July 09, 2020

Welcome back! Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,356 words, 5 minutes.

And 35 years ago, Tears for Fears were about to begin a monthlong run atop the Billboard album charts with "Songs from the Big Chair," which provides today's intro tune...

1 big thing: Wall Street giants plan more active climate role

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Four of America’s biggest banks are backing a new nonprofit initiative to leverage the financial sector toward achieving climate-change goals, Axios' Amy Harder reports.

Driving the news: The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is launching a center focused on climate supported by Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase.

Why it matters: Banks have increased their rhetoric on the threat of climate change recently, but they still finance billions of dollars for the oil, natural gas and coal industries, which account for 80% of the world’s energy consumption.

This initiative is the latest sign of how the financial sector is (slowly and unevenly) embracing a transition to cleaner technologies.

How it works: The Center for Climate-Aligned Finance will, among other things, try to help fossil-fuel companies and other carbon-intensive sectors aggressively cut emissions with the input of banks and shareholders.

  • RMI is directing 10 employees to work on the initiative and plans to hire more, which will be the bulk of the banks' financial role.
  • Paul Bodnar, managing director for the group’s climate finance, said he hopes the initiative would build on the Poseidon Principles, a framework launched last year that integrates climate considerations into shipping finance, which RMI was also involved in helping craft.

But, but, but: Details are scarce, including how much money the banks were putting toward the effort.

And during a press call Wednesday, no bank officials said explicitly that they would change their lending and investment practices based on the initiative.

  • The lack of details and funding disclosure could lead to allegations that the banks are greenwashing.
  • Bodnar said his group doesn’t typically disclose funding amounts.
  • Recent large donors to the nonprofit include Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Wells Fargo Foundation, both with contributions of over $1 million, per RMI’s 2019 financial report.

"I don't think we should let any center they [the banks] participate in take our eye off the ball of the role of financial institutions in accelerating emissions through the companies they invest in and finance," said Ilmi Granoff, director sustainable finance at the ClimateWorks Foundation, which donates to RMI.

“But I do think it’s meaningful that banks are signing up to work with a partner like RMI on portfolio alignment and the use of finance and investment to accelerate decarbonization.”

By the numbers: All of the banks backing this new initiative finance billions of dollars worth of fossil-fuel projects a year, per data compiled by the Rainforest Action Network.

  • JPMorgan is the world’s largest such funder, putting an annual average of $67 billion into the sector between 2016 and 2019, per RAN.
  • Wells Fargo came in second with an annual average of $49 billion.
  • RMI’s annual revenue is around $56 million, per its recent financial statement.

What they’re saying: “We have been changing our business practice and lending practices over the years and we’re supporting RMI because we think there is still more than we can do,” said Marisa Buchanan, head of sustainability at JPMorgan Chase.

2. COVID-19's limited decarbonization effect

Reproduced from Rhodium Group; Chart: Axios Visuals

A pandemic is a crappy, expensive and inadequate way to cut carbon emissions, and new analysis out this morning helps to underscore why.

Driving the news: The Rhodium Group modeled U.S. emissions this year and going forward based on several different scenarios of GDP decline and recovery.

Why it matters: All of them show lower levels for the next decade compared to the pre-pandemic baseline.

But none of the recovery scenarios are consistent with deeply decarbonizing the economy or a pathway to net-zero emissions by midcentury.

  • It shows 2030 emissions levels that are 2%-12% below the pre-COVID baseline.
  • "These...reductions are achieved almost exclusively due to decreased economic activity and not from any structural changes that would deliver lasting reductions in the carbon intensity of our economy," Rhodium said.

Threat level: In addition to occurring for tragic reasons, emissions cuts from reduced travel and a hamstrung economy are a really, really expensive way to curb carbon.

  • "Near-term emission reductions driven by COVID-19...come at an enormous economic cost—$3,200-5,400 per ton of CO2 reduced, on average this year," the analysis states.
  • It makes the case for achieving much deeper and cheaper CO2 cuts by stitching big clean energy investments into economic recovery packages, something that's not happening so far in the U.S.

What's next: "Through 2020 and into next year, we will assess green recovery policy ideas for their potential to put people back to work and spur economic growth while also quantifying their potential to cut emissions and drive clean technology deployment," the firm notes.

3. Global warming politics are chill — for the moment

Calm Down Season 3 GIF by The Simpsons - Find & Share on GIPHY

The six "unity" task forces that the Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders put together unveiled their policy recommendations yesterday.

The big picture: Big climate ideas include setting "technology-neutral" standards to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035, and a goal of achieving net-zero emissions in all new buildings by 2030.

  • The climate task force was co-chaired by former Secretary of State John Kerry, who backed Biden in the primary, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who backed Sanders.
  • The document they produced are suggestions for the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee platform, so we'll see what's picked up. But it's hard to imagine all this huffing and puffing if it was going to just be shelved.

The intrigue: There's a lot more in the document, including a heavy emphasis on environmental justice, but what caught my attention is what yesterday's rollout says about where climate politics are at right now.

  • Like last week's detailed ideas from Nancy Pelosi-aligned House Democrats, the recommendations stop short of what the Sanders-AOC orbit wants in a climate blueprint. For instance, as Reuters notes, there's no fracking ban.
  • And like last week's unveiling, the new plan did not cause a flare-up in intra-left tensions over policy.
  • Varshini Prakash of the pro-Sanders Sunrise Movement, who was on the task force, said nice things about the result while vowing to keep pushing in some areas.

Quick take: I think there are a few things going on.

  • One is that with Biden up in the polls and a chance for Democrats to regain the Senate too, there's little interest in dust-ups ahead of the election when there's a chance of opening a small window for climate legislation.
  • Another is that the party establishment has actually moved pretty far left on climate already (probably well beyond what could ever be enacted, but that's another story), and that will be even more true if these new goals are adopted.
  • And finally, the upstart Sunrise Movement has, I think, adjusted its tactical posture in recent months (remember this is a group that in late 2019 claimed Biden's climate plan, which is vastly more aggressive than anything contemplated under Obama, was an "F-").

Go deeper:

4. Catch up fast: EVs, climate, wind

Venture capital: "Electric vehicle startup Fisker Inc. said Wednesday it has raised $50 million, much needed capital that will go toward funding the next phase of engineering work on the company’s all-electric luxury SUV." (TechCrunch)

Research: "[N]ew research finds that even if humans sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions now — cutting carbon dioxide, methane and other pollutants by at least 5 percent or more a year — it could still take decades before it’s clear those actions are beginning to slow the rate of the Earth’s warming." (Washington Post)

Offshore wind: "Ørsted has signed what it calls the world's largest corporate renewables power-purchase agreement to supply 920 megawatts of offshore wind power to Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturer TSMC, a key supplier to Apple." (Greentech Media)

5. Quote of the day

"I think [project developers] will be very scared of this decision."

Who said it: Joel Eisen, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, speaking to E&E News.

The context: He's talking about a federal judge's ruling this week that ordered the shutdown of the Dakota Access pipeline while a new environmental study is conducted.

Why it matters: The E&E News piece notes the decision "serves as a stark warning to federal agencies and project developers to thoroughly investigate environmental risks of projects ahead of construction."

Yes, but: Via Bloomberg, "Two days after a judge ordered the controversial Dakota Access oil pipeline to shut by early August, its owner Energy Transfer LP is continuing to schedule shipments and has made no moves to take it offline."