How Should Investors Manage Climate Change Risk?

windmill field

CalPERS is measuring the carbon footprint of its portfolio. CalSTRS is helping to fund a study on the market impact of climate change.

For the first time, institutional investors are beginning to wonder: How will climate change impact the value of our investments?

Howard Covington of Cambridge University and Raj Thamotheram of the Network for Sustainable Financial Markets tackled that question in a recent paper, titled How Should Investors Manage Climate Change Risk, in the most recent issue of the Rotman International Journal of Pension Management. From the paper:

The consequences of high warming, if we collectively go along this path, will emerge in the second half of this century; they are therefore remote in investment terms….Capital markets anticipate the future rather well, which suggests that investment values may respond strongly over this time scale as views on the most likely path begin to crystallize. Technologies for producing and storing electrical energy from renewable fuel sources, for energy-efficient housing and offices, and for reducing or capturing and disposing of greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes are moving along rapidly. In important areas, costs are falling quickly. Given appropriate and moderate policy nudges and continuing economic and social stability, it is overwhelmingly likely that the global economy will substantially decarbonize during this century.

If…an emissions peak in the 2020s becomes a plausible prospect, investment values for fossil fuels, electrical utilities, and renewable energy (among others) will react strongly. The value of many fossil fuel investment projects will turn negative as assets lose their economic value and become stranded; companies and countries will face significant write-downs, with clear consequences for financial asset prices.

As the authors note, we don’t know exactly how the earth will eventually react to greenhouse gasses. Different responses will have different implications for the global economy. From the paper:

If we are unlucky, and the climate’s response comes out at the upper end of the range while emissions go on climbing, the likelihood of the global economy’s potentially heading toward rolling collapse will significantly increase. A run of extreme weather events in the 2020s, particularly events that lead to sharp increases in prices for staple crops or inundate prominent cities, might then focus the attention of the capital markets on the consequences. A broad adjustment of asset values might then follow as investors try to assess in detail the likely winners and losers from the prospect of an increasingly turbulent global social, economic, and political future.

We are not suggesting that this kind of outcome is unavoidable, or even that it is the most likely. We are merely noting that the chance of events’ unfolding in this way over the next 10 to 15 years is significant, that it will rise sharply in the absence of a robust climate deal next year, and that long-term investors need to factor this into their investment analysis and strategy.

If these scenarios correctly capture the likely outcomes, then we have reached a turning point for the global economy. For the past 150 years, the exploitation of fossil fuels has generated enormous value for investors, both directly and by enabling global industrialization and growth; but it is now rational to anticipate that continued and increasing emissions from fossil fuel use might, over several decades, lead to the destruction of investment value on a global scale. Moreover, capital markets may adjust to this possibility on a relatively short time scale.

So how should institutional investors respond?

Broadly speaking, there are three main ways that investors can help. The first is to raise the cost of capital for companies or projects that will increase greenhouse emissions. The second is to lower the cost of capital for companies or projects that will reduce greenhouse emissions. The third is to use their influence to encourage legislators and regulators to take action to accelerate the transition from a high- to a low-emissions economy.

Formally adopting a policy of divesting from the fossil fuel sector can be helpful with the first of these, provided that the reasons for doing so are made public, so that other investors are encouraged to consider their own positions. Alternatively, active investors might take significant shareholdings in fossil fuel companies, so as to exert a material strategic influence to prevent investments that encourage long-term value destruction.

Supporting investments in renewable energy sources and related sectors is particularly effective where the potential exists to disrupt traditional industries. Tesla Motors is a case in point, since the potential for rapid growth of electric vehicles could transform the auto industry. Through the related development of high-performance, low-cost battery packs, it may also transform both the domestic use of solar power and the electrical utility business.

There is little time left for legislators to agree on the terms for orderly cooperative action to reduce emissions. Investors concerned about long-term value should act now to encourage the adoption of mechanisms to ensure an early peak and rapid decline in greenhouse missions. By the end of 2015, the chance for this kind of action will have largely passed.

The above excerpts represent only a portion of the insights the paper has to offer. The rest of the article can be read here [subscription required].


Photo by Penagate via Flickr CC

CalSTRS Doubles Down On Clean Energy Investments

smoke stack

At least one pension fund is seeing the potential for “green” (read: big money) in clean energy investments.

CalSTRS announced plans to significantly ramp up investments in the “green” sector from $1.4 billion to $3.7 billion over the next 5 years. AP reports:

CalSTRS CEO Jack Ehnes says the pension fund is seeing more opportunities in low-carbon projects and technologies. The fund is hoping also to help push for stronger policies aimed at fighting climate change, Ehnes says.

If policies are adopted that impose a price on carbon emissions to discourage pollution, the fund could increase its investments further, to $9.5 billion.

The fund has a $188 billion portfolio.

