How Europe should answer the US Inflation Reduction Act

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Series Details 04/23, Number 4
Publication Date February 2023
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The 2022 United States Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is a significant and welcome climate law. It also includes trade-distortive subsidies, including local-content requirements prohibited under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules – the first time the US has done this and a blow to the international trading system that could trigger protectionism in other countries.

The expected IRA green subsidies are of similar size to those available in the European Union (EU), except in renewable energy production, where EU subsidies remain far larger. However, there are important qualitative differences. Some IRA subsidies discriminate against foreign producers while EU subsidies do not. IRA clean-tech subsidies are simpler and less fragmented, and they focus mainly on mass deployment of green technologies rather than innovation.

The IRA will likely harm Europe through its competitiveness effect, while it will likely benefit climate transition in Europe and most of the rest of the world. However, the magnitude of both effects is very uncertain, partly because the IRA will induce substitution away from Chinese inputs. By forcing the reorganisation of supply chains, the IRA may make the EU and other economies more competitive relative to China. It may also initially slow the green transition. But in the longer run, this effect should be outweighed by the reduction in the cost of clean tech driven by the IRA.

In responding to the IRA, the EU should not just seek to protect its competitiveness relative to the US but to pursue broader aims, including competitiveness in general, speedy decarbonisation and broad foreign policy and development policy goals. These aims imply that the EU should not impose local-content requirements of its own, should not loosen state-aid rules and should not mimic the IRA’s approach to manufacturing subsidies. Rather, it should focus on boosting its structural competitiveness, formulate a trade policy response that includes reform of the international subsidies regime, and develop an instrument for EU-level subsidies that focuses on early-stage development and increasing EU resilience to trade disruptions.

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