As nations bicker, a greener future evolves in finance

Regardless of the politics of climate change, there is real money to be made in the market for investments in environmentally sustainable projects.
Regardless of the politics of climate change, there is real money to be made in the market for investments in environmentally sustainable projects.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - Away from the toxic atmosphere at UN climate summit talks, in boardrooms, banks and trading houses, a transformation in green finance is under way.

Its backers hope it could profitably help save the planet.

Regardless of the politics of climate change, there is real money to be made today in the exploding market for bonds and other instruments invested in environmentally sustainable projects.

But in the final analysis, uniform regulation derived from collective political action will be vital both for the markets and for the planet itself, observers acknowledge.

Hard-nosed US investors in fields such as solar panels are not necessarily driven by anxiety about global warming, Climate Bonds Initiative chief executive Sean Kidney said.

"Most of them are Republicans for god's sake," he said at a conference on climate finance organised by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London.

"They care only about price," he added, predicting the transition to a low-carbon future would generate US$90 trillion (S$125 trillion) investment by 2050 in areas including low-energy cooling, urban farming and greener transport.

Kidney's independent organisation certifies "green bonds" issued by governments, municipalities and companies whose proceeds are devoted to sustainable development.

Notable issuers last month included the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, one of a slew of US cities unwilling to wait on President Donald Trump's climate-sceptic administration as they vie to adapt their creaking infrastructures to a low-carbon future.

TIPPING POINT

The investment community more broadly is running ahead of climate politics, which have been stymied by the refusal of the United States and other major economies to chart a way forward on the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

BlackRock, the world's biggest asset management fund, shook the industry last month by announcing it would transition out of coal-based investments.

"Climate risk has become mainstream (for investors). It does feel we have reached a tipping point," said Nick Anderson, board member of International Financial Reporting Standards, which is crafting new climate guidance for company accountants.

In 2019, the green bonds market worldwide expanded by more than half to about US$258 billion, and further breakneck growth is expected this year, according to the Climate Bonds Initiative.

Departments at major banks in charge of environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters, once a backwater in high finance, now have real teeth as banks get serious about profitable alternative investments and their wider public image.

Environmental finance is "absolutely real and tangible", said Alexandra Basirov, global head of sustainable finance for financial institutions at French bank BNP Paribas.

Banks such as BNP and ING have pioneered lower-interest loans that give greener projects an edge over more carbon-intensive ones.

But Basirov also cautioned at last week's EBRD conference: "Ultimately markets don't operate efficiently without adequate data." Therein lies the rub for many engaged in the ESG business: how to tally assets at risk from climate change, and how to quantify the risk itself given the array of catastrophic outcomes in store as temperatures rise.

GREEN FOR GREENBACKS

Credit risk agencies have been writing new models that seek to calculate corporate exposure, such as the weight of assets that companies already hold in potentially obsolete carbon investments.

Green investments are already turning into greenbacks for firms, according to James Leaton, vice president for climate risk at Moody's Investors Service.

Sustainable projects show a "lower default rate" because investors see them as more future-proof and creditworthy, he said.

The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, an initiative launched by former New York mayor and now US presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, aims to rationalise what companies must report to investors on their climate exposure.

In the acronym-heavy field of climate finance, central banks are also getting in on the act.

One initiative derived from the Paris accord is the Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS), a platform for central bankers to examine the global financial risks of climate change.

A notable holdout has been the US Federal Reserve, hobbled by Trump's vocal objections to climate action. Fed chief Jerome Powell hinted last month that it might soon sign up.

Morgan Despres, head of the NGFS secretariat and deputy chief of the financial stability department at the Banque de France, told Agence France-Presse that network staffers were in contact with Fed counterparts "on a regular basis".

"Any action does need to be global," he added, echoing environmentalists who say that policymakers must in the end bury their differences and catch up with financiers on climate change.

For investors, the EBRD conference heard that the most meaningful policy action would be for governments to agree a true market price for carbon that properly reflects its climate impact.

"Without carbon pricing, you can only go so far," Eric Usher, head of the UN Environment Programme's finance initiative, said.