For many people in government and the auto industry, the main concern is whether there will be enough lithium to meet soaring demand for electric vehicles.
The Inflation Reduction Act, which President Biden signed in August, has raised the stakes for the auto industry. To qualify for several incentives and subsidies in the law, which go to car buyers and automakers and are worth a total of $10,000 or more per electric vehicle, battery makers must use raw materials from North America or a country with which the United States has a trade agreement.
California and other states move to ban internal combustion engines. “It’s going to take everything we can do and our competitors can do over the next five years to keep up,” Mr. Norris said.
As a part-time Lyft driver in 2020, Nicole Moore was listening carefully when Joseph R. Biden Jr., a candidate for president, said the refusal by ride-hailing companies to treat their drivers as employees “deprives these workers of legally mandated benefits and protections.”
Labor activists like Ms. Moore, who runs an advocacy group in California called Rideshare Drivers United, hoped that Mr. Biden, as president, would spearhead a flurry of activity aimed at forcing companies in the gig economy like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash to classify drivers as employees rather than independent contractors. Such a change would mean paying the drivers a minimum wage, giving them benefits and making them eligible to unionize.
Instead, a year and a half into Mr. Biden’s presidency, little has been done at the federal level to address independent contractors. Enforcement of existing labor laws has not been notably beefed up. And the president’s nominee to lead the Labor Department’s enforcement division was voted down by the Senate, including by several Democrats.
labor issues and unions, and that they have been hamstrung by a recent court decision that extended a Trump-era rule making it easier for companies like Uber to argue their workers should be classified as independent contractors under federal law.
In statements, the White House and Labor Department emphasized the importance of addressing worker misclassification but did not single out gig companies like Uber.
“The president ran on an aggressive and comprehensive approach to addressing worker misclassification,” said Alexandra LaManna, a White House spokeswoman who used to be senior communications executive at Lyft. She added, “The policy of this administration is to strengthen worker power and a solution to worker misclassification is a key part of that agenda.”
passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which included language making it harder for companies to classify drivers as independent. The next month, Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh suggested to Reuters that “in a lot of cases gig workers should be classified as employees,” sending shares of gig companies’ stock tumbling.
Mr. Weil would have investigated whether gig companies were violating labor law and sought retroactive minimum pay for drivers.
a judge threw it out. The companies were also stymied in Massachusetts. But without the threat of federal enforcement, their state-by-state approach got legislation passed this year in Washington, Georgia and Alabama.
Ms. Moore said she was pessimistic about Mr. Biden’s following through on his promises.
“That was certainly the hope,” she said. “I’m old enough to learn that you can’t pin all your hopes on any one politician.”
Kate Conger contributed reporting.
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Economists have been examining the impact of climate change for almost as long as it’s been known to science.
In the 1970s, the Yale economist William Nordhaus began constructing a model meant to gauge the effect of warming on economic growth. The work, first published in 1992, gave rise to a field of scholarship assessing the cost to society of each ton of emitted carbon offset by the benefits of cheap power — and thus how much it was worth paying to avert it.
Dr. Nordhaus became a leading voice for a nationwide carbon tax that would discourage the use of fossil fuels and propel a transition toward more sustainable forms of energy. It remained the preferred choice of economists and business interests for decades. And in 2018, Dr. Nordhaus was honored with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
Inflation Reduction Act with its $392 billion in climate-related subsidies, one thing became very clear: The nation’s biggest initiative to address climate change is built on a different foundation from the one Dr. Nordhaus proposed.
offers tax credits, loans and grants — technology-specific carrots that have historically been seen as less efficient than the stick of penalizing carbon emissions more broadly.
The outcome reflects a larger trend in public policy, one that is prompting economists to ponder why the profession was so focused on a solution that ultimately went nowhere in Congress — and how economists could be more useful as the damage from extreme weather mounts.
A central shift in thinking, many say, is that climate change has moved faster than foreseen, and in less predictable ways, raising the urgency of government intervention. In addition, technologies like solar panels and batteries are cheap and abundant enough to enable a fuller shift away from fossil fuels, rather than slightly decreasing their use.
Robert Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University, worked on developing carbon pricing methods at the Department of Energy. He thinks the relentless focus on prices, with little attention paid to direct investments, lasted too long.
California. But a federal measure in the United States, setting a cap on carbon emissions and letting companies trade their allotments, failed in 2010.
