Aug 31, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning.

🚨 An “Axios on HBO” exclusive: A data firm funded by Michael Bloomberg warns President Trump seems likely to win — potentially in a landslide — on election night, but lose a week later, creating chaos in America. (See clip.) Watch tonight at 11pm ET/PT.

My Harder Line column is back with a timely look at climate feedback loops. I'll share a glimpse of that and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,214 words, 4.5 minutes.

1 big thing: The climate snowball effect

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Climate change is like a snowball effect, except, well, hot.

Why it matters: Like a snowball that begins small and grows larger by building upon itself, numerous feedback loops embedded in our atmosphere and society are exacerbating climate change.

Driving the news: Scientists are well acquainted with feedback loops, but the often wonky topic doesn’t break through into the mainstream despite its importance to how much the world warms and how much we respond to that warming.

  • As we soak up the last of these hot summer days, and extreme weather hits parts of the country, today seems a fitting time to break this down for those of us without a Ph.D.

Here are seven feedback loops in science and beyond, and click here for the full column that goes deeper on each loop.

1. Air conditioning: Climate change is making our summers hotter, so we use more air conditioners, which emit greenhouse gases, which heats up our planet more, so we use even more AC, which heats up our planet even more. ... You get the cycle.

2. Water evaporation: Ever-warmer air in the atmosphere leads to more water evaporation, which results in water vapor, which itself is a greenhouse gas and traps heat. That increased water vapor retains ever more heat, which leads to more water evaporation, which…

3. Permafrost: It’s like a massive freezer thawing atop the world, notes Philip Duffy, climate scientist and president of the nonprofit Woodwell Climate Research Center. Nearly a quarter of Northern Hemisphere land has permafrost underneath it.

  • As the warm worlds, organic matter — plants and dead animals frozen for tens of thousands of years — starts to decompose. “Those decomposition processes emit greenhouse gases,” Duffy says.

4. Albedo feedback: Lighter surfaces reflect heat more, so as ice and other cold places get warmer (i.e., the Arctic and other permafrost), their ability to reflect heat diminishes and they soak up more heat.

5. Wildfires: Trees, by definition, embody carbon. So when wildfires burn them down, carbon dioxide is emitted.

6. Policy and economic paralysis: The longer we wait to address climate change with major government action, the bigger the policy needed and the bigger economic impact that policy will have.

  • Yes, but: Plausible future scenarios also exist where the impacts of a warming world grow so intense and/or clean-energy technologies become so cheap that eventually these aforementioned feedback loops are broken.

7. Geopolitics: It takes global cooperation to address climate change, given its global nature. But climate change impacts different countries differently, so they're more likely to act on their own, and in their own self-interest.

2. Oil production and party control
Data: Rystad Energy; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

There's no doubt that President Trump and Joe Biden have hugely different energy policies, but the effect of a Biden win on U.S. oil production is less certain — at least in the near- and medium-term.

Driving the news: That brings us to a Rystad Energy note published during Generate's break last week. As the chart above shows, there's no meaningful relationship between party control and domestic output, which is historically far more influenced by other forces.

The big question: How much will Biden's agenda, if he wins, affect how much U.S. output bounces back from the pandemic-fueled decline from record level production before the outbreak?

  • He's vowing to end new oil-and-gas leasing on federal lands and waters, impose new emissions regulations, boost EV deployment and more.
  • But he has not called for a ban on fracking that would block development on private lands at the heart of the (now stalled) U.S. boom.

What they're saying: "A potential fracking ban on federal acreage would hardly have any impact on nationwide oil and gas output in the medium term, given the already existing depth of low-cost inventory and activity migration," Rystad notes.

Go deeper: The oil stakes of Trump vs. Biden

3. The EV money surge

"China’s NIO Inc. boosted the size of its capital raising by almost 20% as investors rush stock sales by electric vehicle makers," Bloomberg reports this morning.

Catch up fast: The news arrives just a few days after another Chinese EV maker, Xpeng, saw a big jump in share price during Thursday's trading debut on the New York Stock Exchange.

  • "Xpeng said Thursday that it sold more than 99.7 million shares for $15 each in its Wall Street debut, raising about $1.5 billion. It had originally planned to sell 85 million shares priced between $11 and $13," CNN Business reports.

Why it matters: These are just the latest signs of investor interest in EV companies and come as several other companies have announced plans to go public via mergers with special purpose acquisition companies in recent weeks.

The big picture: "Concerns over the ability of EV start-ups to control costs and scale up in the face of stiff competition have in recent months been overwhelmed by investors’ desire not to miss out on the next Tesla," FT writes.

4. A new lens onto global electricity access

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

New research suggests that the true number of people around the world who lack reliable and regular access to electricity is many times higher than previously estimated, Axios' Bryan Walsh reports.

Why it matters: Access to affordable, reliable and sustainable electricity is a requirement for modern life, and enshrined in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. But fair access needs to go beyond a few lightbulbs and enable full participation in an electrified world.

Background: According to the UN — which has the goal of achieving universal energy access by 2030 — the number of people without access to electricity declined from 1.2 billion in 2010 to 789 million in 2018.

  • That still leaves 1 in every 10 people around the world in the dark. But gaining access to electricity doesn't necessarily mean you can rely on it.

What's happening: In a paper published this month in The Electricity Journal, researchers tried to calculate global numbers around what they termed "reasonably reliable" access to electricity.

  • The researchers examined the frequency and duration of power outages around the world to determine what they categorize as a base level for electricity service.
  • Based on their calculations, more than 3.5 billion people — most of them concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia — lack reasonably reliable access to electricity.

Read more

5. By the numbers: Summer break edition

Here are a few numbers that help explain some noteworthy events while Generate was on hiatus last week...

2%: That's the share of GDP that Senate Democrats proposed spending annually on climate-related investments in their new climate plan.

  • Why it matters: The 263-page plan unveiled last week is the roadmap for various ideas they'll push if Democrats regain the Senate majority in November's elections.
  • Where it stands: The annual spending target of well over $400 billion is consistent with Biden's pledge to pour $2 trillion over four years into clean energy and climate-related infrastructure.
  • Go deeper: Reuters has more, and I tweeted about the report's careful treatment of carbon pricing.

92 years: That's how long Exxon was part of the Dow Jones Industrial Average until last week, when index leaders said Exxon would be dropped.

  • Why it matters: The decision to drop the oil giant reflects the oil sector's waning market clout. Axios' Dion Rabouin has more.

More than 1,800: That's how many Mercedes-Benz electric vehicles that Amazon is adding to its European delivery fleet this year, Amazon announced Friday.

  • Why it matters: It's the latest sign of Amazon's push into EVs, following plans unveiled last year to buy 100,000 vehicles from American startup Rivian and have 10,000 of them in operation by 2022.
  • Go deeper: Axios' Joann Muller has more about Amazon's plan here.
Ben GemanAmy Harder