To deliver on their promises, authorities need support not just from local communities and businesses, but from the wider financial sector as well. Global demand for new infrastructure is estimated to exceed US$90 trillion between 2015 and 2030, nearly double the estimated value of what we already have. The pace at which ageing, carbon-intensive assets are replaced with greener alternatives depends on financial institutions making low-carbon investments, and supporting their clients to do the same.
This increased demand for investment coincides with a growing recognition by investors of the importance of high-quality environmental, social and governance (ESG) information in managing risk and return. Some central banks, like the Bank of England and the European Central Bank, are already addressing climate risk in a structured way. In other countries, however, the financial and physical risks associated with the climate crisis have not been taken seriously enough – and investors have taken notice.
In the US, more than three dozen pension plans, fund managers and other institutions, representing almost US$1 trillion in assets, demanded that the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other agencies do more to ensure mandatory and consistent disclosure of climate-related risks. If not, investors worry, the effects of climate change will ricochet through the economy, causing sudden falls in stock prices. By requiring companies to disclose more ESG information – about carbon emissions or their assets’ vulnerability to rising seas, for example – investors could make better decisions and push them to lower their emissions to avoid losing access to funding or affordable insurance.
Many investors, asset owners and companies are already voluntarily disclosing climate risks, guided by frameworks such as the Taskforce for Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). “The financial institutions understand the need for climate risk assessments because they have been exposed to it through things like the TCFD,” says Michael Mondshine, director of sustainability, energy and climate change at WSP in Washington DC. “They have made quite a bit of progress, too.” He points to global investment management firm BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager, which set a precedent in 2019 when it sent a letter to shareholders outlining how sustainability would become its “new standard for investing”, with ESG risk analysis at the heart of its plan.
BlackRock hasn’t committed to decarbonizing its own operations, but it is creating the incentives for many other companies to. And this will ultimately have a much bigger impact, says Jonathan Burnston, managing partner at Karbone, a financial services firm that specializes in energy markets. “If BlackRock says they're only going to invest in companies and funds that are ESG-oriented, then companies and funds will make the necessary adjustments to try and meet those criteria.” The hope, Burnston says, is that this type of non-regulatory incentive imposed by the financial sector will reverberate out into the economy.
This type of strategy has shown promise. Many funds with ESG criteria have outperformed the broader market this year. But this isn’t to say that integrating ESG criteria into investments is an easy sell. “Most investors want to have their cake and eat it too,” says Burnston. “They want to have clean energy investments, for example, but they also want to hit a certain returns threshold – and these priorities don't always align.”
There’s a growing realization that there's an additional cost associated with ESG-oriented investments, and someone has to pay for it. “You just can't necessarily expect the same return on investment using a strategy that has ESG prerequisites versus one that doesn't,” says Burnston. “Your company’s market growth could be improved because these criteria will become regulatory requirements at some point in the future. But for now, the reality is that it may affect profitability.”
Such short-termism is clearly an obstacle on the path to net zero. But it’s not necessarily integral to the world of finance – at least according to the proponents of a concept known as climate-aligned finance. This essentially harnesses an unlikely blend of corporate muscle and collective action to bring financial portfolios into line with the Paris Agreement. Through sheer weight of signatories among major investors and carbon-intensive industries, the aim is to create a robust level playing field for clean energy investments. For example, the newly established Center for Climate-Aligned Finance, spearheaded by the Colorado-based non-profit sustainability research organization Rocky Mountain Institute, connects some of the world’s largest financial institutions with corporate clients, industry and policymakers to establish new rules of sector-specific engagement.