Axios Generate

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February 28, 2022

Welcome back. There's a head-spinning amount of news, but today's Smart Brevity count is still just 1,413 words, 5.5 minutes. 

🛢️ Breaking: Chevron is buying the Renewable Energy Group, a major biofuels producer, in a $3.15 billion deal. Go deeper

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

1 big thing: Humanity nearing climate adaptation limits

Illustration of the evolution of humans ending in smoke.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

A major new United Nations-sponsored assessment of climate change finds that global warming is reshaping the world more rapidly and severely than was known several years ago, Andrew writes.

The big picture: The report, which is the latest from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), zeroes in on the need to accelerate adaptation planning and implementation, while at the same time drastically cutting emissions.

Why it matters: The IPCC finds that climate change is affecting every person's physical and mental health, and classifies nearly half of the global population as being "highly vulnerable" to climate impacts.

  • The report part of the biggest update to climate science findings since 2014 concludes it is no longer possible for some ecosystems, such as warm water coral reefs, to fully adapt to some global warming impacts.
  • Adaptation is also becoming challenging for many human societies as well.
  • Globally, up to 3 billion people could see chronic water scarcity from droughts at 2°C of warming, the IPCC warns.

Driving the news: There are stark findings, including that warming is already contributing to humanitarian crises, and will increasingly imperil food security.

  • U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres described the report in a statement as an "Atlas of human suffering."

Yes, but: The report is not all doom and gloom. It repeatedly emphasizes that if society takes steps to limit warming to 1.5°C, it would prevent many, though not all, of the worst impacts.

  • However, even then, some changes may be irreversible — such as Arctic permafrost melt and glacier loss.

Threat level: The researchers clearly state that greater climate impacts will occur at lower levels of warming than previously thought, based in part on trends seen to date with the 1.1°C of warming since the preindustrial era.

  • Scientists are already seeing highly consequential extreme weather events and marine heat waves, along with entire species dying off on land and sea.
  • "1.1 degrees is way more dangerous than we thought it was," Erin Coughlan de Perez, a senior adviser to the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center, told Axios.

What they're saying: According to Sarah Cooley, director of climate science at the Ocean Conservancy and a contributor to the IPCC report, the typical reaction of the global community to IPCC reports, which come out every six or seven years, is to "hit the snooze button."

  • "I think this report is when the parent screams up the stairs, 'It's time to get out of bed or you're going to miss the bus,'" she told Axios. "We are really able to zero in now on the choices that are being foreclosed if we delay further."

2. Key takeaways from the new IPCC report

Adapted from WG II report to the Sixth IPCC Assessment Report; Table: Sara Wise/Axios
Adapted from WG II report to the Sixth IPCC Assessment Report; Table: Sara Wise/Axios

Three insights jump out from the new IPCC report.

1. Limit any "overshoot:" The authors detail emerging science on the negative consequences of temporarily exceeding the Paris Agreement's ambitious 1.5-degree temperature target before temperatures slide back down.

  • The IPCC finds that so-called overshoot scenarios carry considerable risk. For example, some high carbon ecosystems, like peatlands and permafrost, could release additional CO2 and methane during overshoot, adding to warming, the report finds.
  • Also, some sensitive ecosystems and species could be lost.
  • "You pass 1.5 and you come back, you've lost things that you will never get back," said Erin Coughlan de Perez of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center.

2) Mental health: This is the first IPCC assessment to incorporate the mental health consequences of global warming.

It finds the toll is as widespread as it is for physical health, stemming mainly from trauma related to extreme weather and climate events, such as wildfires, and loss of livelihoods and culture.

3) Food production: The IPCC sounds an alarm over humanity's ability to feed a growing population, stating: "Although overall agricultural productivity has increased, climate change has slowed this growth" during the past 50 years. Some high latitude regions are now growing more food, but this may reverse in coming years.

3. Putin's war may herald a new energy era

Illustration of the continent of Europe with the shadow of Vladimir Putin looming over it.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

There are fresh signals that the invasion of Ukraine could seismically reshape the West’s energy relationship with Russia, Ben writes.

