Sep 23, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning from New York. My latest Harder Line column contrasts the Saudi oil attacks to the United Nations climate conference underway here today. 

  • I'll share a glimpse of that and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news. 
  • Today's Smart Brevity Count: 1,336 words, 5 minutes.
1 big thing: Worry shifting from oil prices to environment

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

NEW YORK — The United Nations climate-change summit kicks off here today, a week after oil prices jumped more than they ever have in history.

The big picture: These two developments offer a window into how Americans view energy and the environment today — with relatively low oil prices making room to worry more about the environment.

Driving the news:

  • The Sept. 14 attack on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure initially knocked out 5.7 million barrels per day of production — over half the country's output.
  • That led to a nearly 20% spike in oil prices on Sept. 15, the biggest jump in history. Gasoline prices, which are largely determined by global oil prices, have risen, too.
  • World leaders at the UN summit will commit more to drastically reduce heat-trapping emissions, which come largely from oil, natural gas and coal.

By the numbers: Oil prices have dropped and stabilized since the historic jump last week to hover around $60 a barrel. Pump prices, which rose a dime after the attacks to $2.66 a gallon, have also stabilized. These prices are still lower than they were earlier this decade.

Fuel prices would have to remain elevated for a while — many months or years — to alter the fundamental shift in Americans’ attitudes that's been building since 2014 of putting environmental problems above energy affordability.

  • Just 57% of Americans — a record low — say they are worried about energy affordability, according to Gallup data going back to 2001 (see chart below).
  • By contrast, nearly three-quarters say they are concerned about the environment. That's near the record of 77%.

One of the biggest drivers of this public opinion shift has been America’s boom in oil production, which has more than doubled since 2008.

  • That has helped lower oil prices and thus gasoline prices since about 2014, which has in turn lessened people’s concerns about fuel prices precisely because they’ve been low.
“Attaining some degree of energy security gives us the opportunity to think proactively about environmental issues.”
— Kevin Book, managing director, ClearView Energy Partners

Go deeper

Bonus: America’s shifting worries
Expand chart
Data: Gallup; Note: Concerned responses include "Great deal" and "Fair amount"; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

This chart shows Gallup's roughly 2-decade tracking of Americans' concerns about the environment and energy prices, and is based on a March 1-10 poll of a random sample of 1,039 adults.

  • The margin of error in sampling is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, per Gallup, with a few years using a half sample that has a MOE of ±5 percentage points.
  • View complete question responses and trends.
2. What's new at the big UN climate summit

Today's UN summit and the past 2 days are bringing fresh pledges by countries and corporations as the UN warns that the world faces warming levels that vastly exceeds the Paris agreement targets.

Why it matters: Secretary-General António Guterres warned Monday, “Science tells us that on our current path, we face at least 3-degrees Celsius of global heating by the end of the century."

  • The 2015 Paris deal calls for holding eventual warming below 2°C and includes a more ambitious target of 1.5°C.
  • “The climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win,” he said in a statement.

What's new: Here's a sampling of steps announced Monday and over the weekend...

  • The UN said "many" countries are using the summit to preview plans to update their Paris agreement pledges "with the aim to collectively reduce emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030."
  • Expansion of the 2-year-old "Powering Past Coal Alliance" of nations pledging to phase out coal and stop building new plants.
  • A bunch of huge multinationals — including L'Oréal, Nestle, Salesforce and Swiss Re — has signed onto a coalition of companies pledging to set targets "aligned" with 1.5°C and net-zero emissions by 2050. FT has more.
  • The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a coalition of oil giants, rolled out plans Monday to bolster deployment of carbon capture systems. Reuters has details.
  • "Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government on Friday agreed to support a $60 billion package of climate policies aimed at getting Germany back on track to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030," NYT reports.

But, but, but: It'll be impossible to gauge the summit's efficacy for a long time. That's because the big question is how much the pledges translate into real policy implementation, financial flows and changes in corporate behavior.

Go deeper: I usually don't link to press releases, but the UN tally released this morning is informative.

3. Blockchain's limits for energy transactions

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

More sophisticated energy systems will be needed for the diversified, smart electric grids of the future, but blockchain — one widely promoted solution — may require difficult tradeoffs, Axios Expert Voices contributors David Livingston and Ben Hertz-Shargel write.

Why it matters: Electricity is increasingly distributed and decarbonized as more renewables, energy storage and other smart technologies are deployed.

  • But if new energy markets can't make a symphony of these assets, the result could be a dysfunctional cacophony.

Where it stands: Blockchain, the distributed ledger technology, has been proposed as a promising platform for these energy markets.

  • It solves a challenging problem: enabling mistrusting parties to transact with one another securely without trusting — or paying — a central authority.

Yes, but: Blockchain relies on massive duplication of data storage and processing, which could prove prohibitive for energy market processes and transactions.

  • All that duplication slows down the network and makes inefficient use of its resources.

Between the lines: Beyond technical challenges, blockchain poses practical and legal risks, including...

  • The ledger's immutability leaves it vulnerable to faulty and malicious transactions.
  • Blockchain's decentralization is misaligned with the statutory authority of state regulators and the utilities they franchise.

The other side: Selective use could mitigate some concerns, such as quickly processing certain transactions "off-chain" and recording only the most important data on blockchains.

  • Blockchain's signature strength — disintermediation of a central authority — could also be valuable in applications like asset registration, payment systems, and managing carbon and clean energy credits.

Go deeper: Read the Atlantic Council's report on blockchain and the power grid.

Livingston is deputy director for climate and advanced energy at the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Center. Hertz-Shargel is VP of advanced grid services and analytics at EnergyHub.

4. Catch up fast: Aramco, California, warming

Saudi Arabia: The Wall Street Journal, citing Saudi officials and oil contractors, reports on the timeline for Aramco's recovery from this month's attacks.

  • "It may take many months — rather than the maximum 10 weeks company executives have promised — to restore operations to full working order."

Regulations: Via the Washington Post, "California and 22 other states filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday against the Trump administration, challenging its decision to revoke the most-populous state’s right to set pollution limits on cars and light trucks."

Climate: UN science agencies and outside researchers said in a report ahead of today's summit that average global temperatures for 2015–2019 are "on track to be the warmest of any equivalent period on record."

  • "It is currently estimated to be 1.1°C above pre-industrial (1850-1900) times and 0.2°C warmer than 2011-2015," the report states. Go deeper.
5. Sizing up the climate strikes

New York students walk out of school to participate in a march demanding action on the global climate crisis. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

ICYMI: On Friday, people worldwide — with estimates of up to 4 million worldwide, including many students — took part in "climate strike" demonstrations.

Why it matters: It's a sign of rising pressure on national governments to take more aggressive steps to steeply cut global carbon emissions, which are still rising.

  • "Preliminary estimates suggest that Friday's strike was the largest climate protest in history," USA Today reports.

By the numbers: Organizers estimate the worldwide turnout at 4 million, but the various reports showed a wide range of numbers.

  • Quartz's Akshat Rathi attempted a partial count based on local sources that showed over 1 million.
  • In Australia, organizers estimated over 300,000 people, ABC news reports.
  • In Berlin, AP reports over 100,000 people participated.
  • NYC officials estimated 60,000 there, while organizers say it was around 250,000, per NYT.

The big picture: The NYT sums it up...

"Whether this global action solves the problem that the protesters have identified — arresting greenhouse gas emissions to stave off a climate catastrophe — now depends on how effectively climate advocates can turn Friday’s momentum into sustained political pressure on governments and companies that produce those emissions."

Go deeper:

Ben GemanAmy Harder