Aug 19, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning! With Axios' Smart Brevity, we keep you quickly informed even on your vacation! Today's count: 1,205 words/ < 5 minute read.

My latest column is the first of a two-parter, writing what I describe as the layman's guide to what makes climate change such a difficult problem. I'll share that, and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news.

1 big thing: Why climate change is so hard to tackle

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Democratic presidential hopefuls are calling for aggressive action to reduce heat-trapping emissions, while nations are facing pressure to ramp up commitments ahead of a major United Nations summit next month.

The big picture: Despite that fervor, progress on climate change remains elusive. We have cultivated a deep dependence on fossil fuels that has been driving Earth’s temperature up for more than a century, creating a problem whose mostly negative impacts are unfolding over more centuries.

This column and next week’s edition will try to distill what makes this such a uniquely difficult problem — with today's focusing on the global problem plus time and cost dissonance.

Global (in)action: This just might be the world’s greatest collective action problem.

  • On the one hand, it’s rational for an individual country not to drastically reduce greenhouse gases, given most economies are heavily based on energy resources that emit them.
  • On the other hand, if all nations act that way — indeed, that’s what’s happening — most countries would eventually be worse off due to the cumulative impacts of all our emissions.

Time disconnect: Enacting policies today to cut GHG emissions won’t have a discernible impact on global warming for decades, if not centuries.

  • That’s because we have already locked in significant warming due to our historical emissions.
  • This makes it a tough sell, especially in our 2– to 6–year election cycles.

Pay now and pay later: Climate change presents two separate costs.

  • Cost No. 1: Responding to flooding, heat waves and other extreme weather that climate change is often making worse.
  • Cost No. 2: Enacting policies to reduce emissions, which would come in the form of higher fossil fuel costs today.
  • Cost No. 1 will continue for decades, if not centuries, even in addition to Cost No. 2. This is because of the aforementioned time disconnect: The amount of warming locked in already has also set associated costs — which will come in the form of not just money, but also health, lives and nature losses.

Read the whole thing, and next week’s column will tackle our stubborn — yet effective — energy system.

2. The tech player Stripe's big climate idea

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The payment tech company Stripe plans to fund direct removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and its long-term storage.

Why it matters: Experts in carbon removal methods, such as direct air capture and large-scale forest creation, call the announcement a milestone in corporate climate initiatives.

The big picture: A UN-led scientific report in 2018 concluded that pathways for holding temperature rise to 1.5 °C require some level of carbon removal — not just steeply cutting and preventing emissions.

Driving the news: Late last week Stripe said it's soliciting information from parties looking to commercialize various techniques. There's at least 3 types of ongoing projects they might fund...

  • Improving natural carbon sinks with forestry, soil and farmland management techniques.
  • Direct air capture.
  • Carbon uptake in mineral formations.

By the numbers: "We expect that the best price will initially be very high: almost certainly more than $100 per tCO2, as compared to the $8 per tCO2 we pay for offsets," Stripe's Christian Anderson said in his post announcing the plan.

  • The company plans to spend at least $1 million per year to fund the carbon-sucking efforts, per Anderson, an engineering exec with Stripe.

What's next: Anderson said Stripe planned to select an "initial solution to purchase" in the third quarter.

  • He also urged other companies to follow suit and participate in joint-purchasing with Stripe.
  • "If a broad coalition of buyers commits substantial investment, we’re optimistic that the price curve will start to move," he writes.
Bonus: What they're saying about Stripe's plan

"It's breathtaking and audacious, and very much worth doing," says Julio Friedmann, a former DOE official now with a Columbia University energy think tank.

  • "While Stripe is the first company to make this pledge, I certainly hope and expect they won't be the last," he tells Axios.
  • "I hope and expect this to be the first domino in a series — that's really what the CO2 removal market needs," adds Friedmann, who also is CEO of the firm Carbon Wrangler.

Stripe "is the first tech company I've seen talk publicly about going beyond net zero emissions to achieve net 'negative' emissions in order to be a climate leader," says Noah Deich, executive director of the group Carbon180, via Twitter.

One level deeper: I asked Deich about whether a $1 million annual commitment really matters. His reply...

  • "[I]t's roughly the commitment I would expect a software company of Stripe's size and emissions profile to pay for voluntary offsets today."
  • He calls it a "great start" that will "make a difference" in the nascent space, while noting it's still a drop in the bucket in terms of what's needed to drive down technology costs.

The bottom line: "If every tech company over $1 billion in valuation joined Stripe at this $1 million/year level, it would make an enormous difference in the pace of negative emissions technology innovation and development," Deich says.

3. Tesla's new solar move

Over the weekend Tesla launched a new program to enable customers to rent solar panel systems.

Why it matters: This is Tesla's latest effort to bolster its struggling solar business lines.

Driving the news: Rental of systems ranging from 3.8–11.4 kilowatts are available in 6 states — Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New Mexico. 

  • It's part of a wider relaunch of Tesla's solar business that CEO Elon Musk announced via Twitter on Sunday.

The big picture: Per TechCrunch, "Once among the largest installers of renewables in the country through SolarCity, Tesla has seen its share of the market decline significantly since its acquisition of SolarCity three years ago."

  • Their piece notes that Tesla's Q2 deployment of 29 megawatts of new installations lags far behind competitors SunRun (103 MW) and Vivint Solar (56 MW)

How it works: Tesla, on the program's web page, touted the ability to get solar systems "without upfront costs or decades-long agreements."

  • Buyers are charged a $50 monthly fee in most states (and $65 in California).
  • There's a $1,500 removal fee.

Go deeper: Tesla's relaunched solar power efforts include $50 panel rentals (Engadget)

4. Petro notes: lobbying, markets, Shell controversy

Lobbying: A multi-company coalition called the Permian Strategic Partnership has tapped the CGCN Group for federal lobbying, a newly posted filing shows.

  • The big picture: Late last year Chevron, Shell, the Exxon unit XTO Energy and others jointly pledged $100 million over several years toward education, infrastructure, housing needs and workforce training in the region.
  • The filing says that CGCN will assist the group in "educating policymakers about the economic development challenges in the Permian Basin and how the federal government can help address them."

Markets: Via Reuters, "Crude oil prices rose on Monday following a weekend attack on a Saudi oil facility by Yemeni separatists and as traders looked for signs that Sino-U.S. trade tensions could ease."

Shell: Union workers at Royal Dutch Shell's Pennsylvania petrochemical plant were given the option of attending President Trump's address there last week or miss out on wages, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette first reported Saturday. Read more.

5. Vineyard Wind expands lobbying team amid delays

Vineyard Wind, the company trying to build an 800 megawatt wind farm off the Massachusetts coast, has recently tapped 2 new firms for outside lobbying.

Why it matters: The effort to develop the country's first large-scale offshore wind project has hit rough waters thanks to delays in a crucial Interior Department review.

Driving the news: Vineyard Wind has recently brought on BGR Government Affairs and the Capitol City Group, filings here and here show.

Vineyard Wind is co-owned by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Iberdrola's Avangrid Renewables.

Go deeper: Feds’ delay puts crucial tax credit in jeopardy for Vineyard Wind (Boston Globe)

Ben GemanAmy Harder