Oct 7, 2020

Axios Generate

Ben Geman

Good morning. Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,299 words, 5 minutes.

🚨 Situational awareness: "The European Parliament has voted in favour of a legally binding target for the European Union to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2030, against 1990 levels, according to vote results released on Wednesday." (Reuters)

🎸 And rest in peace, way too young, to guitar icon Eddie Van Halen, who plays us into the edition...

1 big thing: The uncertain geopolitical winners of energy transition

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The corporate and geopolitical winners in a world that gets serious about cutting carbon emissions aren't easy to predict.

Driving the news: A new Moody's Investors Service report looks at how "energy transition" creates risks and opportunities for state-owned oil-and-gas companies like Saudi Aramco, Russia's Gazprom and China's CNPC.

The big picture: State-owned players' "exposure to carbon transition risk will vary," they find, and overall they're not well prepared and "lag behind" investor-owned oil majors.

  • Some will change strategies for business reasons or to align with government climate efforts."[T]he ability of others to make the transition to less carbon-intensive models is constrained by fiscal obligations to or the social objectives of their sponsoring governments."
  • If energy transition and lower demand mean lower prices, that's a problem for countries, including Persian Gulf states, reliant on petro-exports. But some of these same players enjoy low production costs and state-protected market positions.

Why it matters: It's part of the wider puzzle covered in a new Foreign Policy essay headlined, "Everything you think about the geopolitics of climate change is wrong."

Jason Bordoff, head of a Columbia University energy think tank, makes a few points (but the whole thing is worth your time)...

1. He cautions against assuming China's huge investments in producing clean energy tech like batteries and solar panels (and harvesting the critical minerals to make them) means they'll be become a Saudi-like force.

  • A huge footprint in those markets simply doesn't convey the same influence that petrostates once had and to a degree still do.
  • For instance, restricting battery shipments might temporarily raise car prices and delay new EVs.
  • But that's not the same thing as cutting off oil-and-gas supplies, which can quickly "stymie mobility, trigger price spikes, or lead to people freezing in their homes."

2. He warns against pre-writing the obit for big Middle Eastern producers.

Yes, they'll eventually face declining crude demand in a CO2-constrained world that they have not prepared for by adequately diversifying their economies.

  • But during oil's decades-long exit as a dominant fuel, it's the lowest-cost producers — that also have comparatively low per-barrel emissions — that are best positioned.
  • Even as demand shrinks, "OPEC’s share of global production could rise as a result of its members’ lower costs and emissions, strengthening the cartel’s grip on a market that will remain sizable for some time."
  • Also, he notes, supply may decline even faster than demand, which would raise prices and boost oil-state coffers.

3. Another dynamic: "[S]ome of today’s petrostates may be tomorrow’s electrostates."

  • The essay notes the ability of states like Saudi Arabia and Chile to send clean power and hydrogen across borders.
  • Russia's big role as a nuclear tech supplier will also become more important as countries look to electrify transportation and buildings in order to cut CO2 emissions.
2. COVID-19 will mean higher winter energy bills

Data: EIA; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Here's one more way the pandemic is hitting people's finances: New federal projections show higher winter heating bills, and COVID-19 is partly to blame.

Driving the news: Households that heat with gas, electricity and propane are expected to pay more on average this winter, while heating oil users may see lower bills, per an Energy Information Administration outlook.

The big picture: "More people are working and attending school from home this year, which EIA expects will increase demand for space heating at any given temperature relative to past winters," the agency said.

  • NOAA also is forecasting that this winter will be colder than 2019–2020, which would increase home heating needs, the report states.
3. The energy industry's long road to Paris

"No fossil fuel energy major has yet set an emissions target in line with limiting climate change to 2°C," per a report out this morning.

Why it matters: The analysis from the investor-led Transition Pathway Initiative, which works with the London School of Economics and others, comes as a number of big fossil fuel producers are vowing more aggressive steps.

How it works: The group assessed almost 60 oil, gas and coal companies on their "carbon performance."