What’s in the Inflation Reduction Act
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What’s in the Inflation Reduction Act
A substantive legislation. The $370 billion climate, tax and health care package that President Biden signed on Aug. 16 could have far-reaching effects on the environment and the economy. Here are some of the key provisions:
At the same time, Dr. Nordhaus’s model was drawing criticism for underestimating the havoc that climate change would wreak. Like other models, it has been revised several times, but it still relies on broad assumptions and places less value on harm to future generations than it places on harm to those today. It also doesn’t fully incorporate the risk of less likely but substantially worse trajectories of warming.
Dr. Nordhaus dismissed the criticisms. “They are all subjective and based on selective interpretation of science and economics,” he wrote in an email. “Some people hold these views, as would be expected in any controversial subject, but many others do not.”
Heather Boushey, a member of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers who handles climate issues, says the field is learning that simply tinkering with prices won’t be enough as the climate nears catastrophic tipping points, like the evaporation of rivers, choking off whole regions and setting off a cascade of economic effects.
“So much of economics is about marginal changes,” Dr. Boushey said. “With climate, that no longer makes sense, because you have these systemic risks.” She sees her current assignment as similar to her previous work, running a think tank focused on inequality: “It profoundly alters the way people think about economics.”
To many economists, the approach pioneered by Dr. Nordhaus was increasingly out of step with the urgency that climate scientists were trying to communicate to policymakers. But a carbon tax remained at the center of a bipartisan effort on climate change, supported by a panoply of large corporations and more than 3,600 economists, that also called for removing “cumbersome regulations.”
speech in 2018, Dr. Nordhaus pegged the “optimal” carbon price — that is, the shared economic burden caused by each ton of emissions — at $43 in 2020. Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School, called it a “woeful underestimate of the true cost” — noting that the prize committee’s home country already taxed carbon at $120 per ton.
another tack. Carbon prices, they reasoned, tend to hit lower-income people hardest. Even if the proceeds funded rebates to taxpayers, as many proponents recommended, similar promises by supporters of trade liberalization — that people whose jobs went offshore would get help finding new ones in a faster-growing economy — proved illusory. Besides, without government investment in low-carbon infrastructure, many people would have no alternative to continued carbon use.
“You’re saying, ‘Things are going to cost more, but we aren’t going to give you help to live with that transition,’” said Rhiana Gunn-Wright, director of climate policy at the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute and an architect of the Green New Deal. “Gas prices can go up, but the fact is, most people are locked into how much they have to travel each day.”
At the same time, the cost of technologies like solar panels and batteries for electric vehicles — in part because of huge investments by the Chinese government — was dropping within the range that would allow them to be deployed at scale.
For Ryan Kellogg, an energy economist who worked as an analyst for the oil giant BP before getting his Ph.D., that was a key realization. Leaving an economics department for the public policy school at the University of Chicago, and working with an interdisciplinary consortium including climate scientists, impressed on him two things: that fossil fuels needed to be phased out much faster than previously thought, and that it could be done at lower cost.
Just in the utility sector, for example, Dr. Kellogg recently found that carbon taxes aren’t meaningfully more efficient than subsidies or clean electricity standards in driving a full transition to wind and solar power. And as more essential devices can be powered by batteries, affordable electricity becomes paramount.
more useful for policymakers than broad, top-down economic models.
begun to look at the relationship between extreme weather and federal revenue. But because it’s still not clear how best to do that, other institutions are trying as well.
Carter Price, a mathematician at the nonprofit RAND Corporation, is working on a budget model that will incorporate the latest social science research, as well as climate science, to inform long-term policy decisions.
“This is a space where having more models early on would be better,” Dr. Price said. “Rather than someone has an assumption, that assumption goes into a model, nobody questions it and, 10 years later, we realize that assumption is pretty powerful and maybe not right.”
The larger lesson is that modern climate policy is a complex endeavor that calls for large, interdisciplinary teams — which is not historically how the economics field has operated.
“You can only do so much by writing things down on a single sheet of paper from your office at Yale,” said Dr. Kopp, of Rutgers. “That’s not how science gets done. That’s how a lot of economics gets done. But you run into limits.”
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Policymakers in Washington are promoting electric vehicles as a solution to climate change. But an uncomfortable truth remains: Battery-powered cars are much too expensive for a vast majority of Americans.
Congress has begun trying to address that problem. The climate and energy package passed on Sunday by the Senate, the Inflation Reduction Act, would give buyers of used electric cars a tax credit.
