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Environmental & Energy

Oct. 12, 2023

Attorneys, nonprofits and the promise of the IRA to address climate change

The scale of the Inflation Reduction Act funding and its potential positive impact on communities is extraordinary. But many of the projects it enables are quintessentially complex.

David S. Beckman

President, Pisces Foundation

Beckman is president of the Pisces Foundation, former director of the Water Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and a member of the California Bar

When Congress passed and President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law a little over a year ago, a wide variety of commentators noted that the law's climate provisions were potentially transformative, our country's largest-ever investment in clean energy and climate action capable of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 42% by 2030. But what has gotten less attention is the substantial role created for nonprofit organizations to help drive quick implementation of the IRA and accelerate its impacts in communities here in California and across the nation.

The dollars alone in the IRA are staggering: nearly $400 billion to reduce climate emissions, with a historic focus on investments in communities that can also address a wide variety of other long-standing environmental and environmental justice challenges.

The IRA contains over 100 climate, energy, and environmental investment provisions and is expected to create more than 1.5 million jobs by 2030. The expansive list of programs - so many that the statute has spawned a cottage industry of tracking efforts - includes, as just a few examples, $3 billion for clean ports, $5 billion for pollution reduction plans (in every state), $27 billion for a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (or "Green Bank"), $3 billion for transportation improvements to reconnect communities, $19.85 billion for climate-smart agricultural practices, $9.7 billion to rural electrical co-ops, $2.6 billion for wetland restoration and related coastal resilience projects, and $5 billion for forest conservation and fire-resilient forestry.

The scale of the funding and its potential positive impact on communities is extraordinary. But many of the projects it enables are quintessentially complex, such as making ports zero-emission, designing creative ways to reconnect frontline communities bisected by freeways, or decarbonizing rural electrical co-ops. I've learned as an environmental advocate and philanthropy executive that these sorts of large-scale projects don't happen on their own.

Nonprofit organizations have a pivotal, catalytic role to play in the transformative initiatives the IRA makes possible. In fact, by design, the IRA itself carves a major role for nonprofits, including in its numerous provisions where nongovernmental organizations - ranging from small community-based nonprofits to larger national advocacy organizations - are among the entities eligible for funding.

The opportunity to be a direct recipient of IRA funds is a significant one equaled by the complexity of applying for funding, including navigating a blizzard of paperwork, much of which falls outside the day-to-day experience of many organizations. And sponsoring a project, as complex as it is, is just one of the important roles NGOs must play to ensure effective implementation of the IRA's programs. Nonprofits need to connect with partners to plan or review projects, work with local government when it is the applicant for funding, build consensus around the right directions, and advocate with federal and state agencies for strong implementation provisions. That's not all: nonprofits play a critical watchdog role in overseeing how the billions available are ultimately spent.

Because of how essential nonprofits are to translating the opportunity of the new law to tangible community and climate benefits, the philanthropic community, through initiatives including Mosaic and Invest in Our Future, is directing tens of millions to community groups in support of their IRA-related work.

That broad recognition of, and investment in, nonprofits as partners in the work is a great start. And yet, more support is needed. Lawyers can play a crucial role. Attorneys are often experts in precisely the skills many nonprofit organizations looking into the IRA need today, including navigating complex governmental processes, understanding arcane statutory provisions, submitting comment letters, leading or assisting with negotiations, and filling out voluminous forms. Lawyers can play various roles to help these organizations through pro bono service, as board members, and as concerned community members. This is rewarding work with tangible, meaningful outcomes for our communities.

In these ways, the IRA presents an opportunity for the legal community to show up in ways that count by helping bridge gaps between committed nonprofits and the implementation of great ideas. But the clock is ticking: timelines are necessarily tight to drive down emissions now. So if you want to help address climate change, improve your community, and support the critical work of nonprofits, this is your moment. Get involved.


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