Infrastructure law is a chance to build with clean materials

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The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes historical spending levels for land transportation, accounting for about half of the total $1.2 trillion package — the largest new land transportation authorization ever over five years. Whether the new law’s transportation investments will exacerbate our climate crisis or help us meet our climate goals — and provide more equitable and sustainable mobility options for communities across the country — will depend on how the U.S. Department of Transportation (US DOT) and state and local agencies implement it most important provisions.

Most importantly, NRDC believes agencies must use the flexibility Congress is giving them to channel funds into cleaner alternatives to new road construction, including buses, trains and electric vehicles. But Secretary Buttigieg must not overlook the opportunity to combine billions in infrastructure investments with programs to purchase low-carbon building materials. By doing this, we ensure that whether we’re building railroads, roads or bridges, we literally rebuild better with cleaner concrete, cement and steel.

The industrial sector, which includes the manufacture of concrete, steel and other common building materials, was responsible for 23% of US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2019. Because the federal government—and the US DOT in particular—is a key buyer of these materials for federally funded transportation infrastructure, government procurement is an important lever for growing early markets for low-carbon alternatives and driving transformative change in industrial plants and processes. And because these materials are used ubiquitously in our built environment, if the US-DOT uses its purchasing power to encourage even small reductions in embodied emissions, there could be a significant climate impact.

Additionally, the impacts would not be limited to reducing the greenhouse gas footprint of materials purchased directly from the government – although as a major purchaser of materials such as concrete and steel, these direct impacts could be significant. As more companies adopt cleaner manufacturing processes and/or products to compete for the large pool of government-funded construction companies, the same manufacturers will sell low-carbon materials to buyers in the broader private market alongside the public sector. This “indirect impact” has the potential to significantly increase emissions savings and reduce costs compared to public infrastructure projects alone.

In addition to funding significant investments in transit and intercity rail, the IIJA includes many new and highly competitive grant programs totaling more than $100 billion in addition to funding traditional highways. The US DOT should use its authority as much as possible to ensure grantees competing for this funding are accountable for the climate and equity impacts of their projects. Incentives for sourcing low-carbon materials should be part of this process.

Procurement by state and local grantees applying for these new funding streams when building must take into account the carbon intensity of the building materials used for a project. This should include:

  1. Measuring embedded emissions from materials such as concrete using a well-known reporting document called the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). EPDs are the best practice for measuring the greenhouse gas emissions generated during the manufacture of industrial building materials and products, and the federal government plays a key role in promoting and standardizing their use. As we’ve discussed here, the Biden administration is already taking important steps in this direction; and
  2. a mechanism to account for the use of low-carbon options and thereby include climate performance in procurement alongside costs.

There are several approaches that could be taken to encourage lower embodied emissions in widely used building materials. Options for project competition criteria under new and existing programs include, but are not limited to:

  1. Setting a maximum CO2 intensity cap for commonly used building materials in public projects;
  2. Offer a percentage discount to offers with the lowest carbon intensity, as captured in an EPD, effectively making them more cost-effective;
  3. awarding performance-based bonuses to suppliers who supply lower-carbon materials, as a new low-carbon concrete procurement law introduced in New York would do;
  4. Offering price premiums as an incentive for contractors and/or suppliers to change their behavior in addition to the price premium applicable to the materials themselves. [We estimate that with improved information on the embodied emissions of cement and steel, for example, GHG savings of 10-20% are available at very low premiums, and deeper decarbonization (60%+) could be available at a higher but still modest premium of ~10-15%]; and or
  5. Creation of a “Super Performer” tier and reserved funding pool to encourage offerings that significantly outperform their competitors or achieve exceptional levels of GHG emissions reduction.

As the US DOT advances the implementation of the largest transportation law in history, the government must seize this opportunity to continue its momentum in sourcing low-carbon materials. One of the most important and immediate opportunities is to sponsor procurement pilots at US DOT as part of the implementation of IIJA-funded investments in transportation infrastructure for generations.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill offers an unprecedented opportunity to transform the material supply chain for transportation. We call on Secretary Buttigieg to make the most of the law’s new powers and tools, including embedding cleaner materials in the roads and railroads Americans travel on every day.

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