Aug 5, 2021

Axios Generate

🎉 Hi readers! There's a lot happening but today's Smart Brevity count is still a breezy 1,417 words, 5.5 minutes.

📊 Data point of the day: Tied for 3rd. Last month matches July 2020 as the third-warmest July on record globally, per the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

🎸 Sunday marks 33 years since The Robert Cray Band released the album "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," so the veteran bluesman has today's intro tune...

1 big thing: The scope and limits of Biden's plan for green cars

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

New White House plans this morning to cut auto emissions say a lot about climate policy circa 2021 — doing consequential things demands a layered approach, Ben writes.

Catch up fast: The White House is unveiling targets, draft mandates and handshake deals with automakers aimed at deeply cutting CO2 and vastly expanding electric car sales.

We've got plenty on the rollout here, but the highlights are...

  • Draft rules to increase mileage and cut carbon from cars, pickups and SUVs through the model year 2026.
  • Kicking off a process for regulations beyond the mid-2020s for those light-duty models but also medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.
  • An aspirational 2030 target of achieving 50% of U.S. car sales from zero-emissions vehicles — EVs, plug-in hybrids and fuel-cell models.

Why it matters: This morning's rollout shows how big problems — transportation is the largest U.S. CO2 source! — require a multipronged approach.

That's always been true, but it's especially important now. That's because big, economy-wide ideas batted around for years — like cap-and-trade or carbon taxes — are dead for the foreseeable future.

The transportation effort mixes regulations, pressure on the industry and new investments via Congress.

Where it stands: On Capitol Hill, the White House has secured several billion dollars for EV charging stations in the bipartisan infrastructure plan.

  • But administration officials and Democrats hope to move on the order of $100 billion in new EV consumer incentives through the budget reconciliation process on a party-line vote.
  • One immediate sign of how much Congress matters: Big automakers' pledges this morning to have EVs make up 40%-50% of U.S. sales by 2030 included warnings that new federal purchase incentives are needed to get there.

The big picture: Some version of this it-takes-a-policy-village story applies to the White House climate approach to all the big industrial sectors.

For instance, plans for the electricity sector include new transmission and grid investments via Congress; an effort to push a "clean energy standard" through the budget reconciliation process, too; and potential new EPA regulations.

What's next: Biden will sign the executive order and promote the plans at a White House event this afternoon with officials from car companies and the United Autoworkers.

However, some environmentalists are dissatisfied with the efforts.

"[F]ederal agencies must craft enforceable fuel economy and tailpipe pollution standards that accurately reflect the urgency of the moment, and drive toward 100% EV sales by 2030," the group Evergreen Action said.

2. Exclusive: The bipartisan plan has broad support
Expand chart
Reproduced from Climate Power and Data for Progress; Chart: Axios Visuals

First look: New polling from the advocacy group Climate Power and the left-leaning polling firm Data for Progress shows that the bipartisan infrastructure plan and many of its individual provisions enjoy majority support among likely voters, Andrew writes.

Why it matters: The bill, which contains billions for modernizing the electrical grid, making communities more resilient to climate disasters and boosting electric vehicles, needs at least 10 Republican votes to pass.

Context: The poll of 1,194 likely voters, conducted on July 29-30, found rising concern in both parties regarding extreme weather events when compared to a June survey.

  • This likely reflects this summer's disasters, from heat waves to floods and wildfires, which scientists tie in large part to human-caused climate change.
  • The poll also found increased concern that future generations will be more affected by extreme weather.

Details: 71% of likely voters, including a majority of likely Republican voters, support the bipartisan infrastructure framework.

  • Pollsters also asked about the importance of additional investments to combat climate change and transition to clean energy, in addition to what's in the bipartisan agreement.
  • This question, which tests the popularity of Democrats' plan to pass a bigger spending bill through a party-line vote, showed that 75% of voters consider such spending "very important" or "somewhat important," including 55% of likely Republican voters.
  • Interestingly, while 63% of likely voters back government investment to accelerate the production and adoption of electric vehicles, that goal is not supported by the majority of likely Republican voters.

