Sep 14, 2020

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning. My latest column analyzes how Joe Biden and the Democratic Party writ large have evolved on climate change. I'll share that and then Ben Geman will take over the rest. 

On tonight’s “Axios on HBO” at 11pm ET/PT: 

  • In an exclusive interview, Melinda Gates calls out the “lack of leadership” and politicization of the coronavirus (clip).
  • She also speaks for the first time about the Gates Foundation Goalkeepers 2020 Report, which details global progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,246 words, < 5 minutes.

1 big thing: Why Biden went big on global warming

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Joe Biden is pushing by far the most aggressive plan to address climate change in U.S. presidential history. His path reflects the convergence of science, energy and activism trends.

Why it matters: The culmination shows the new permanence the problem has gained on the campaign trail despite President Trump’s dismissal of it. Although this election is more about other issues, its outcome will significantly shape future efforts on this front.

How it works: Over the last decade, and especially in just the last few years, the scientific and economic landscapes have changed significantly to push Democratic politicians — and other parts of our society, like investors — to support more aggressive positions on climate change.

The biggest changes:

  • The plummeting costs of wind and solar energy.
  • Growing concern about the environmental footprint of natural gas.
  • Increasing scientific urgency about climate change, especially an October 2018 United Nations report calling on world leaders to limit global warming to 1.5°C relative to preindustrial levels.

Where it stands: The Biden campaign, along with an increasing number of companies, states and countries, is now calling for a net-zero carbon goal by 2050, far more aggressive than the Obama administration’s goal.

What they're saying: “It’s not often that scientific reports have profound effects on people’s thinking,” said John Podesta, a Democratic insider on an advisory board of a climate advocacy group created earlier this year.

  • “But I think the 1.5 report of the [United Nations] told policymakers that they had a completely different goal they had to manage toward.”

Between the lines: Biden has embraced aggressive goals pushed by the progressive side of his party, including a $2 trillion spending plan, but when it comes to specific technologies he has actually staked out a more centrist position.

  • The campaign is supporting existing nuclear power and carbon capture technologies. The latter could likely prolong society’s use of oil and natural gas.
  • This support persisted despite opposition from grassroots activists. Campaign spokesperson Matt Hill said the support for these comes because “the scale of the climate crisis requires us to leave all of the options on the table.”
  • Varshini Prakash, Sunrise Movement co-founder and a member of a task force giving recommendations to the campaign, said in a recent interview: “The Biden team was fairly adamant that nuclear and [carbon capture] should be part of the platform. ... We were clear about where we stood.”

Go deeper: Such aggressive climate plans come with risk though, and click here to read that part in my full column.

2. Biden vs. Trump on climate and fires

The devastating western wildfires will raise the profile of climate change on the campaign trail this week.

Driving the news: Biden is slated to give a speech on the topics this afternoon in Wilmington, Delaware.

  • He will "discuss the threat that extreme weather events pose to Americans everywhere, how they are both caused by and underscore the urgent need to tackle the climate crisis, and why we need to create good-paying, union jobs to build more resilient infrastructure," the campaign said.

The other side: President Trump — who largely dismisses the threat of climate change and its contribution to extreme weather — will be in California today for a briefing about the fires.

  • He's also slated to meet with Gov. Gavin Newsom, per multiple reports.

Go deeper: Fires raise fight over climate change before Trump’s visit (AP)

* * *

Another thing on our climate radar, via Bloomberg: "The European Union’s executive will unveil an ambitious emissions-cut plan this week that’ll leave no sector of the economy untouched, forcing wholesale lifestyle changes and stricter standards for industries."

3. BP: Peak oil demand is basically here already
Reproduced from: BP Energy Outlook ; Chart: Axios Visuals

Global oil consumption is slated to plateau early this decade even without vastly stronger measures to combat climate change, BP said in a new analysis.

Why it matters: BP now sees this moment arriving a decade sooner than last year's version of their long-term outlook for oil-and-gas, coal, renewables, cars and more.

  • The new projection signals how the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping analysts' views of the energy future.
  • Most big analyses have put the demand peak much further off, but a DNV GL report last week predicts it already happened.
  • The timing of peak oil demand, and the slope of its decline, will affect carbon emissions, corporate strategies and the finances of oil-producing nations.

Driving the news: BP projects demand for liquid fuels (a rough oil proxy) entering a long plateau in the early 2020s in their "business as usual" (BAU) scenario.

  • It assumes "government policies, technologies and social preferences continue to evolve in a manner and speed seen over the recent past."
  • Oil demand plateaus at roughly 100 million barrels per day — where it was before the pandemic drove it downward — for almost 20 years, and then declines slightly through 2050.

The intrigue: Check out the chart above. In other BP scenarios that model a world that achieves very steep emissions cuts, oil demand never reaches pre-pandemic levels again and declines steeply by 2050, the end of its outlook period.

Read more

4. Breaking: Google's new climate vow

Google said Monday that it's aiming to run all its worldwide data centers and corporate campuses on 100% carbon-free power by 2030.

Why it matters: It's the latest of Big Tech's mounting climate pledges and puts a specific timeframe on Google's existing plan for its power-thirsty data centers.

  • Google says it already buys enough renewable power annually to match its total power use.
  • But as we've written about before, that doesn't mean they're never relying on fossil generation for the systems, which they now say will happen by 2030.
  • The move also comes amid activist pressure on tech giants.

What they're saying: CEO Sundar Pichai, in a blog post, said it will involve approaches like pairing wind and solar together, increasing use of battery storage, and using AI to "optimize" power demand and forecasting.

Where it stands: Pichai, as part of several new climate announcements, also said that as of today, "we have eliminated Google’s entire carbon legacy (covering all our operational emissions before we became carbon neutral in 2007) through the purchase of high-quality carbon offsets."

Go deeper: Google pledges to be carbon free as fires engulf California (FT)

5. What we're watching: Big week for oil markets

The OPEC+ group will meet online Thursday, while tomorrow morning the International Energy Agency will release its monthly oil market analysis.

Why it matters: The oil price recovery has stalled over the summer and lost ground this month. This morning, Brent was trading around $39.56 and WTI at $37.02.

Yes, but: RBC Capital Markets analyst Helima Croft tells Bloomberg that she does not see the group reimposing deeper production cuts.

  • The current joint cuts are 7.7 million barrels per day, compared to 9.7 mbd in May–July.
  • Still, in the same piece, Citigroup's Ed Morse says: “We expect a strong statement that if markets continue to weaken, the producer group will be prepared to trim output further.”

Where it stands: Under its current plan, OPEC+ is slated to increase supplies even further starting next year.

"Any hope of oil demand returning close to pre-pandemic levels before the end of the year may have been very premature and OPEC+ and others may have to be very careful when turning on the taps again."
— Craig Erlam, Oanda analyst, said in a note this morning
6. Sign of the times

Screenshot of the front page of Sunday's Los Angeles Times

"California is being pushed to extremes," the L.A. Times reported in Sunday's lead story. "And the record heat, fires and pollution all have one thing in common: They were made worse by climate change."

Why it matters: "Their convergence is perhaps the strongest signal yet that the calamity climate scientists have warned of for years isn’t far off in the future; it is here today and can no longer be ignored."

Go deeper

Ben GemanAmy Harder