Oct 12, 2021

Axios Generate

🌞 Welcome back! Today's Smart Brevity count is 1,197 words, 4.5 minutes.

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1 big thing: Locking in sea level rise for centuries

Still images from an interactive slider comparing Washington Nationals Stadium's future with steep emissions cuts (left) with our current carbon path (right). Courtesy: Climate Central

Nations’ follow through — or lack thereof — on pledges made at the coming UN climate summit will help determine the long-term fate of tens of millions of people living in coastal mega-cities threatened by rising seas, Andrew writes.

Why it matters: The delayed response of the climate system, with seas that warm slowly and ice sheets that can take centuries to reach equilibrium — long after air temperatures have leveled off, raises the stakes for COP26 and government decisions in coming years.

  • Cumulative carbon emissions have already committed the world to about 6.2 feet of sea level rise over the next few centuries, even if emissions suddenly ceased today, the study finds.
  • The study makes clear U.S. cities will need to find ways to cope with ever-increasing coastal inundation and may have to build new, never before tried infrastructure to save certain neighborhoods.

Driving the news: The new study was published Monday in Environmental Research Letters and visualized in startlingly detailed maps and simulations Tuesday by Climate Central, a climate research group.

  • It shows that of all countries, China may have the most to gain from limiting emissions.
  • China is the world's top current emitter of carbon dioxide, and a major consumer of coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel. Yet its growing coastal mega-cities are prime targets of sea level rise-induced flooding, the data shows.
  • Globally, the study indicates that if the world warms by about 3°C (4.5°F), as it is currently on course to do, sea levels would eventually imperil about 15% of the current global population or about one billion people.
  • If, on the other hand, the world were to meet the temperature targets in the Paris Agreement, that number could be cut in half, the study found.

Between the lines: The greatest vulnerability to sea level rise during this century and beyond is in Asia, where 8 out of the top 10 most at-risk large nations are located.

  • If the world were to warm by 4°C (7.2°F) relative to preindustrial levels through 2100, then 50 major cities, mainly in Asia, would "need to defend against globally unprecedented levels of exposure," the study warns.
  • China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia are all among the top 5 countries most vulnerable to sea level rise during the next two centuries to millennia.
  • In Asia, the study says, "Megacity futures hang in the balance."
  • Countries could face stark choices between pursuing engineering feats and abandoning cities entirely.

Threat level: The study's projections do not include the possibility of a runaway breakup of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which other research has shown is not only possible but may already be underway.

The bottom line: The seas will continue rising long after emissions are cut. How high they go depends on our near-term actions.

Go deeper

2. China's coal convulsion threatens climate goals

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

China's energy crisis is a wild card in the fraught efforts to secure a meaningful deal at the UN climate summit in Glasgow, Ben and Andrew write.

Driving the news: Power shortages and the push for more coal supplies are in tension with calls for Chinese officials to accelerate their climate efforts.

  • Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, per state media, said officials must "take into account...the contradiction between the supply and demand of electricity and coal" as they assess their emissions timeline.
  • President Xi Jinping has previously vowed an emissions peak before 2030, but advocates are hoping for more aggressive moves ahead of the summit that have yet to emerge.

Why it matters: China is by far the world's largest carbon emitter.

What they're saying: "The energy crisis will make China's climate politics complicated," Li Shuo, a China analyst with Greenpeace, tells Axios via email.

  • "The timing here is unfortunate — the optics of releasing a bunch of climate policies while struggling with power supply is one that policy makers have to consider carefully," he added.
  • The Bloomberg piece is more blunt, noting that China's power crisis and its threat to economic growth is "prompting policy makers to rethink the pace of the nation’s energy transition."

Between the lines: Some of China's coal shortage is due to extreme weather, in the form of heavy rains and flooding in the coal-producing Shanxi region. Flooding has knocked dozens of mines out of commission.

Bonus: Visualizing China's coal rise
Expand chart
Data: BP; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The chart above helps explain why limits on coal supplies are creating a crisis in China and why it matters for climate change talks.

The big picture: China accounts for roughly half of global coal demand to power its huge industrial base and provide electricity to its population.

Achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement depend on the pace of China's transition from most CO2-emitting fuel.

3. Catch up fast: EU, science, Congress, wildfires

Natural gas: "The European Union will look into an option for member states to jointly buy natural gas as the bloc considers ways to protect itself against surging energy prices." (Reuters)

Climate: "At least 85 percent of the global population has experienced weather events made worse by climate change, according to research published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change." (Washington Post)

Capitol Hill: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hinted Monday that she's seeking to protect climate provisions as Democrats whittle down the size of their big social spending and energy package.

"[T]he guidance I am receiving from Members is to do fewer things well so that we can still have a transformative impact on families in the workplace and responsibly address the climate crisis," she said in an open letter to colleagues.

California: "A wildfire north of Santa Barbara exploded in size on Monday, triggering evacuation orders and forcing the closure of a major Central California highway." (Axios)

4. Oil execs split on decarbonization plans

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A lot of discussion about oil companies' climate efforts compares U.S. and European majors, but a new report shows there's no strategic consensus in the wider industry, Ben writes.

Driving the news: Deloitte's analysis says separate approaches have emerged as companies prepare for long-term declines in demand in a world that will still likely use huge amounts of oil for decades.

The big picture: The report, based on a survey of 100 C-suite execs across multiple types of companies, lays out four buckets that each have their own opportunities and risks:

  • 30% are "hydrocarbon stalwarts" focused on oil market share and low costs in regions with the least regulatory risk.
  • 47% plan to be "low-carbon producers" that see a major market for oil-and-gas produced with lower carbon intensity.
  • 5% are "net-zero pioneers" focused on dumping oil assets and commercializing and scaling clean energy.
  • 18% are "green followers" focused on monetizing fossil assets and waiting until newer tech is fully commercial before entering those markets.

The bottom line: "By associating themselves with an archetype that closely matches their strategy, O&G companies can identify ways to drive value from the transition — and there's indeed value up to or near trillion dollars for each to be unlocked."

Read the survey

5. Quote of the day
"For me to just come out and say net-zero 2050 would be very sexy. But it’s not the right thing."
— Saad Al-Kaabi, Qatar’s energy minister, via Bloomberg

Why it matters: The comment is part of a wider debate over the usefulness of long-term net-zero emissions pledges.