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Three Ways Immediate Expensing Helps the Environment

The House of Representatives recently passed the Tax Relief for American Families and Workers Act of 2024. The bill moves to the Senate where it will face challenges before it reaches President Biden’s desk. One of the less controversial provisions of the legislation is that it would extend immediate expensing for research and development and short-lived assets including vehicles and machinery. Immediate expensing benefits a wide range of American businesses and helps create jobs, incentivize innovation, and maintain economic competitiveness. 

>>>READ: Bipartisan Tax Agreement with Immediate Expensing Will Kickstart Innovation

Often overlooked, however, are the environmental benefits of immediate expensing. With more investments in more energy-efficient equipment, clean energy startups and technologies, and U.S. companies that have an environmental advantage, expensing is an economic and environmental win-win. 

What is Expensing and What is the Current Policy? 

Immediate expensing, also commonly known as bonus depreciation, refers to the practice of allowing businesses to deduct the full cost of qualifying capital expenditures from their taxable income in the year the expenses are incurred. With traditional depreciation schedules, businesses must deduct the cost of investments over time, which can range from a few years to 39 years depending on the asset. With immediate expensing, companies have a greater incentive to invest in new equipment, machinery, and people – all of which boosts productivity, wage growth, and economic well-being. 

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For roughly 70 years, businesses could fully deduct expenses in basic and applied research and development in the first year. The provision covered everything from the scientists and entrepreneurs conducting the research to the cost of equipment and facilities. It also included domestic and foreign R&D investments. That provision lapsed in 2022, catching many small businesses and startups off guard. As the National Association for Manufacturers emphasizes, the U.S. is now only one of two developed countries in the world to require amortization of R&D expenses. And the policy lapse puts the U.S. at an even further disadvantage compared to the way China treats R&D expensing. Chinese policy provides a super deduction, allowing a company to immediately deduct twice the amount of R&D spending (an additional 100 percent).

The lapsing of immediate expensing for R&D has already resulted in a notable decrease in R&D investment. Without a fix, the R&D Coalition projects that the U.S. economy would see a drop in R&D spending by more than $4 billion annually in the first five years and $10 billion annually over the second five. Within a decade, more than 50,000 jobs would be lost.

>>>READ: R&D Firms to Congress: Don’t Hang us Out to Dry with Apocalyptic Taxes

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 made the most recent changes to expensing for short-lived assets like machinery and equipment, enacting 100 bonus deprecation or full expensing for assets purchased and placed in service from September 2017 through 2022. Expensing phased down 20 percent per year beginning in 2023, and will fully phase out beginning in 2027.

The Environmental Benefits of Immediate Expensing 

The economic arguments for immediate expensing have been well-documented and supported by both parties. By removing biases in the tax code against R&D and new equipment, expensing encourages innovation and increases worker productivity through use of more efficient machinery. For the same reasons expensing is good for economic growth, it also produces a number of environmental benefits. They include: 

  1. Greater energy efficiency and capital stock turnover. Expensing incentivizes energy and water-efficient investments. Those investments could include an HVAC system, more energy efficient lighting, water heaters, insulation, or a new piece of farm equipment that uses less fuel. Companies that have fleets for transportation can invest in more energy efficient or alternative-fuel technologies for cars, trucks, and planes. Expensing for energy efficiency is a win-win-win scenario because it reduces the cost of the initial investment, it saves businesses money on their energy and water bills, and it reduces emissions. 
  2. Accelerating innovation. Immediate expensing is essential for firms of all sizes but can particularly be beneficial to start-ups and small businesses. Energy startups allot a greater percentage of their spending on R&D and sometimes must operate on thin margins or at a loss for years before becoming profitable. Immediate expensing accelerates the return on investment for businesses and startups. Whether it is advanced nuclear, geothermal, solar cells, or batteries, immediate expensing is pivotal for clean energy startups and moving from concept to deployment. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 29 percent of small businesses take advantage of R&D expensing, and 45 percent of small business tech companies do. This includes many climate tech companies that aim to provide power, transportation, and products with fewer emissions and a smaller environmental footprint. Immediate expensing for R&D and short-lived assets can help accelerate the growth of environmentally friendly technologies and help make them financially viable in the long run. 
  3. Leveraging America’s environmental advantage. The overall impact of immediate expensing on emissions is hard to measure because it could lead to higher levels of economic growth, more investment in capital intensive energy and manufacturing, and therefore higher levels of consumption. If the U.S. cedes ground because of uncompetitive policies, however, it could be costly for American jobs, the economy, and the environment. The United States has a carbon advantage when it comes to many manufacturing processes, as well as the production of oil and natural gas (including offshore). If production and manufacturing shifts to countries where the environmental standards are less rigorous, global emissions would be higher than they otherwise might be. Further, the environmental benefits of immediate expensing are not limited to the development of cleaner technologies; they extend to the broader economy. A shift toward sustainable practices can often involve upfront costs, and immediate expensing helps businesses recoup these expenses rapidly. This, in turn, encourages widespread adoption of environmentally friendly practices, creating a ripple effect throughout supply chains and industries. In effect, immediate expensing can help countries decouple economic growth and emissions and help emerging countries adopt cost-competitive, cleaner technologies that also raise standards of living. 

Immediate Expensing is Good for American Competitiveness and the Environment

Making immediate expensing a permanent fixture of the tax code would provide businesses with the confidence and stability needed to undertake ambitious, forward-thinking R&D projects and investments in more energy efficient equipment. This permanence signals a commitment to fostering a culture of innovation that transcends political cycles, allowing businesses to invest in more efficient and cleaner technologies with a long-term perspective. Congress has an opportunity to provide entrepreneurs and American businesses with the certainty they need to drive economic prosperity and environmental stewardship for generations to come.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

Copyright © 2020 Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions

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