Axios Generate

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February 25, 2022

👋 It's Friday but not a happy one. Today's Smart Brevity count is 1,249 words, 5 minutes. 

🚨 Situational awareness: Follow Axios' live updates on the war in Ukraine.

1 big thing: Climate is pushed out of the spotlight

Illustration of earth out of the spotlight.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Climate change is no longer at the top of the agenda for world leaders and many executives, having been shoved aside due to the Russian war in Ukraine as well as COVID-19 and inflation.

Why it matters: The recent developments come at a hinge point for climate action, with the most ambitious Paris Agreement temperature target perilously close to slipping out of reach.

Threat level: The global community emerged from the Glasgow Climate Summit in November with some momentum, but it is fading with hope for an ambitious climate package in this Congress all but lost.

  • The Glasgow Climate Pact commits countries to move toward low emission sources of energy, and commit to more ambitious emissions cuts starting this year.
  • Inflation has increasingly taken up political oxygen in Washington and other global capitals, along with the fast-spreading Omicron variant that's only now ebbing.
  • Against this backdrop, the Ukraine war is occupying world leaders' time, and the ongoing, large-scale Russian military invasion could knock climate much further down the priority list.
  • "Climate continues to face a very serious case of the urgent crowding out the important," Aron Kramer, president and CEO of Business for Social Responsibility, told Axios.

Context: John Kerry, President Biden's climate envoy, warned last week that the crisis in Europe risks the world losing focus on the urgent tasks of driving emissions down and mobilizing financial resources from the private sector.

Zoom in: Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of the Climate Policy Lab at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, said she is concerned the conflict in Europe will slow climate action.

  • "The problem is that now is exactly the time that countries need to be converting their pledges in Glasgow into concrete actions and policies so that they can set their economies on a path toward net zero," she told Axios via email.

Between the lines: On the other hand, the Russian invasion of Ukraine could spur Europe to speed up efforts to become energy independent via renewables.

  • "The Russian invasion of Ukraine can only spur Europe’s decarbonization as it focuses afresh on efficiency, renewable energy and storage to speed its shift away from Russian gas," Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School and the former climate chief at the World Bank, told Axios via email.

What's next: On Monday, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release a major new assessment of climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

  • Its message may be drowned out, though, by the sounds of artillery shells exploding in the heart of Europe.

2. Biden's challenge: Hit Putin but limit energy pain

 Illustration of US President Joe Biden and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Photo Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Alex Wong/Getty Images, Alexei Druzhinin/TASS

New U.S. sanctions don't take aim at Russia's massive petro-exports, reflecting delicate White House efforts to squeeze Vladimir Putin without spurring even greater global energy price spikes, Ben writes.

Why it matters: Oil and natural gas exports are critical to Russia's finances. But the invasion of Ukraine comes as markets are already tight, and the assault sent oil prices above $100 per barrel and sharply increased natural gas prices in Europe, too.

The big picture: "Biden is definitely in a tricky spot when it comes to crafting sanctions that will hurt Russia but not the American people," oil analyst Ellen Wald told Axios.

  • Wald, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, said via email that directly hitting Russian energy "would cause dislocation throughout the global oil and gas marketplace."
  • "The West has so far refrained from curtailing Russia's ability to market energy supplies ... highlighting elevated concern about a price shock amid an extremely tight inventory situation and limited spare capacity," Barclays analyst Amarpreet Singh said in a note.
  • U.S. gasoline prices are at their highest levels since 2014 and slated to climb further. They currently average $3.57-per-gallon, per AAA.

Zoom in: The sanctions address Russia's oil-and-gas sector to a limited degree via steps like restrictions on U.S. investors providing debt and equity to key Russian companies like Gazprom.

  • But U.S. officials emphasized that they're not looking to crimp energy exports from Russia — Europe's largest gas and oil supplier — for now.
  • "Our sanctions are not designed to cause any disruption to the current flow of energy from Russia to the world," deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh said at a White House press briefing Thursday.

Read the whole story

3. New on Ukraine: Nuke risks, lobbying, markets

Photo of Ukranians fleeing the Russian invasion
A family crosses a bridge between Romania and Ukraine on Friday. Photo: Andreea Campeanu/Getty Images

☢️ The Russian invasion "is unfolding in a nation with 15 atomic reactors operating near full capacity, exposing Europe’s second-biggest nuclear fleet to potential safety risks," Bloomberg reports.

  • Via the New York Times: "Russia’s Defense Ministry said ... Friday that its paratroopers had taken control of the territory around the former Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine and were working with Ukrainian guards to ensure the safety of its facilities."

💵 Lobbyists for the embattled Nord Stream 2 pipeline connecting Russian energy to Germany are cutting their ties to the project after the Biden administration reimposed sanctions on the company behind it, Axios' Lachlan Markay reports. Go deeper

🛢️Brent crude oil is back under $100-per-barrel after falling yesterday on news that U.S. sanctions against Ukraine won't target Russian energy exports for now.

4. Exclusive: Tomorrow.io gets key NOAA buy-in

Illustration of binoculars with a lightning storm reflected in the lenses
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Tomorrow.io, a weather and climate intelligence company, has signed a cooperative agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Andrew reports.

Why it matters: The agreement will allow the government's oceans and atmosphere agency to evaluate the accuracy of the company’s planned fleet of space-based radar satellites.

The big picture: Tomorrow.io, which announced plans in December to go public via a SPAC, is one of the most rapidly expanding weather and climate startups.

  • It counts companies such as Delta, Uber and Ford as customers.
  • Tomorrow.io plans to launch its first satellites late this year, and have a full constellation in orbit by 2024, the company said in a statement.

Zoom in: The agreement will permit scientists from four of NOAA’s five main divisions, including the National Weather Service and its research arm, to evaluate whether using the company’s satellite data improves the accuracy of its forecast models.

The intrigue: Tomorrow.io has set out to become a miniature version of NOAA, operating its own satellites, creating its own computer models and distributing and tailoring its own data.

5. Unpacking the postal fleet controversy

Image of the U.S. Postal Service's next delivery vehicle
The Postal Service's next-generation delivery vehicle. Photo courtesy of OshKosh Defense

President Biden's plan to electrify the federal vehicle fleet by 2035 is off to an inauspicious start, with a deal this week by the U.S. Postal Service to buy nearly 150,000 gasoline-powered mail trucks, Axios' Joann Muller reports.

Why it matters: The $11.3 billion contract commits the Postal Service to at least another decade without electrifying their fleet, undercutting the nation's climate goals, say Biden administration officials and environmental groups, which tried to block it.

Zoom in: The contract with OshKosh Defense is for up to 165,000 vehicles over the next decade, 90% of which would be conventional gasoline-powered trucks.

  • The initial order includes 5,000 EVs, starting in 2023, with the opportunity to increase the number of EVs later "should additional funding become available," a USPS spokeswoman says.
  • Oshkosh says the trucks were designed so that it can produce any mix of electric or gas vehicles USPS wants, including an all-electric fleet.

Yes, but: Opponents say the USPS used a flawed environmental analysis that downplayed the benefits and overestimated the costs of going electric.

Between the lines: The agency estimated, for example, that buying EVs would cost at least $30,000 more per vehicle than the gasoline alternative.

  • The EPA says USPS used "wildly inaccurate gas prices that made owning a gas-powered truck seem comparatively cheap," per the Washington Post.

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Thanks for reading. We'll be back with you on Monday, and hope you have a good weekend.