If we're really rebuilding our infrastructure, we have to do it right
© Greg Nash

The two-step infrastructure package that’s moving through Congress is the biggest opportunity we’ve ever had to address the climate crisis, putting the U.S. in a position to lead by example in the wake of an alarming international report warning that our window for action is closing. 

President BidenJoe BidenWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Jayapal says tuition-free community college 'probably won't' be in spending plan Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt MORE and Democratic leaders in Congress deserve credit for insisting that important climate initiatives be a priority, supporting robust investments in electric vehicle infrastructure, energy efficiency, renewable power and other sectors. 

But if we’re really going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars building new infrastructure as Democrats are planning to do, we need to ensure that climate mitigation is baked into the entire package. We can’t settle for anything less than building smart, sustainable communities with green and resilient schools, hospitals, affordable housing and other public facilities. Right now, it’s not clear that will happen, posing a real risk that even with good intentions, a frenzied and messy legislative process could result in poorly planned projects that lock in decades of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions. 

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Consider public schools, which are in dire need of facilities improvements. A GAO report released last year found that 54 percent of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools. This is particularly true for low-wealth school districts that too often have aging and unhealthy buildings, and that at times are forced to shut down over inadequate heating and cooling. The lack of modern, healthy buildings in these communities is a missed opportunity to boost students’ ability to learn along with attracting and supporting teachers.

As President Biden has said, addressing this disparity by investing in modern, sustainable school facilities should absolutely be part of the infrastructure package. But we have to make sure that we actually build them back better. With nearly 100,000 public K-12 schools nationwide spending $8 billion annually on energy, it is a tremendous opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut costs. Simple steps like requiring sustainability standards such as ENERGY STAR and LEED for major school renovations and new construction projects that receive funding would not only deliver massive savings and emissions reductions but also improved indoor air quality.

Affordable housing is another good example. President Biden made safe, energy efficient and affordable housing a pillar of his Build Back Better platform because it meets so many goals — it addresses the housing affordability crisis, creates jobs, and reduces energy consumption and related carbon emissions. But could Congress — in the blitz to seize the precarious opening they have to pass something — approve the funding while failing to incorporate meaningful climate criteria? The result could once again yield another generation of energy-wasting affordable housing that saddles residents with high energy costs and drives up emissions for decades. We should insist on minimum energy performance for any new projects receiving funding, with incentives or priority treatment for projects that go above and beyond.

This is not an idle concern. The infrastructure we’re talking about accounts for the vast majority of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: Homes and buildings account for nearly 40 percent while transportation accounts for about a third. And Congress is already demonstrating a willingness to allow lax requirements to slip through. In the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that recently passed the Senate, for example, a new Carbon Reduction Program for transportation projects significantly eased the original climate requirements that states must follow to receive grant money, leaving loopholes that could result in projects across the country that don’t actually reduce emissions. The risk of additional softening is even higher in the second act of the infrastructure package — the Democratic-only budget reconciliation package that will follow the bipartisan bill — because of the arcane procedural rules around the legislation. 

To be sure, Congress and the administration are showing signs of getting many things right. They should be applauded for putting a strong focus on climate and resilience across a variety of sectors, and for recognizing that addressing only the power generation sector is not enough. They also are smartly taking a longer-term approach to the spending than was done under the Obama-era recovery act, where “shovel-ready” projects were required for immediate economic impact. We’re in a different economic situation than we were then, and we can take more time in pumping this money into our communities.

That said, even the best of intentions could get lost in the challenging political process a once-in-a-generation infrastructure package requires. We urge lawmakers and the administration to hold firm and build it right. As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warns, we can’t afford not to.

Evans is federal legislative director at the U.S. Green Building Council.