Aug 26, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning, and welcome to the final week of August. Today's Smart Brevity count: 956 words / < 4 minute read. 

My latest Harder Line column is the second in a 2-parter looking at why climate change is so uniquely difficult to tackle. I'll share that, and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news.

1 big thing: Our stubborn energy system

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

To adequately address climate change on the level scientists say we must, the world would need to slash its use of oil, natural gas and coal within 30 years, a Herculean task given our deep dependence.

Driving the news: Democrats on the presidential campaign trail and international leaders preparing for a UN summit next month say urgent action is needed, but few actually have viable plans for how and when to cut our fossil fuel use.

The big picture: In 1987, 81% of our world’s energy consumption came from oil, natural gas and coal. Thirty years later, it's still 81% — despite the incredible increase in wind and solar energy, according to the International Energy Agency.

Fossil fuels’ staying power: Global fossil fuel companies have built powerful political operations to lobby governments to maintain subsidies and oppose big climate policy.

  • But a lot more is driving fossil fuels’ dominance than just corporate influence on government. Oil, natural gas and coal provide immense benefits to society — even though they also have large environmental costs.
  • The chemical makeup of the fuels make them especially good at a lot of things, including industrial processes like making plastics. Renewables or other resources cannot easily replace that.

More addition, less transition: In the world of energy and climate change, people talk about the “energy transition,” the concept that we are moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

  • But for now and the next few decades, it’s more of an energy addition.
  • Renewable electricity (the primary use for wind and solar) is often being added on top of instead of in lieu of fossil fuels, particularly in Asia’s rapidly growing economies.

Consumer demand vs. expectation: More people around the world say they’re worried about climate change — but that concern is not translating into a willingness to pay more for energy or vote for candidates who support aggressive action.

What’s next (maybe): If a Democrat wins the White House in 2020, America will likely be a political and technical test case for policies drastically and swiftly reducing our deep fossil fuel dependence.

Go deeper: This full column and last week's edition explore what makes this such a uniquely difficult problem.

Bonus: Visualizing fossil fuels' staying power
Expand chart
Data: IEA; Note: Coal, includes all coal, peat and oil shale. Oil includes primary and secondary oil products; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Check out the chart above, which might be the most important boring chart out there showing our deep and lasting dependence on fossil fuels.

Yes, but: It’s actually surprising fossil fuels didn’t increase their share over the last 30 years given the world’s energy consumption has grown rapidly in that same time period.

The bottom line: That’s a testament to the growth of non-fossil fuels, including wind and solar, even though they remain small parts of the overall global energy mix.

2. Energy fallout from the China trade fight

Crude oil: "Oil prices rose on Monday after the United States and China both suggested they could ease up in a trade war that has undermined the outlook for the global economy and for crude demand," per Reuters.

LNG: Bloomberg explores how the U.S-China trade battle is affecting plans for new LNG export projects.

  • "Tellurian Inc. and other developers will probably delay final investment decisions on multibillion-dollar U.S. LNG export projects to 2020 from this year as the tensions complicate negotiations with potential Chinese gas buyers, according to Bank of America," they report.

Electric cars: "Tesla Inc. will raise vehicle prices in China this week, two people familiar with the matter said, a reaction to the trade war that weighs on the country’s currency and threatens to once again lead to higher import tariffs," according to another Bloomberg report.

3. G7 to steer $20 million to help the Amazon

Breaking Monday: World leaders at the G7 summit agreed to a $20 million aid package to help Brazil and neighboring countries fight fires in the Amazon rainforest, according to an announcement from French President Emmanuel Macron and Chilean President Sebastián Piñera.

The intrigue: President Trump was apparently not among G7 leaders present for a Monday session on climate, per reports from journalists at the meeting.

  • But AP writes that "Macron said the U.S. supported the initiative, although he acknowledged that U.S. President Donald Trump had skipped Monday’s working session on the environment."

Why it matters: The Amazon is ecologically vital due its carbon absorption and biodiversity, but fires and deforestation for agriculture are destroying and imperiling the massive forest.

Where it stands: Via Axios' Rebecca Falconer, some 1,200 new fires have been identified burning in the Amazon Rainforest region this week, Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) announced Saturday.

By the numbers: There have been 40,341 fires in the Amazon this year, per the New York Times, with more than 1,330 square miles burned in the first 7 months of 2019.

  • The largest swaths of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and Peru are burning at the highest rates since records began in 2013 — a rise of 84% compared to the same period last year, according to INPE.
4. The DNC debate drama

ICYMI, on Saturday the Democratic National Committee "quashed a push from climate activists and some national party members who want a 2020 presidential primary debate devoted exclusively to the climate crisis," AP reports.

Why it matters: The delegates' 222–137 vote ends a months-long quest by activists — one backed by multiple candidates but opposed by DNC leadership — for a debate devoted to the topic.

Quick take: If Joe Biden or another moderate Dem is the nominee, we'll be watching if the DNC kerfuffle further dampens enthusiasm on the left by alienating climate activists.

Where it stands: There's already a tense relationship between the DNC and the party's left. In 2016, Bernie Sanders' backers were upset by what they considered the party infrastructure putting its thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton.

What they're saying: “This is downright irresponsible. Climate change is an emergency, but [DNC Chairman] Tom Perez isn’t acting like it," said Sunrise Movement spokesperson Sofie Karasek in a statement.

The other side: "Supporters of the DNC decision to not allow single-issue debates voiced strong concern that special interest groups for issues the Party supports like veterans, race, and poverty would feel slighted if their issues were excluded from sanctioned debates," per CNN.

Ben GemanAmy Harder