Nov 20, 2018

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning and welcome back!

Situational awareness: Google says it will invest almost $700 million in a Danish data center powered by renewable sources such as hydropower and wind. This is part of their long-term, carbon-free goal.

This past weekend marked the 47th anniversary of The Faces album, "A nod is as good as a a blind horse." So that's a good enough reason to make one of those cuts today's intro tune...

1 big thing: Human health and fossil fuels
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Data: Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago; Map: Harry Stevens/Axios

Axios' Andrew Freedman reports ... Globally, air pollution that's often directly linked to fossil fuels reduces average life expectancy by 1.8 years, according to a new index developed by the University of Chicago.

What they did: The metric, known as the Air Quality Life Index, or AQLI, attempts to clearly indicate how emissions of tiny particles, called particulates, are having an affect on people's health worldwide.

Why it matters: The report comes at a time when millions in California are being forced to wear protective masks to shield themselves from particulate pollution originating from the state's deadly wildfires. It also comes at the height of smog season in India, a country that ranks high on the list of most-affected nations, according to the new index.

The big picture: Based on the AQLI, which was developed on peer-reviewed studies but has not itself been published in a scientific journal, particulate pollution is the single greatest threat to human health worldwide with regard to life expectancy. It shaves more years off people's lives on average than tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and smoking cigarettes, the authors say.

  • Particulate pollution chiefly comes from burning fossil fuels for energy.
  • The biggest health threat from power plants, factories and vehicles is what's known as fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 — particles that are so small they can easily be breathed in and lodged deep into the lungs.
  • Such particles can cause cardiovascular problems, aggravate pre-existing conditions like asthma, and increase mortality from cancer and heart disease.

By the numbers: According to the newly developed index, people in India would live 4.3 years longer if their country met clean air guidelines set by the World Health Organization. And, U.S. citizens who live in the most polluted counties would live up to a year longer if they were brought into alignment with those figures.

Read more of Andrew's story here.

My thought bubble: The detailed new analysis is part of an even wider conundrum.

  • Fuels that have for centuries powered development and wider prosperity also have deleterious effects on health and ecosystems and are dangerously warming the planet.

What they're saying: Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz gets to this dynamic a bit in comments circulated alongside the study. He notes that energy demand is slated to grow by 40% in the next 2 decades, an increase occurring almost entirely in developing nations.

  • "Our energy future, however, cannot look like the past. The AQLI clearly demonstrates that particulate pollution, driven largely by the burning of fossil fuels, is the world’s leading threat to life expectancy," he said.
  • "To extend lives and mitigate the risks of climate change, we must transform our energy systems at an unprecedented pace."
2. Climate politics are having a moment

A couple things are making climate change somewhat less of a backseat topic in national politics (at least for a moment)...

Driving the news, part 1: Politico reported late last night that billionaire activist Tom Steyer is taking several steps toward a potential 2020 presidential run.

  • This includes ads on social media, full-page ads on his platform in USA Today and other Gannett papers, a revamped website and the announcement of 5 town halls nationwide, Politico reports.

Why it matters: The former hedge fund manager is a prominent climate activist. He began launching high-profile campaigns on global warming and clean energy years ago, including opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.

  • His political spending and activities are far broader in recent years, including a high-profile push for impeachment proceedings against Trump.
  • But that said, if Steyer runs, look for climate to be part of the campaign.

Driving the news, part 2: Ascendant House Democrats are grappling with how to approach climate in the next Congress.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who is likely to become House speaker again, plans to revive some version of the select committee on global warming and clean energy that operated when Democrats last had power.

The intrigue: One reason the effort is getting lots of attention is because Congresswoman-elect and progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is making a high-profile push for the revived committee to write legislation that she calls a "Green New Deal." More on that here.

But, but, but: Pelosi is now in a tricky spot. The past version of the committee didn't have legislative authority. Providing it would take power from senior lawmakers who have been waiting years to take the gavels of existing committees of jurisdiction.

The latest: I asked an Ocasio-Cortez spokesperson whether giving the select committee legislative power is essential to the congresswoman-elect. Here's spokesman Corbin Trent's response...

