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10 energy and climate issues to watch in 2021

From presidential aspirations to oil to corporate positioning, here’s what I’m watching this year.

The big picture: After the year that wasn’t, well, everything we thought it would be, 2021 will be a messy mix of the pandemic (still) and reviving all that it sidelined on all things, including energy and climate change.

1) Presidential ambitions/limitations

With a divided Congress likely, President-elect Joe Biden is set to look across the entire government for ways to inject climate-change considerations.

Driving the news: He'll focus on reversing all the environmental regulatory rollbacks by President Trump, but beyond that Biden is expected to incorporate climate policies into other agencies. Two I’m watching closely are independent but nonetheless traditionally pursue policies the sitting president supports:

  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates electricity infrastructure and pipelines, could factor climate change more than ever into its decision-making.
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission had begun to consider emission disclosure rules under Barack Obama, and a similar initiative is likely to be revived under Biden.

2) Congressional balance

I’ll be watching to see how two dynamics interplay on Capitol Hill:

3) States and cities keep moving ahead

In the absence of comprehensive climate policy at the federal level, states and cities have moved ahead over the past decade. I expect that to continue even with Biden in the White House.

Why it matters: State and city action is likely to help Biden meet America’s goals under the Paris Climate Agreement.

4) Corporate and grassroots positioning

Biden’s presidency will drastically change how corporations and activist groups engage on climate change.

  • Corporations, which have been able to say positive things on the topic and pursue their own goals without concern for federal policy, will now be tested on what kind of regulations they could support.
  • Activists, who have had a clear opponent in Trump, now will face a balancing act of simultaneously pressuring and praising Biden.

5) Oil’s comeback (or not)

Projections suggest the pandemic has permanently lowered the amount of oil the world will demand in the future. If that change pans out, it will be a significant turning point for an industry that has reigned supreme for more than a century.

Where it stands:

  • In the short term, the oil industry’s condition depends on how fast vaccines are distributed and how safe that makes people feel about flying again.
  • In the long term, what matters most is whether other countries' economic stimulus plans systemically phase out our use of oil and natural gas (and coal) over time. As of now, that’s not the case on a worldwide scale.

6) Natural gas, yea and/or nay

An important subplot is to what degree natural gas is considered a solution, however temporary, to climate change, both domestically and abroad.

  • Biden has gone to great lengths to say he doesn’t oppose fracking, the controversial oil and gas extraction method, but he also is largely silent on how (or whether) he sees natural gas fitting into his domestic or international agenda.

7) New tech rising

Expect Congress and Biden’s Energy Department to pour money and attention into new technologies, including hydrogen, carbon capture, advanced nuclear power, and energy storage.

Why it matters: These are the types of tech experts say are essential to addressing climate change but that have not received enough money or attention from governments.

8) Diplomatic dances

The big item on 2021’s calendar for this crowd is the United Nations’ 26th annual climate change conference, to be held in November in Glasgow, Scotland (delayed a year).

The intrigue: The Biden administration faces a tricky diplomatic task of reassuring world leaders America is not going to retreat again on the problem while also urging other countries to put even more aggressive goals on the table ahead of the Glasglow conference.

9) China and India

These nations, the first and third biggest carbon-emitting countries in the world (America is second), will be central to any of Biden’s diplomatic dances.

  • The frosty America-China relations developed under Trump are likely to continue under Biden.
  • India could be a nation where Biden seeks to collaborate more on climate change, given that country’s renewable-energy ambitions and its growing role in heating up the planet.

10) Extreme weather again/still

This is a storyline that, unfortunately, isn’t expected to change much year over year, except to become more frequent.

The bottom line: Extreme weather could be a central factor that forces political will to act on climate change, or at least act to better respond to the impacts of global warming that are already coming.

Flashback: My Axios outlooks from 2018, 2019 and 2020.

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