Mar 29, 2019

Axios Generate

Ben Geman

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I'm a few days late here, but let's mark the beginning of spring with my favorite song with that word in the title...

1 big thing: China's emissions future
Expand chart
Data: International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook 2018; Chart: Chris Canipe

A new paper in the journal Nature Communications has good news if you're in a "glass half full" kind of mood, concluding that China's carbon emissions are likely to peak well before 2030 if several things break right.

Why it matters: China has a lot to say about the planet's future. It's by far the world's largest CO2 emitter and over a fourth of the world's total.

  • The country has pledged under the Paris climate deal to peak by 2030, seek to make it happen sooner, and boost the share of non-fossil energy to 20% by then.

But, but, but: The analysis shows why none of this can be taken for granted.

  • Hitting these CO2 and energy targets will require "full and effective implementation of all current policies," as well as power-sector reforms, implementing and expanding its emissions-trading system (ETS), toughening efficiency rules, and addressing other gaps.

Quick take: The paper's conclusion is a sign that an important pledge made under the Paris deal is achievable.

  • But it also shows the challenge of overcoming the gap between nations' current plans, and what's needed to put rising global emissions on the necessary downward slope.

Check out the charts above, which Axios data journalist Chris Canipe constructed from International Energy Agency analyses.

  • The one on the left models what happens if China delivers on existing and announced policies.
  • The one on the right? That's the scenario for an emissions pathway consistent with nations jointly achieving the Paris agreement's big goal: Holding temperature rise to 2°C above preindustrial levels, and ideally to 1.5°C.

What they're saying: I asked Kelly Sims Gallagher, lead study author from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, whether the paper's finding is something of a Pyrrhic victory, given the need for much deeper global cuts.

  • "Every country has to start somewhere and for a rapidly industrializing economy, it is not easy to halt growth in emissions," Gallagher says.
  • "Our study finds that China will peak its emissions early, which will allow it to begin the reduction process sooner, which is very good news. It is also great to see that they are abiding by the international treaty, unlike the United States."

Details: The authors surveyed experts on China about existing policies and new ones needed to meet China's pledge. They note that the most frequent responses in the latter category include a carbon tax for sectors that aren't covered by the ETS and "entrepreneurship incentives for low-carbon firms."

The intrigue: "Few experts identified innovation policies, economic reform policies, or industrial policies as influential in emissions reductions, but the authors of this paper believe that these policies are, in fact, key to the ability of China to limit future emissions," they write.

Go deeper:

2. Here comes Trump's order on pipelines

President Trump is expected to sign an executive order imminently that's aimed at expediting pipeline development, sources familiar with the plans tell Axios' Amy Harder and Jonathan Swan.

Where it stands: White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the executive order could come as soon as next week, while speaking at a closed-door event Wednesday hosted by conservative think tank American Council for Capital Formation, according to two sources with direct knowledge.

Why it matters: Trump has long supported pipelines as part of his agenda backing oil and natural gas and what the administration has dubbed America’s “energy dominance” around the world. The reality is more mixed.

  • One of his first moves was to sign executive orders streamlining construction of the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
  • The latter is operating, but the former remains stuck in legal limbo.
  • The administration has a more mixed record with its role reviewing natural gas pipeline projects in the Northeast, which are facing intense opposition from local politicians and environmentalists.

For the record: The White House did not provide comment. It's unclear what the details of the policy will be.

Go deeper: Politico reported on the potential of such executive orders in late January.

  • The publication wrote then that the policies could “weaken states’ power to block energy projects and ease the construction of new pipelines to facilitate the movement of a glut of domestic oil and gas.”
3. Talking to OPEC and more petro-notes

President Trump prodded OPEC again over Twitter yesterday, but the Wall Street Journal reports that the administration is quietly trying more direct talks with the group.

Driving the news: "[B]ehind scenes the U.S. has opened a rare dialogue with the leadership of what many have long considered an illegal cartel," per WSJ.

  • Francis Fannon, the State Department's top energy aide, met with OPEC Secretary-General Mohammad Barkindo at a major energy conference in Houston earlier this month, they report.

The intrigue: Fannon wants Venezuelan Oil Minister Manuel Quevedo removed as OPEC president, while Barkindo criticized the so-called NOPEC bill that the Trump administration has sent mixed signals about, according to the article.

And here are a couple more oil-related items worth your time...

Saudi Arabia: Analyst Ellen Wald, writing in Forbes, argues that Saudi Aramco's $69.1 billion deal to obtain a 70% stake in Saudi petrochemicals giant SABIC "should be seen as an ominous sign by investors looking at Saudi opportunities."

  • "Owners of SABIC equities — whether they are banks, institutional investors or retail investors — had no say in the deal," she notes of Aramco's purchase from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.
  • More broadly, she argues that the Public Investment Fund's influence over the economy — even owning the Saudi stock exchange — means a playing field stacked against investors.

Venezuela: The Center for Strategic and International Studies has a detailed and sobering look at Venezuela's oil sector, which has largely collapsed in recent years and is far below its late-90s peak of 3.5 million barrels per day.

  • The big picture: One big takeaway is that even if there's a transfer of power, sanctions are lifted and the doors are opened to outside investment, the revival of oil production — now below 1 million barrels per day — won't be quick or easy.
4. Quote of the day
"Is the technology getting better or are we just getting more desperate for solutions?"

Who said it: Ethan Zindler, head of Americas for BloombergNEF, speaking at a National Governors Association event in D.C. yesterday.

Context: Zindler was offering a skeptical take on the prospects for technology capturing carbon dioxide emissions, Amy reports.

  • It has received increased attention in recent years because experts say it’s essential to reducing emissions to the level scientists say is needed.
  • Congress also last year expanded a federal tax credit for it, prompting more business interest.

Yes, but: It remains an expensive proposition and without policy justifying such investments, companies are often opting for other technology or fuel options to reduce emissions in the electricity space.

Go deeper: The world needs clean coal but can’t get it

5. Insurers under fossil fuel disclosure pressure

PG&E service center in San Rafael, Calif. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Axios Expert Voices contributor Justin Guay has some thoughts on the administrative petition from advocates who want California's insurance commissioner to require insurers disclose underwriting of fossil fuel investments.

Why it matters: Globally, natural disasters cost $337 billion in 2017. As the ultimate bearer of risk in the financial system, the insurance industry has a stake in mitigating climate change, which has played a role in driving up these costs.

Background: One of the key roles of the insurance commissioner is to ensure solvency for insurers, so they can pay out when disasters hit.

  • As the number of disasters linked to climate change has grown, so too has pressure to take action that would reduce both the severity of such events and their associated financial losses.
  • California has already seen one insurance company go bankrupt thanks to wildfires, and PG&E entered bankruptcy proceedings after its equipment was found likely to be at fault in a number of recent fires.

What to watch: 7 of the world's largest insurance companies have already announced restrictions on underwriting of coal, yet no U.S. companies have joined them.

  • If California were to act on this petition, it could set up a major fight: Insurers are loath to disclose such information, out of concern that it could reveal commercially sensitive information about how they assess underwriting risk.

Read more

Guay directs global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project and advises the ClimateWorks Foundation.

Ben Geman