Oct 19, 2021

Axios Generate

🥞 Good morning! Today's Smart Brevity count is 1,356 words, 5.5 minutes.

📊 Data point of the day: 22%, this year's rise in U.S. coal-fired generation as high gas prices alter the power mix. It's the first increase since 2014. Go deeper

🎶 Digable Planets' album, "Blowout Comb," turned 27 yesterday and their innovative sound animates today's intro tune...

1 big thing: Making Biden's pledge a reality is very hard

Image from the Rhodium Group study "Pathways to Paris." Courtesy of the Rhodium Group.

The verdict is in: President Biden's U.S. emissions-cutting pledge isn't a fantasy, but the path to meeting it is very difficult and relies on forces outside of White House control, Ben writes.

Driving the news: The Rhodium Group just released an analysis of policy combinations that could close the gap between the current U.S. trajectory and Biden's vow under the Paris Agreement to cut emissions in half by 2030.

Why it matters: It's the most detailed analysis I've seen of what's needed to translate the pledge into policy specifics — and it's quite a lot.

It arrives ahead of the United Nations climate summit, where U.S. officials trying to spur tougher action abroad will try to show the domestic promises aren't built on sand.

The big picture: This topline takeaway is either a glass-half-empty or half-full:

  • "Assuming leaders in the White House, key agencies, state capitals, and corner offices have the political will to act ambitiously, and both the congressional infrastructure bill and budget package become law, we find that reducing emissions 50% by 2030 is within reach."
  • Congress is "critical" to meeting the goal.

By the numbers: The gap between what's projected under current policy and achieving the target is 1.7-2.3 billion metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions in 2030. How much is that?

  • On the lower end of the range, "required reductions from current policy are roughly equal to all transportation sector emissions in the U.S. today."
  • On the upper end, it's akin to "zeroing out emissions from the entire state of Florida every year for the next nine years."

How it works: Another takeaway is that while transportation is the biggest source of U.S. emissions, the biggest opportunities this decade are from speeding up electric power sector transformation.

  • In their "joint action" scenario — a matrix of executive, congressional, state, local and corporate moves — about 40% of the cuts are from power.

Zoom in: The pathway includes a dozen new steps from Congress, including a major extension and expansion of clean energy tax credits.

On the executive branch side, the list includes a suite of steps like new tougher vehicle mileage standards; it also delves into state policies that drive cuts.

The intrigue: It doesn't include Democrats' proposed Clean Electricity Performance Program or fees on methane emissions, given the high political hurdles in Congress.

2. First Look: Innovation is key to getting to net zero

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The newest installment of an expansive project from Third Way, the Bipartisan Policy Project and Clean Air Task Force, examines how energy breakthroughs could accelerate America's transition to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, Andrew writes.

Why it matters: The report chapter, provided first to Axios, is part of a broader effort known as the Decarb America Research Initiative, which explores the best ways to move the U.S. toward a net-zero carbon emissions future by 2050.

  • The new analysis, out Tuesday, shows how innovation can reverberate in ways that dramatically bring the costs down of making whole-scale changes in energy systems.

How it works: To conduct the study, modelers looked at four different scenarios in which renewables develop in different ways, such as a breakthrough occurring in one technology, or all together in a universal renewable outcome.

Details: The breakthrough scenarios show significant technological leaps forward, rather than incremental innovations that one might see under a business-as-usual approach to renewables, Lindsey Walter, deputy director of the climate and energy program at Third Way, told Axios.

What they found: The savings could cut the cost of getting to net zero by more than 60%, saving up to $250 billion per year by 2050 compared to a scenario that includes only incremental technology improvements.

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3. At the helm of an electric plane

A Joby Aviation electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft outside the New York Stock Exchange on Aug. 11, 2021. Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Joby Aviation, which is working to certify its electric vertical take-off and landing air taxi (eVTOL), is simultaneously thinking within and outside the box, Andrew writes.

