Axios Generate

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October 21, 2019

Good morning from Cambridge! I'm here to speak at Harvard later this morning. (In town? It's open to the public!) 

I'll share a glimpse of my latest Harder Line column, which looks at how swing voters are describing climate change, and then Ben Geman will get you up to speed on other news.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,218 words, < 5 minutes.

1 big thing: How swing voters describe climate change

Illustration of a patch of grass on a parched piece of land with a swing above.

Illustration: Aïda Amer, Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A small sample of swing voters in three of America’s top battleground states shows climate change is a concern, but not an urgent crisis.

The big picture: The results of focus groups in Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin suggest that some of these voters have views on climate change that are in between Democratic presidential candidates, who think it’s a crisis, and President Trump, who dismisses it altogether.

How it works: Groups of between nine and 11 swing voters in those three states answered questions about a range of topics, including climate change.

  • These focus groups, conducted by the nonpartisan research firms Engagious and Focus Pointe Global, are a small handful of voters and don’t offer a statistically significant sample like a poll.
  • But the responses provide a richer snapshot of how some voters in key counties are thinking about climate change in the 2020 election.

What they’re saying: The participants were asked the following fill-in-the-blank exercise: Climate change is a ____.

  • Of the more than two dozen responses, most (14) chose words that somehow described climate change as a problem, with “concern” being the most common.
  • Just four people chose words that made it clear they roundly dismissed climate change as a problem at all (like Trump).
  • Nobody described climate change as an emergency.

Why it matters: The degree of urgency is a key factor in whether climate change becomes a big enough priority to help determine their vote. Although this topic is getting more attention this election than it has perhaps ever before, these lukewarm reactions suggest it’s not breaking through.

  • Most of the focus group participants didn’t rank it in the top five of their priorities.
  • Polling shows more Americans are worried about climate change and want action on the matter, but most of the increased concern is coming from Democrats.

What to watch: When asked if climate change is an emergency, one voter said her daughter would describe it that way.

  • I'm watching to what degree younger voters — who polling suggests are more worried about climate than older generations — retain that urgency as they get older. This could determine whether climate change will be a more decisive issue in future elections.

Read more

2. IEA boosts renewables forecast as costs fall

Reproduced from IEA’s Renewables 2019 report; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from IEA’s Renewables 2019 report; Chart: Axios Visuals

The International Energy Agency's new five-year renewable energy forecast sees faster growth than last year's outlook, but warns that movement toward zero-carbon sources is too slow to confront global warming.

What they found: The agency forecasts that total global renewable power capacity, which was 2,502 gigawatts last year, will increase 50% by 2024, with solar accounting for over half the expansion.

  • "Overall, the forecast has been revised upwards by over 14% from [last year's report], owing to a more positive outlook for solar [photovoltaic] PV and on- and offshore wind."
  • The upward revision stems from "sustained cost reductions" and a generally better policy and regulatory environment.
  • IEA sees renewables — led by expanding solar and wind deployment — rising to meet 30% of global power demand in five years.

Why it matters: Expanded use of renewables in power and heating are important tools for fighting climate change and renewables are a major growth industry.

  • But global carbon emissions are still rising as use of fossil sources and renewables alike rise to meet growing demand.
  • Simply put, while the renewables' share of power demand is growing (see chart above), the whole pie is growing too.
  • “[D]eployment still needs to accelerate if we are to achieve long-term climate, air quality and energy access goals,” IEA head Fatih Birol said in a statement alongside the new forecast.

Quick take: Even IEA's higher forecast could prove too modest, given that the agency has often underestimated renewables growth in the past.

3. The rise of distributed solar

Reproduced from IEA’s Renewables 2019 report; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from IEA’s Renewables 2019 report; Chart: Axios Visuals

IEA's new report sees rapid growth of solar systems located at homes, businesses and industrial plants. They forecast this distributed capacity reaching 530 GW in five years.

The intrigue: Rooftop solar at homes isn't the main driver. "Contrary to conventional wisdom, distributed PV growth is dominated by commercial and industrial applications rather than residential," IEA notes.

The big picture: This rapid growth is still just a fraction of distributed solar's potential, IEA said.

  • Even reaching 600 GW would represent just 6% (!) of distributed PV's worldwide "technical potential" based on available rooftop area.
  • They see the prospect of "massive expansion" in coming decades, but warn that "major policy and tariff reforms are required to make distributed PV growth sustainable."

4. Big this week: Canada's election

Climate change is on the ballot in Canada today as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of the Liberal party battles Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, his top challenger.

Why it matters: There's a big split on energy and climate policy. Via the Washington Post...

"One of the main areas of disagreement is on the environment. Trudeau has promised to commit Canada to net-zero emissions by 2050 but has offered few details on how he’d get there."
"Scheer, by contrast, says his first order of business as prime minister would be to repeal the Liberal government’s carbon tax."

The big picture: "Polls and Google search rates indicate healthcare is the top election issue for many Canadians although the climate crisis is not far behind," CNN reports.

Go deeper: Canada’s climate change election — cheat sheet (Climate Home News)

* * *

Speaking of elections, Reuters reports, "Support for the Greens surged in Switzerland’s election on Sunday, moving politics to the left and putting environmentalists in the mix for a seat in the broad coalition that has governed the country for decades."

5. On our radar: Exxon trial and Tesla earnings

Climate: Via WSJ, "Exxon Mobil Corp. and New York’s attorney general are headed for a showdown this week over accusations the company deceived investors, a rare trial over how the oil industry accounts for the impact of climate change."

  • New York's case against Exxon alleges the company defrauded shareholders by downplaying the expected risk of climate change to its business. The company calls the claims baseless.
  • Go deeper: New York makes its move against Exxon (Axios Generate, Oct. 18, 2018)
  • Also, Climate Liability News reports that the Massachusetts attorney general is on the cusp of filing a climate-related lawsuit against the company as well.

Electric vehicles: Tesla will offer the latest glimpse into its financial health when the Silicon Valley electric automaker reports its Q3 earnings after markets close on Wednesday.

  • Where it stands: "For the first time in more than a decade, Tesla is looking at a year-over-year dip in quarterly revenue. Many on Wall Street also view the third-quarter results as a bellwether for Tesla's hopes of returning to profits, and are keeping a keen eye on end-of-year guidance," MarketWatch reports.
  • The company reported a net loss of $408 million in Q2. CEO Elon Musk said at the time that he expects to be "around breakeven" in Q3 and profitable in Q4.

6. GOP carbon tax backer won't run again

GOP Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida, who introduced carbon tax legislation in July, announced over the weekend that he's not seeking re-election in 2020.

Why it matters: Rooney is one of a very small number of Capitol Hill Republicans who promote or endorse putting a price on carbon emissions.

  • Rooney is also the co-chair of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus.
  • He took over the job after Carlos Curbelo, another Florida Republican who floated CO2 tax legislation last year, lost his re-election bid to the House in 2018.

Where it stands: Rooney's proposal would set a rising tax that begins at $30 per metric ton of CO2.

  • The largest amount of revenues would go toward reducing payroll taxes, while blocking new carbon emissions regulations under the Clean Air Act.

Go deeper: Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy compares carbon tax proposals floating around Congress here.