend the money. In other words, passing these laws is only the first of several important steps to getting results in terms of emissions. 

Are our renewable energy and infrastructure projects being built quickly enough?

Burgess: No. To build a power transmission project in the U.S. for example, the average time for the federal government to issue a permit is typically six to eight years. Such projects are important because not everywhere has rich renewable energy resources, so we need transmission lines to bring renewable power generated in one part of the country to other cities and states. Our economy is growing, we have to not only replace all of our infrastructure with renewable infrastructure, but also significantly expand the total size of the grid. Up to 80% of the IRA’s potential emissions reductions could be lost unless we can expand our power transmission network at twice the speed we have historically. 

The Biden administration has pledged to decarbonize the electricity system by 2035. If it takes six to eight years to get a permit for a power line and even longer to get a utility-scale solar project approved, by 2035, we might have almost no shovels in the ground in many key areas.

How could ‘decision paralysis’ play into this? 

Van Boven: Choices that involve complexity or difficult trade-offs are overwhelming. As a result, what consumers often do not make any choice and stick with the status quo. This is called decision paralysis. It impacts people’s decisions on whether to adopt green behaviors like installing solar panels or getting an electric vehicle, especially when these behaviors encouraged by our climate policies require upfront costs.

Impact on elections

In a separate white paper published by C-SEF, Burgess and his collaborators showed that when voters cast their ballots in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, many were driven by their concern for climate change. The new report determined that views on climate change played a significant role in whom people voted for, concluding that the climate issue very likely cost Republicans the 2020 election, all else equal. 

“This is obviously information that politicians and advocates across the political spectrum will want to know, heading into the 2024 election cycle,” said Burgess. “Beyond that, we don’t see it as our job as researchers to editorialize. How to reduce political polarization of climate change is one of the questions our research group is most interested in currently, and this provides some insight.”

I thought about installing solar panels on my own home recently. And it was super confusing when I tried to figure out exactly what the incentives are, and what the regulations are. Ultimately, the trade-offs were so fuzzy that it just led us to not install solar panels.

This is in a domain where the household was relatively familiar with the issues, concerned about climate change and understood the importance of changing. Many Americans are highly resource-constrained and may not prioritize climate change. In these cases, decision paralysis is a major barrier to adopt these green behaviors, even with incentives from climate policy. 

How does political polarization affect these laws after they are put into effect?

Burgess: We pass all these laws, and then a bunch of things downstream need to happen for the incentives to remain in place and for the effects of the laws to be realized. If the laws were repealed, or state and local governments refuse the subsidies, then the incentives wouldn't remain in place. We saw some of the latter with the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

Can Americans unite behind these policies? 

Van Boven: A lot of the divisions between parties are most pronounced when we talk about issues like climate change in the abstract. But if we look at very specific policies, like incentives for electric vehicles, there are very few partisan differences. So, we think that a potential solution and a key to success is to focus on the specifics and to avoid framing them as climate policies. There's a reason why it's called the IRA and not a climate policy.

Burgess: I am very optimistic that the IRA and the other bills are going to accelerate the energy transition compared to what would have happened without them. But I'm not optimistic that we're going to hit Biden's decarbonization targets. Either way, the transition is going to move forward. I think that the business fundamentals for clean technology were already pretty good and have gotten a lot better in the last 20 years. And I think that that's going to continue either way.