Facing mounting public pressure to fulfill his promises to tackle climate change and elevate environmental justice, as well as uncertain prospects for passing national climate policy, President Joe Biden is now counting on $1.2 trillion in federal infrastructure money to push his agenda forward. But some states could use that federal funding in ways that ultimately make global warming worse and exacerbate the nation’s environmental inequities.
The historic infrastructure package, which Congress passed last year with bipartisan support, will soon offer a lifeline to states seeking to rebuild roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure, much of which are decades old and in dire need of repair. The Biden administration says the money will create jobs and build more sustainable and equitable communities, while addressing the worsening climate crisis.
In December, Biden transportation officials sent out a memo encouraging states to prioritize climate resilience, public transit and bike paths over highway expansion projects when accessing federal funding. And on Thursday, the administration released more guidance, directing states to submit plans for how they would use the new federal money for electric vehicle charging stations in a way that aligned with the Justice40 initiative—Biden’s program that aims to deliver 40 percent of the “overall benefits” of the government’s clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities.
But the guidance is generating opposition from Republican states, whose leaders say they should have the right to spend those federal dollars as they see fit, including on projects that would expand roads and highways. That’s a serious problem for Biden’s climate efforts, some analysts say, because it would encourage more driving and increase traffic, boosting greenhouse gas emissions.
Transportations is already the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for nearly a third of its total emissions. An analysis published last year by Georgetown Climate Center found that federal infrastructure money, which states will begin receiving over the next five years, could significantly increase those emissions if states continue to add lanes to highways in an effort to alleviate congestion.
“This is a major blind spot for politicians who say they care about climate change,” Kevin DeGood of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, told the New York Times. “Everyone gets that oil pipelines are carbon infrastructure. But new highways are carbon infrastructure, too. Both lock in place 40 to 50 years of emissions.”
For decades, states have added lanes to their highways, hoping to reduce traffic congestion. But environmentalists say what actually happens is that the expanded roads encourage more driving, leading to more cars and congestion, and creating a cyclical problem called “induced traffic demand.”
Expanding the nation’s highways could also exacerbate pollution in vulnerable communities that have historically borne the brunt of poor air quality and benefited the least from environmental regulations. Many of the nation’s highways, for example, cut through communities of color and low-income neighborhoods that lacked the political or financial power to stop the projects when they were first built. Those communities also tend to sit close to other sources of pollution, like power plants and chemical factories.
Those factors are contributing to a growing body of research that shows that people of color suffer disproportionately from tailpipe pollution—the kind that would increase if states expand their highways, environmentalists say. A move to electric vehicles could help alleviate that problem, something more and more states are opting to do. Still, environmental justice activists say, the short-term impact of highway pollution on communities of color needs to be addressed more urgently.
That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading and I’ll be back in your inboxes on Tuesday.
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