Why it matters: First, the plane looks like the result of a merger between a helicopter and a dragonfly.

Second, Joby is designing its plane and planning its flight operations for today's air traffic system, rather than waiting for the FAA to certify new "vertiports" where eVTOL aircraft can land and take off vertically.

  • It wasn't until late last week, when I tried out the Joby flight simulator in Washington, that I realized what sets this company apart: its aircraft design.

How it works: In the simulator, I took off from Washington Reagan International Airport and climbed to about 500 feet.

I then took my hands off the controls as instructed (an Airbus-like joystick in one hand, and a "speed" control — not a throttle — in the other), and was astonished that the plane just sat there, maintaining altitude, airspeed and its angle of attack.

  • I practiced forward flight, and a transition to a helicopter-like landing at the Pentagon heliport, under the guidance of Greg Bowles, Joby's head of government affairs.
  • The plane's redundancy is comforting, with multiple small, simple electric motors across the aircraft, making a single point of failure less impactful.

Between the lines: Joby's aircraft has a proven range of 150 miles, and it is far quieter than today's fleet of executive helicopters and small planes. Joby is aiming for FAA certification in 2023, with operations starting in 2024.

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4. Big foundations vow clean investments

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Two heavyweight grant-making foundations are pledging new efforts to orient their endowments toward more climate-friendly investments, Ben writes.

Driving the news: The Ford Foundation — one of the nation's largest — said Monday that it will no longer invest in fossil fuels via its $16 billion endowment.

The McKnight Foundation, in a separate announcement, said it would achieve "net-zero emissions" across its $3 billion endowment by 2050.

Why it matters: It's part of a wider trend of universities, pension funds and others vowing to pull money out of fossil fuels and adopt investment strategies that help cut emissions.

On the foundation side, for instance, the big McArthur Foundation said last month that it's divesting from fossil fuels.

How it works: Ford said its fossil holdings have already fallen over time to 0.3% of its direct investments.

  • 3% of the endowment are indirect "legacy investments" in private equity funds with fossil holdings that Ford vows to wind down. Ford said it would seek out clean energy funds to invest in.

McKnight, meanwhile, said its pledge would mean halting fossil fuel investments and phasing out existing ones "over time."

Other parts of the net-zero pledge include expanding the endowment's existing sustainability investing efforts and engaging companies in their portfolio on climate.

5. Rep. Casten worries Manchin's climate cuts will hurt COP26

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Rep. Sean Casten is a backbencher. But the former clean energy exec's combo of wonkery and no-holds-barred commentary has made him a prominent — and, lately, despairing — voice for Democrats on climate, Andrew writes.

Driving the news: Casten spoke with Axios about Democrats' seemingly shrinking climate legislation, what it means for the UN climate summit, and his take on West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who's at the center of it all.

Why it matters: Casten sees passing a strong climate bill as mandatory for America to regain the world's trust on climate. He's looking to attend COP26 in Glasgow and said a failure to pass anything meaningful by then could have major repercussions.

Details: "The thing that's scares Manchin," Casten said, "Is that if we accelerate the deployment of clean energy, as soon as it's built, fossil energy's dead. Everybody knows it right? Because it is so much cheaper."

  • Regarding the provision in the reconciliation bill known as the Clean Electricity Performance Program, or CEPP, that Manchin is seeking to eliminate, Casten said: "The idea that we would maybe do something as impactful as the CEPP, and we'd get it through people who think their primary goal is to protect energy producers, is predicated on the assumption that those folks are stupid."
  • "I don't believe Mr. Manchin is stupid."

Between the lines: Casten attended COP25 in Madrid in 2019, where he saw the prime minister of the Marshall Islands reminding delegates that her country was a foot away from disappearing.

  • What are we going to say to the Marshall Islands' at COP26, Casten asked?
  • "The U.S. is saying: 'Oh I'm so sorry about that. Have I told you about the needs of West Virginia?'"