What's next: The polling bolsters the case for lawmakers who favor the bipartisan bill, which could pass the Senate in the next week, although its fate in the House is less clear.

3. Report: Exxon weighs 2050 net-zero pledge

The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Exxon is "considering a pledge to reduce its net carbon emissions to zero by 2050."

Why it matters: It would be a major shift for Exxon, the U.S.-based multinational giant, which to date has opposed the long-term targets embraced by European giants like Shell and BP, Ben writes.

The big picture: It comes as Exxon — and the industry as a whole — faces growing pressure to act more aggressively on climate change.

That was brought into stark relief in May when Exxon shareholders sided with an activist hedge fund to elect three new board members over management's opposition.

Catch up fast: Exxon has vowed to expand activities around carbon capture and hydrogen, but overall has not been seeking to diversify as widely as European majors (though fossil fuels remain the dominant business for majors on both sides of the Atlantic).

Where it stands: Here's a little more via the WSJ's reporting based on "people familiar with the matter"...

"The Irving, Texas, company hasn’t made a final decision on a net-zero pledge...It plans to unveil a series of strategic moves on environmental and other issues before the end of the year, the people said."

Go deeper: Big Oil's climate earthquake

4. Hurricane season is about to kick it up a notch

Hurricane Dorian seen on Sept. 2, 2019. Photo: NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Wednesday updated its 2021 Atlantic hurricane seasonal forecast, increasing expectations for the number of named tropical storms and hurricanes, Andrew writes.

Why it matters: With the U.S. already reeling from a pandemic, heat waves and wildfires, disaster response agencies are overstretched as it is. A particularly destructive and active hurricane season could overwhelm the country's capacity to adequately respond.

Details: The updated forecast is based on conditions observed across the North Atlantic Ocean basin, including sea surface temperatures, upper-level winds, rainfall in West Africa, and the forecast of an impending La Niña event in the tropical Pacific.

  • This hurricane season comes in the wake of the North Atlantic basin's most active season on record last year, with 30 named storms, 11 of which struck the U.S., setting a benchmark.

By the numbers: NOAA is forecasting a 65% chance of an above-average season, with 15–21 named storms. Of these named storms, NOAA is predicting that 7–10 will be hurricanes and 3–5 will be major hurricanes of Category 3, 4 or 5 intensity.

  • These numbers reflect the five named storms that have already formed this season, including the earliest fifth-named storm on record for the Atlantic basin (Hurricane Elsa).

What's next: Forecasters are predicting an uptick in Atlantic tropical storm activity beginning by mid-August, as temporary weather conditions that have been inhibiting storm formation during the past few weeks abate.

Read more

5. A new wrinkle in Dems' reconciliation push

High-profile progressive Senate Democrats have expanded their climate wish-list for the multitrillion-dollar package the White House and Democratic leaders hope to move via budget reconciliation, Ben writes.

Driving the news: Sen. Chris Van Hollen is leading a push for $500 billion in fees over 10 years on large fossil fuel companies — with a big chunk hitting Big Oil — to help finance climate initiatives.

  • Co-sponsors of the draft plan include Bernie Sanders, the Budget Committee chairman, and Elizabeth Warren.
  • The New York Times has more here on the plan, which assesses fees on fossil fuel producers and refiners based on their emissions from 2000-2019.

What we don't know: Whether the plan has any chance whatsoever of advancing. Aides to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer declined to comment.

  • Van Hollen, at a press conference, said backers have been in touch with Schumer's team.
  • The Maryland senator described it as something on the menu of options to help finance the reconciliation package, which has several climate initiatives.

The intrigue: Van Hollen also said he plans to sit down with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to discuss the idea.

Manchin is one of the chamber's most conservative and pro-fossil fuel Democrats, and a note from the research firm ClearView Energy Partners says he's likely to reject it.

  • However, the plan's construction would likely limit its effect on fossil fuel interests active in his state, especially coal producers.
  • That's due to the emissions threshold for companies facing fees, and exemptions for firms in financial distress.

The big picture: The ClearView note says that while the plan is a longshot, it's "another sign that domestic climate debate may be moving further past the market-based modalities of yesteryear and deeper into more command-oriented terrain."