May 28, 2019

Axios Generate

By Ben Geman
Ben GemanAmy Harder

Good morning! This is cool: Season 2 of "AXIOS" on HBO premieres at 6pm ET/PT on Sunday, June 2, on HBO platforms. Check out the trailer here

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,099 words/< 5 min. read.

Plus, there were plenty of rock birthdays over the weekend, including Klaus Meine of The Scorpions, who opens today's edition with this touching classic...

1 big thing: Nuclear's fade threatens climate
Expand chart

Data: International Energy Agency; Chart: Axios Visuals

Nuclear power could fall by as much as two-thirds in developed nations by 2040 absent policy support and more investment, making it vastly harder to keep global warming in check, a new International Energy Agency report warns.

Why it matters: Nuclear is cumulatively the biggest zero-carbon power source in the nations IEA examined (as the chart above shows), which include the European Union, U.S. and Japan.

  • A "significant" amount of this lost nuclear generation would be replaced by gas (and some coal) despite the surge in renewables, IEA said.

The big picture: The report is the latest to show how nuclear power is likely needed to help with the uphill climb of holding global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.

Threat level: If nuclear drops by two-thirds, "cumulative CO2 emissions would rise by 4 billion tonnes by 2040, adding to the already considerable difficulties of reaching emissions targets."

  • The report arrives as long-running plants are shutting down and the pipeline of expensive new projects is small.

The intrigue: Building new plants is really expensive. But losing nuclear is even more costly, IEA argues.

  • "Without widespread lifetime extensions or new projects, electricity supply costs would be close to USD 80 billion higher per year on average for advanced economies as a whole," it states.

What's next: The report calls on regulators to extend operation of decades-old plants at risk of shutting down due to licenses ending or competitive pressures. It also has proposals to help spur new development.

  • Recommendations include various changes in market rules to better make continued operation of aging plants more attractive.
  • New projects can be made more likely and less risky with a combination of policies like price guarantees, carbon pricing, government-backed financing and more support for small modular reactors.
2. Europe's green election tally

A huge story coming out of the weekend's European Parliament voting results was the strong performance of Green parties in northern and western Europe.

The big picture: Via AP, "Green parties’ surprisingly strong showing in elections for the 751-seat European Parliament raised hopes — particularly among young voters — that global warming and other environmental issues will get more serious consideration on the continent."

  • Greens — whose agenda, to be sure, extends well beyond the environment — gained 17 seats to reach 69.
  • Liberal parties, which also favor strong actions on climate, gained ground as well.

Why it matters: Europe's coalition politics mean that the results give the climate-focused Greens a stronger hand, even though they remain just a small slice of Parliament.

  • It's also a sign that climate change is getting more political emphasis in some parts of the world.
  • High-profile climate protests inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg have led some to conclude there was a pro-climate "Greta effect" at the polls.

But, but, but: Translating voter sentiment into policy is a tricky thing, as French President Emmanuel Macron has seen with the "yellow vest" protests that led him to back off higher motor fuel prices.

What's next: "Leaders of the pan-European Green alliance projected said their support will not come cheap," Reuters points out, adding that the Greens in Parliament will "seek written commitments on climate action."

  • As AP notes, Greens have endorsed calls for the EU to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Go deeper:

3. NYT: Trump weighs major climate science shift

The Trump administration may sharply curtail the scope of federal reports about the future effects of climate change, the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: The U.S. government produces closely watched analyses that add to scientific and popular understanding.

  • They include a late 2018 report warning of "hundreds of billions of dollars" in annual losses to some economic sectors without scaled up emissions-cutting and adaptation.

Where it stands: The NYT report looks at 2 major changes.

  • One of them would jettison what the NYT calls "worst case scenario" projections of unchecked emissions and the steep temperature rises that would result.
  • The paper also reports that one agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, will only use climate models that project effects through 2040, rather than 2100.

The big question: How will these changes affect the next version of the National Climate Assessment (NCA), a sweeping report that many agencies and outside scientists create that is issued roughly every 4 years.

  • Going forward, projections of unchecked emissions and their impact "will not automatically be included in the National Climate Assessment or in some other scientific reports produced by the government," they report.

Our thought bubble, via Axios' Andrew Freedman:

"It's one thing to ignore the science, but quite another to try to dictate what goes into them. It risks making the administration look heavy-handed and Orwellian."
"At the end of the day, this approach would not succeed in stifling the main message, as there are more than a dozen agencies involved in the NCA process, plus outside researchers who can publish independently."
4. The electric stakes of the Fiat-Renault merger

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

ICYMI, Fiat Chrysler and Renault announced merger plans Monday that would create the world's 3rd-largest automaker if the $35 billion deal goes through.

Why it matters: The plan can't be untethered from the industry's expensive move toward greater electrification, although that's just one of many things driving the plan.

The big picture: Automakers face intense pressure to invest in new technologies like autonomy and electrification, but even the largest automakers aren’t sure when — if ever — they'll see a payoff, Axios' Joann Muller reports.

  • The deal would bring Fiat Chrysler's Ram trucks and Jeep SUVs together with Renault's electric vehicle leadership, she notes.
  • Fiat has not been as aggressive on the EV front (Bloomberg columnist Chris Bryant calls them a "laggard").
  • Fiat Chrysler, in the announcement, said the list of an estimated $5.6 billion in annual savings the deal would create includes the benefits of consolidating their EV investments.

Go deeper: Between the lines on Fiat Chrysler's proposed merger with Renault

5. Number of the day: 11

Great Britain is nearing 11 days without using coal in its electricity mix, by far the longest stretch since 1882, according to power system operator National Grid and other tracking services.

Why it matters: The new stretch, which beats the previous record of about a week without coal from early May, signals the region's relatively fast movement away from the fuel.

What's next: "[B]arring any operational issues, the forecast is looking good for a couple more days of #zerocoal," National Grid said on Twitter this morning as the streak hit 10 days and 18 hours.

But, but, but: Coal is hardly exiting the world stage as demand grows in parts of Asia. The IEA sees overall global demand rising slightly over the next 5 years.

Go deeper: Last September I wrote about a Center for Strategic and International Studies analysis on the potential for rapid energy transitions.

Ben GemanAmy Harder