  • They find that five oil-and-gas and two coal companies "are on track to align with the emissions pledges made by countries as part of the Paris Agreement."
  • "However, these ‘Paris Pledges’ still leave the world on track for 3.2°C of warming," it adds, citing UN estimates.

Yes, but: Despite the gloomy picture, they find that three European headquartered oil-and-gas giants — Shell, Total and Eni — are "approaching a 2°C pathway."

Go deeper: Fossil fuel firms not doing enough on emissions, funds say (Bloomberg)

4. Unpacking JPMorgan's new climate plan

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

JPMorgan Chase said late Tuesday that it will "align its financing activities" with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Why it matters: JPMorgan is the country's largest bank and, as the Wall Street Journal notes, holds "considerable sway in boardrooms around the globe."

  • It's also the banking sector's largest financier of fossil fuels, per an analysis from several environmental groups of lending and underwriting.

How it works: They're looking to support companies cutting emissions and expanding investment in clean sources and tech. Their plan includes...

  • Creating a 2030 "emissions target" for their financing portfolio, and setting sector-specific targets for oil-and-gas, power and auto portfolios.
  • Launching a "Center for Carbon Transition" to help provide clients with "sustainability-focused" financing and advisory services.

My thought bubble: The plan also says plenty about the political and corporate landscape for climate change, banking in particular, a sector under sustained and increasing activist pressure.

  • It's a sign of how some stretches of Wall Street and K Street have parted ways with President Trump, who opposes Paris and rejects consensus climate science.
  • Like many other big corporate pledges, it's pretty vague. They intend to "begin communicating" about those sector-specific emissions plans next year.
  • On that point, it also doesn't list any new types of investments that will be no-go zones beyond February's announcement that they won't directly finance new Arctic drilling and certain coal projects and companies.
  • The emphasis on the need for net-zero emissions by 2050 shows how finance-sector initiatives are adding more aggressive pledges and targets, not simply agreeing to steer clear of financing specific high-emissions projects.
5. What they're saying about JPMorgan's pledge

I spoke last night to Jason Disterhoft of the Rainforest Action Network, one of the groups that are very active in pressuring banks on climate change.

What they're saying: He's not impressed with the plan for a few reasons...

  • “It offers a lot of reassurance to existing clients” including ExxonMobil, he says, noting the lack of "hard restrictions" on the bank's fossil fuel financing.
  • “One of the takeaway messages from this announcement by JPMorgan Chase is how committed they are to their existing roster of clients including, by implication, their high-carbon clients,” he says.
  • He calls it a "promissory note" for 2030 that's lacking in concrete steps. Disterhoft is also troubled by the announcement's discussion of clients' carbon "intensity" (which Generate readers know means emissions per unit of output, not an absolute trajectory).

The big picture: Disterhoft said that despite the new commitments, JPMorgan has not gone as far as several other banking giants — such as Crédit Agricole, Barclays and UniCredit — when it comes to the breadth of its commitments or financing restrictions.

What's next: Green groups, even ones less critical of the plan, say they will be looking for more specifics.

  • "JPMorgan should establish sector specific expectations — including ambitious near term targets that are Paris-aligned — and make access to capital contingent on corporate climate performance," Ben Ratner of the Environmental Defense Fund said in a statement.
6. Catch up fast: hydrogen, California, deals

Transportation: "Hyundai Motor Company delivered its first XCIENT fuel cell heavy-duty trucks on Tuesday to customers in Europe, and announced aggressive plans to bring hydrogen-powered trucks to the U.S. and China, too." (Axios)

Electricity: "A report by California energy officials on Tuesday placed blame for rolling blackouts that left millions without power in August on the impact of climate change and outdated policies and practices that failed to adequately take into account hotter weather." (NYT)

Joint ventures: "Macquarie Capital and Siemens have formed a joint venture to finance and build distributed energy projects, joining an increasingly competitive landscape in the growing corporate renewables market, the two announced this week." (Greentech Media)

Ben Geman