There is a transformation afoot. Perhaps it is due to the momentum building around the upcoming Paris climate negotiations, or to the extreme weather felt in many parts of the world. Or perhaps it is a function of new actors stepping into the climate change debate, such as insurers and ratings agencies, who are beginning to make tangible links between risks, returns, and climate change. No matter the reason, the financial community is beginning to think about climate change for both the investment opportunities it presents and the risks to portfolios that may result, both from increasing climate-related events and from the possibility of policies that could result in stranded assets. These two simultaneous realizations have the potential to transform the financial system to a system that is more green, clean, and sustainable.
The momentum building within the financial community is palpable to those of us working on climate change. You can see it in the daily press releases from major financial actors. In July, Bank of America announced it was increasing its commitment to finance low-carbon businesses to $125 billion through its lending, investing, and capital raising and advisory services. Just last week, Goldman Sachs announced a target of $150 billion for clean energy. Goldman’s Head of Environmental Markets said in the press release, “Environmental issues have become increasingly relevant to our clients and our investors, and have become core to our business.” That is a powerful statement from one of the biggest financial institutions globally. In October alone, more than $6 billion in green bonds were issued from a diverse range of institutions, including Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation ($500 million), KfW (Euro 1.5 billion), and Agriculture Bank of China ($995 million).
The numbers are impressive. Even more impressive is the range of institutions making these commitments. If you work on climate finance, you know that most of the financial commitments to address climate change have come from development finance institutions. You probably have had a sense over the last few years that the rest of the financial community largely overlooked the business and investment opportunities inherent in addressing climate change. This seemed true across the many different types of financial actors in the “financial ecosystem,” including commercial banks, co-operative banks, hedge funds, traders, institutional investors, and pension funds.
Indeed, much of the discussion over the last few years has centered on the need to move from “billions” to “trillions” and, in doing so, how to “unlock” this private capital in the markets and orient much of it toward climate-smart investment. Notwithstanding some very good news lately from parts of the financial community that are putting their money to work on clean, climate-smart investment, the overall volumes of capital tagged as “climate smart” are still relatively small. Climate Policy Initiative estimated that approximately $330 billion flowed toward climate investment globally in 2013. Compared to the estimated $1 trillion needed in annual clean energy investments alone to limit warming to 2 degrees, these billions are just the start.
On the positive side, the pipeline of investable projects continues to grow. Opportunities to make climate-smart investments have increased over the last several years, particularly as renewables have become cost competitive with other energy investments. In the development finance world, the pipeline, particularly for clean, climate-smart infrastructure, may also increase in coming years, in part because of the INDCs announced by countries ahead of the Paris climate talks. Indeed, in 2014, Ernst and Young estimated the renewable investment potential in China through 2017 (just two years from now) to be more than $280 billion. The Chinese agreements with the U.S. and its INDC reinforce to the market the potential investment opportunities, and many expect the opportunities in China alone to top $1 trillion in short order.
But, are we seeing, as Goldman says, these issues moving to the “core” of finance? Is climate and sustainability really going mainstream?
A couple of weeks ago, a friend who was putting a green bond together asked me that very question. I think the answer is definitively maybe. I told him I did think that something was shifting, but how much the global financial system was orienting toward sustainability, in particular as it relates to climate change, was unclear. Certainly, there have been new efforts over the last few years to look at how the financial system understands climate change. Most notably, the work of the UN Inquiry on the Design of a Sustainable Financial System, the Risky Business report, and the efforts by the Bank of England have raised the question about whether the financial system is adequately addressing not just opportunities to scale up financing, but also risks that climate change might pose to financial markets. For the most part, climate change – as a risk to investment returns – is still too often thought to be well beyond the investment horizon to warrant serious consideration by bankers and investors. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, famously summed up this conundrum as the “tragedy of horizons.” And, not just of investors. Also of policy makers, consumers, and the general public.
On the other hand, my friend and I both noted that there seems to be something happening, and it doesn’t just feel like it’s driven by the political moment Paris provides. In the financial community, it already feels like we are pivoting our attention beyond the political discussion toward action. And for finance, there is quite the sense that we are moving past simply incremental efforts and starting to see a more integrated and – dare I use Goldman’s quote – “core” approach to climate change and finance.
This suggests something big. Potentially transformational. The thing about transformations is that you most often recognize them in hindsight. And as with most transformations, two things are happening in a symbiotic way.
The first is the incremental steps to bring financing to scale. In the case of climate change and finance, it has always been true that scaling up financing would happen one project at a time, one investment at a time. Those discussions about moving the “billions” to “trillions” are useful, and ensuring that major components of the financial system begin to allocate capital in more climate-smart ways is critical to achieve those trillions. But all of this will happen one deal, one investment at a time. No matter how big or small those investments are, the trillions will be built off a portfolio of investments. What is scale if not the collection of individual projects, individual investments?
The second thing that seems to be happening is exactly what Goldman’s comment implied: that sustainability is becoming “core” to business. Incremental is good, and we will certainly build scale by adding up all the incremental investments. But “core” – that is on an entirely different level. It implies the possibility of systemic – perhaps even transformational – change.
And, what is transformation if not the collection of actors in the ecosystem moving this issue from the incremental to the “core” of business? Maybe we are on the road to “greening” finance. How long this road will be is anyone’s guess, but there’s definitely a sense that we are moving in the right direction.