"The committee's capacity to draft legislation is critical to its being effective in putting a real plan to solve climate change on the table."
3. Petro news and notes: Equinor, Brazil, markets

Equinor: The Norwegian energy giant said Tuesday that it plans to begin investing in tropical forest protection as a way to help combat global warming.

  • "The most important climate actions for Equinor will still be reduction of emissions from our oil and gas production and considerable growth in renewables. But to reduce human-induced climate change we must all do more," CEO Eldar Sætre said in a statement.
  • Go deeper: The company's letter to UN climate officials on the plan is here.

Petrobras: Bloomberg looks at what several analysts are saying about the naming of University of Chicago-trained economist Roberto Castello Branco as CEO of state oil giant Petrobras.

  • He's "likely to continue with the previous management’s market-friendly efforts," Mirae Asset analyst Pedro Galdi told Bloomberg.
  • Reuters, meanwhile, reports that in comments Monday, the new CEO said he's not tasked with privatizing the company, even though he has advocated for that in the past.
  • Instead, they report that he wants to wants to "push ahead with selling non-core assets and to focus on oil exploration and production."

Markets: Via the Wall Street Journal, "The link between crude prices and shares in oil-producing companies has weakened. With the commodity losing a quarter of its value in six weeks, that is a relief for investors."

4. One reason why solar is getting even cheaper

Solar and/or wind facilities are now the least expensive option for new power worldwide (except Japan), according to the consultancy Bloomberg NEF.

The big picture: That's the top-line finding of their latest twice-yearly look at the so-called levelized cost of electricity — a metric that compares costs of building, running, supplying and maintaining different types of facilities over time.

The intrigue: The cost of new solar photovoltaic projects has dropped 13% over the past half-year — a bankshot effect of Chinese policy decisions to slow the growth of their utility-scale PV market.

  • This has "created a global wave of cheap equipment" that's pushing down costs, Bloomberg NEF said.

When it comes to onshore wind, their study shows a cost decrease of 6% since that last version of the study.

  • In many regions, building new wind farms is now more economically attractive than new natural gas plants in the U.S. despite the glut of shale gas, Bloomberg NEF said.

The bottom line: The report is a snapshot of the growing edge that renewables have in key markets around the world. 

  • The latest version of the study suggests that new solar and onshore wind are as cheap or cheaper than new coal in China, which wasn't the case in the prior edition of the twice-yearly analysis, according to Bloomberg NEF.

Go deeper: Windpower Engineering & Development has more on the analysis here.

5. Insurance companies abandoning coal

Axios Expert Voices contributor Justin Guay writes ... Last week, Italian insurance titan Generali, the largest insurer in Italy and third largest in Europe, announced it will no longer insure the construction of new coal mines or plants, and it will not accept new clients who derive more than 30% of their energy production or revenues from coal.

Why it matters: The firm joins a growing list of insurers who will not back new initiatives around coal, though some, including Generali, will continue to serve existing clients. The move is seen as further evidence that the risks associated with investing in coal are driving a structural decline that is hastening a transition to clean energy.

Background: The coal industry's growth has been declining due to concerns over air pollution across Asia, especially in China, and plummeting costs of clean energy alternatives in places like India and the EU. In the U.S., coal plant retirements have hit an all-time high.

Where it stands: Currently, $20 billion has been divested from coal, according to NGOs tracking these commitments. A Goldman Sachs executive was recently quoted saying that Europe had likely built its last coal plant.

Yes, but: The global coal industry continues to receive $211 billion in new investments each year, and no American insurance companies have announced a coal restriction policy.

Go deeper: Read the whole piece in the Axios stream.

Guay is director of global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project and advises the ClimateWorks Foundation.

6. One fishy thing

The Norwegian cruise ship Hurtigruten will use biogas generated from leftover processed fish parts and other organic wastes to help power some of its ships, the Guardian reports.

It's part of a wider sustainability initiative from the company.

Details: "Hurtigruten operates a fleet of 17 ships, and by 2021 aims to have converted at least six of its vessels to use biogas, liquefied natural gas — a fossil fuel, but cleaner than many alternatives — and large battery packs, capable of storing energy produced from renewable sources," the paper reports.

Ben GemanAmy Harder