But automakers have complained that the credit would apply to only a narrow slice of vehicles, at least initially, largely because of domestic sourcing requirements. And experts say broader steps are needed to make electric cars more affordable and to get enough of them on the road to put a serious dent in greenhouse gas emissions.
would eliminate this cap and extend the tax credit until 2032; used cars would also qualify for a credit of up to $4,000.
With so much demand, carmakers have little reason to target budget-minded buyers. Economy car stalwarts like Toyota and Honda are not yet selling significant numbers of all-electric models in the United States. Scarcity has been good for Ford, Mercedes-Benz and other carmakers that are selling fewer cars than before the pandemic but recording fat profits.
Automakers are “not giving any more discounts because demand is higher than the supply,” said Axel Schmidt, a senior managing director at Accenture who oversees the consulting firm’s automotive division. “The general trend currently is no one is interested in low prices.”
Advertised prices for electric vehicles tend to start around $40,000, not including a federal tax credit of $7,500. Good luck finding an electric car at that semi-affordable price.
Ford has stopped taking orders for Lightning electric pickups, with an advertised starting price of about $40,000, because it can’t make them fast enough. Hyundai advertises that its electric Ioniq 5 starts at about $40,000. But the cheapest models available from dealers in the New York area, based on a search of the company’s website, were around $49,000 before taxes.
Tesla’s Model 3, which the company began producing in 2017, was supposed to be an electric car for average folks, with a base price of $35,000. But Tesla has since raised the price for the cheapest version to $47,000.
pass the House, would give buyers of used cars a tax credit of up to $4,000. The used-car market is twice the size of the new-car market and is where most people get their rides.
But the tax credit for used cars would apply only to those sold for $25,000 or less. Less than 20 percent of used electric vehicles fit that category, said Scott Case, chief executive of Recurrent, a research firm focused on the used-vehicle market.
The supply of secondhand vehicles will grow over time, Mr. Case said. He noted that the Model 3, which has sold more than any other electric car, became widely available only in 2018. New-car buyers typically keep their vehicles three or four years before trading them in.
SAIC’s MG unit sells an electric S.U.V. in Europe for about $31,000 before incentives.
New battery designs offer hope for cheaper electric cars but will take years to appear in lower-priced models. Predictably, next-generation batteries that charge faster and go farther are likely to appear first in luxury cars, like those from Porsche and Mercedes.
Companies working on these advanced technologies argue that they will ultimately reduce costs for everyone by packing more energy into smaller packages. A smaller battery saves weight and cuts the cost of cooling systems, brakes and other components because they can be designed for a lighter car.
“You can actually decrease everything else,” said Justin Mirro, chief executive of Kensington Capital Acquisition, which helped the battery maker QuantumScape go public and is preparing a stock market listing for the fledgling battery maker Amprius Technologies. “It just has this multiplier effect.”
$45 million in grants to firms or researchers working on batteries that, among other things, would last longer, to create a bigger supply of used vehicles.
“We also need cheaper batteries, and batteries that charge faster and work better in the winter,” said Halle Cheeseman, a program director who focuses on batteries at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, part of the Department of Energy.
Gene Berdichevsky, chief executive of Sila Nanotechnologies, a California company working on next-generation battery technology, argues that prices are following a curve like the one solar cells did. Prices for solar panels ticked up when demand began to take off, but soon resumed a steady decline.
The first car to use Sila’s technology will be a Mercedes luxury S.U.V. But Mr. Berdichevsky said: “I’m not in this to make toys for the rich. I’m here to make all cars go electric.”
A few manufacturers offer cars aimed at the less wealthy. A Chevrolet Bolt, a utilitarian hatchback, lists for $25,600 before incentives. Volkswagen said this month that the entry-level version of its 2023 ID.4 electric sport utility vehicle, which the German carmaker has begun manufacturing at its factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., will start at $37,500, or around $30,000 if it qualifies for the federal tax credit.
Then there is the Wuling Hongguang Mini EV, produced in China by a joint venture of General Motors and the Chinese automakers SAIC and Wuling. The car reportedly outsells the Tesla Model 3 in China. While the $4,500 price tag is unbeatable, it is unlikely that many Americans would buy a car with a top speed of barely 60 miles per hour and a range slightly over 100 miles. There is no sign that the car will be exported to the United States.
Eventually, Ms. Bailo of the Center for Automotive Research said, carmakers will run out of well-heeled buyers and aim at the other 95 percent.
“They listen to their customers,” she said. “Eventually that demand from high-income earners is going to abate.”
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