Axios Generate

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September 23, 2020

Good morning. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,073 words, 4 minutes.

🎵 And on this date in 1977, Steely Dan released the masterpiece "Aja." This episode of the "Heat Rocks" podcast is a nice dissection, and a song from the album opens today's edition...

1 big thing: China new climate stance

Chinese flag redesigned with the sun and solar panels
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The biggest climate news of the week (or year?) arrived Tuesday when Chinese President Xi Jinping said China would aim for "carbon neutrality" by 2060 and a CO2 emissions peak before 2030.

Why it matters: China is by far the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter. No one else is even close! So their success or failure at reining in planet-warming gases affects everyone's future.

The big picture: Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate Research said the 2060 goalif it happens — keeps alive the prospect of holding global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

  • That's the most ambitious and moonshot goal of the Paris climate deal and it's fast slipping out of reach.
  • And here's Wood Mackenzie analyst Alex Whitworth in a note this morning: "The world’s largest carbon emitter finally shifted from its long-term position of having limited responsibility to reduce global emissions as a developing country, to assuming clearer leadership in tackling climate change."

Catch up fast: Xi made the pledge in video remarks Tuesday before the UN General Assembly.

  • He also said China will slightly toughen its nearer-term pledge under the Paris deal by aiming for the emissions peak before 2030. Their current pledge said they'll do this "around" 2030.

Reality check: The new commitment is very brief and super vague and there's no guarantee they will make good — one reason I was skeptical when I heard the news.

  • China watchers are now looking to see how the country will define "carbon neutrality" and what concrete steps it's planning to transform the targets into action.
  • "China’s upcoming 14th five-year plan has the potential to be the most important document in global energy market history," Gavin Thompson, another Woodmac analyst, said in their note.
  • And, here's just one of many challenges: China's fleet of coal-fired power plants is very young and they're still building new ones.

The intrigue: Xi's speech came after President Trump's remarks hit China for "rampant" pollution, touted his decision to abandon Paris, and noted the U.S. has reduced CO2 emissions. Greenpeace's Li Shuo says...

"Xi Jinping’s climate pledge at the UNGA, minutes after Trump’s speech, is clearly a bold and well calculated move. It demonstrates Xi’s consistent interest in leveraging the climate agenda for geopolitical purposes."

Bonus chart: China's carbon dominance

Reproduced from IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals

This International Energy Agency data shows the story of why China's emissions trajectory is so important for the world's future.

2. Tesla's plan: Bigger and cheaper

The Wall Street Journal captures the upshot from Tesla's "battery day" event Tuesday night...

"Elon Musk laid out a plan for Tesla Inc. to build a cheap electric car using drastically lower-cost batteries to make a $25,000 vehicle and potentially turn the company into the world’s largest auto maker."

Why it matters: Bringing down the cost of electric cars is key to pushing them into the mainstream. They remain just a tiny slice of the global vehicle market, though adoption is growing.

Yes, but: Musk said the $25,000 model was about three years away, and The Verge points out that the plan sounded kind of familiar...

"This isn’t the first time Musk has predicted that Tesla would dramatically reduce the costs of its electric cars. He first promised a $25,000 EV back in 2018, which he said was possible within three years."

Where it stands: Tesla's stock is down in pre-market trading.

  • “Nothing Musk discussed about batteries is a done deal,” said Roth Capital Partners analyst Craig Irwin, quoted in Reuters.
  • “There was nothing tangible.”

3. Climate change absent from first debate topics

Its Not Going To Happen Rachel Mcadams GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
Source: Giphy

Climate change won't be front-and-center in the pivotal opening debate between President Trump and Joe Biden on Sept. 29.

Driving the news: Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News has selected six topics, per the Commission for Presidential Debates.

  • They are: Trump and Biden's records, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, economic policy, racism and election integrity.

Why it matters: The topic's near-absence from debates in past cycles has dismayed climate advocates.

  • They see a missed opportunity for moderators to highlight its importance, and hoped this year would be different.

The intrigue: A lack of questions does not necessarily mean the topic won't surface.

  • Biden has emphasized climate-friendly energy and infrastructure spending as part of his economic platform, so that could provide an opening.
  • Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly cast Biden's energy platform as a threat to workers in oil-and-gas producing states — including Pennsylvania.

What we're watching: Whether it's a main topic in the subsequent two debates on Oct. 15 and Oct. 22.

4. Following up: Why Nikola isn't collapsing

A new note from RBC Capital Markets explains why electric and hydrogen truck startup Nikola may be poised to succeed despite now-departed founder Trevor Milton's allegedly false claims about its progress and tech.

  • Instead, "What made NKLA unique was [the opportunity] to sell 'routes' via fuel cell truck leases, and helping industry solve 'chicken and egg' problem associated with hydrogen infrastructure build-out."
  • "If they're able to succeed, this could potentially create a first mover advantage and a feedback loop allowing them to sell more trucks."

Yes, but: RBC analysts say Nikola must "rebuild credibility" and the stock will remain in the "penalty box" while that happens.

  • Also, they note risks facing Nikola, some of which are the same ones facing any alternative transportation startup, such as price volatility for raw materials, slow market uptake of non-fossil fuel tech, and more.

Where it stands: Nikola's big industrial partners are sticking with the embattled company, providing another sign it's positioned to survive the tumult for now.

  • German industrial conglomerate Bosch, which is providing components for a planned hydrogen semitruck, is still on board, per Reuters.
  • And Nikola's top finance exec said at an investor event yesterday that Bosch and CNH Industrial — the European company slated to manufacture the Nikola Tre — remain partners.
  • As we reported, GM still plans to build Nikola's Badger pickup and supply tech for its heavy trucks, and fleet owners that placed semi orders haven't bailed.

5. Catch up fast: oil, DOE, climate

Energy transition: "A societal shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy could force the largest oil companies to sell $111 billion worth of oil and gas assets in the coming years, according to a new report." (Houston Chronicle)

Science: "On a tour through Western Pennsylvania Monday, the Trump administration’s top energy official questioned the mainstream scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change." (State Impact Pennsylvania)

CO2 capture: "Governments can help fill the [carbon capture investment] gap, but they’ll need to issue much stronger policies that offer value for investors to put big dollars into carbon capture and removal, including a price on carbon dioxide emissions, according to a new report from Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy and the Global CCS Institute." (Washington Examiner)

More CO2 capture: "Exxon Mobil is expanding its venture with carbon Global Thermostat to develop carbon capture technology to reduce fossil fuel emissions. (Houston Chronicle)