Driving the news: Germany, a huge buyer of Russian gas, yesterday announced new steps to buffer itself from Vladimir Putin.

They include building new liquefied natural gas import terminals, expanded gas storage, and perhaps, reversing plans to close nuclear plants.

Also Sunday, U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss floated the idea of G7 limits on Russian oil and gas imports.

The big picture: It's part of wider European efforts to boost reserves and clean power that are taking on new urgency in light of Russia's war.

  • The European Commission, per several reports, is slated to soon propose larger gas storage requirements.
  • Reuters reports that a draft plan also aims to speed renewables deployment as a way to fight climate change and boost energy security.

Reality check: Major new Western sanctions have thus far avoided taking direct aim at Russia's oil and gas exports.

Driving the news, part 2: BP, citing Russia's attack, pledged yesterday to divest its 19.75% stake in Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft.

And last night, Norway-based oil-and-gas giant Equinor said it's exiting its joint ventures in Russia and halting new investments there.

What we're watching: Anna Mikulska, an expert in Russian energy markets and geopolitics, said the BP move likely heralds a wider trend.

  • "[The] Russian state is now viewed as a malign actor and, hence, dealing with Russian state-owned companies will be viewed in a negative light, could become scrutinized and will definitely bring public discontent," she said via email.
  • Mikulska, a fellow with Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, said she's watching, for example, to see whether Exxon and Shell also back away from their work in Russia.

The intrigue: The Russian invasion is causing ripples in U.S. lobbying and energy debates.

Oil-and-gas industry groups are jointly urging President Biden to bolster policy support for U.S. LNG exports and back off leasing restrictions, among other moves.

4. The highest possible stakes at SCOTUS

Illustration of the Earth in a set of scales.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Supreme Court will hear arguments today in a case that could greatly limit executive power to force greenhouse gas cuts absent explicit blessing from Congress, Ben writes.

Why it matters: The case, West Virginia v. EPA, is by far the most important climate litigation since the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2007 that gave EPA the power to regulate GHG emissions.

The big picture: The amount of executive running room under the 2007 Mass. v EPA ruling has faced repeated challenges from conservative states and the coal industry.

Those battles are coming to a head before a court with a 6-3 conservative majority, and the outcome could spill into areas far beyond emissions regulation.

The intrigue: It comes as President Biden's sweeping legislation to massively boost clean energy investments has stalled in Congress.

That puts a heavier burden on the federal agencies to cut planet-warming emissions with existing powers, which now could face major new limits.

Catch up fast: The case stems from lower court battles over Obama-era rules to stem carbon emissions from power plants and a more modest Trump-era replacement.

Neither regulation is in effect, but the court nonetheless agreed to hear several related cases.

  • The disputes explore whether EPA has the power to write regulations that spur wide-ranging electricity system changes (a term you'll hear a lot is "outside the fence-line" of individual coal plants).
  • But more broadly, it could also lead the conservative majority to limit executive authority in areas where Congress has not provided explicit powers — not just climate change.

Go deeper: SCOTUSblog has a nice primer.

5. Record cash for Atlantic offshore wind leases

Illustration of wind turbines and dollar signs.
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

A federal auction of nearly 500,000 acres of wind development leases off New York and New Jersey drew $4.37 billion (!) in winning bids, Ben writes.

Why it matters: Big energy companies are keen to enter or widen stakes in the nascent U.S. offshore sector.

White House support, state clean power policies, tech maturity and industry climate pledges are providing tailwinds.

Driving the news: The largest winning bid at $1.1 billion came from Bight Winds Holdings, a joint venture between German energy giant RWE and U.K.-based National Grid.

The five other winners in the auction that closed Friday included a joint venture between Shell and French power heavyweight EDF; and France's TotalEnergies.

The big picture: The White House goal is 30 gigawatts of installed offshore capacity by 2030, which seems quite viable.

  • There's scarcely any now, but the Interior Department has approved projects off Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
  • Others are in various development and permitting stages. Giants like Ørsted, Equinor, BP, Iberdrola Group and Shell are behind approved or planned projects.