The clean energy and technology investments will be made through holdings in private equity firms, bonds, and infrastructure as suitable investments come available, the fund says.

The move comes on the heels of calls in recent years for pension funds to divest from fossil-fuel dependent investments. From the Financial Times:

At least 25 cities in the US have passed resolutions calling on pension fund boards to divest from fossil fuel holdings, according to figures from, a group that campaigns for investors to ditch their fossil fuel stocks.

Three Californian cities, Richmond, Berkeley and Oakland, urged Calpers, one of the largest US pension schemes, with $288bn of assets, and which manages their funds, to divest from fossil fuels. Calpers has ignored their request.

Calpers said: “The issue has been brought to our attention. [We] believe engagement is the best course of action.

No pension funds have yet divested from fossil fuel-dependent investments for social reasons, including CalSTRS.

But you can expect pension funds to go where they think the money is; in the case of CalSTRS, they are seeing “green” in clean energy going forward.


Photo: Paul Falardeau via Flickr CC License

Could Climate Change Deplete Your Pension?


If oil, gas and coal companies were to face serious financial difficulty, the average person might anticipate the annoyance of a higher heating bill, or having to cough up more cash to fill up at the gas station.

They probably don’t think about their pension—but maybe they should.

Earlier this year, members of the British Parliament sent out a clear warning to the Bank of England and the country’s pension funds: watch out for the carbon bubble.

The “carbon bubble”? Here’s a quick explanation from the Guardian:

The idea of a carbon bubble – meaning that the true costs of carbon dioxide in intensifying climate change are not taken into account in a company’s stock market valuation – has been gaining currency in recent years, but this is the first time that MPs have addressed the question head-on.

Much of the world’s fossil fuel resource will have to be left unburned if the world is to avoid dangerous levels of global warming, the environmental audit committee warned.

To many, it probably sounds like a silly term. But its potential implications are serious enough that many in the UK are starting to worry about its effect on the global economy, and that includes pension funds—UK pension funds are particularly exposed to fossil fuel-based assets, as some estimates say 20 to 30 percent of the funds’ assets are allocated toward investments that would be seriously harmed by the burst of the “carbon bubble”.

But some experts say pension funds in the US should be worrying about this, too, because it’s a global issue. From The Ecologist:

If the impetus to prevent further climate change reaches the point where measures such as a global carbon tax are agreed, for example, then those fossil fuel reserves that have contributed to the heady share price performance of oil, gas and coal companies will become ‘unburnable’ or ‘stranded’ in the ground.

But even if we continue business as usual, value could begin to unravel.

Because to continue with business as usual would require an ever increasing amount of capital expenditure by the industry to explore territories previously off limits – the Arctic, for example and the Canadian Tar Sands – tapping these new resources, quite apart from being a bad idea environmentally, is hugely expensive.

Dividends – the payments earned by shareholders as a reward for keeping their shares, have come under increasing pressure as companies have had to spend their money on more exploratory drilling rather than rewarding shareholders.

So some shareholders are already feeling the impact and rather than see their dividends further eroded, might prefer to sell their shares in favour of a more rewarding dividend stock.

Some don’t have the stomach for all those hypotheticals. But it’s hard to deny the policy shifts in recent years leading us towards a lower-carbon world. That includes regulation in the US, Europe and China that cuts down emissions and encourages clean energy.

That trend doesn’t look to be reversing itself in the near future, and those policies are most likely to hurt the industries most reliant on fossil fuels.

There’ve been calls in the US for public pension funds to decrease their exposure to those industries. From the Financial Times:

US pension funds have ignored calls from city councils and mayors to divest from carbon-intensive companies, despite concern about the long-term viability of their business models.

At least 25 cities in the US have passed resolutions calling on pension fund boards to divest from fossil fuel holdings, according to figures from, a group that campaigns for investors to ditch their fossil fuel stocks.

Three Californian cities, Richmond, Berkeley and Oakland, urged Calpers, one of the largest US pension schemes, with $288bn of assets, and which manages their funds, to divest from fossil fuels. Calpers has ignored their request.

Calpers said: “The issue has been brought to our attention. [We] believe engagement is the best course of action.”

Pension fund experts point out that it is difficult to pull out of illiquid fossil fuel investments, or carbon intensive stocks that are undervalued, provide stable dividends or are better positioned for legislative change.

CalPERS isn’t the only fund that doesn’t want to divest. Not a single public fund has commited to divesting from carbon-reliant companies.

To some, CalPERS’ policy of “engagement” rather than divestment probably sounds like a cop-out. But some experts think the policy could be effective.

“With divestment you are not solving the problem necessarily, you are just not part of it.” Said George Serafeim, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “With engagement you are trying to solve the problem by engaging with companies to improve their energy efficiency, but you are still part of the mix.”

Photo: Paul Falardeau via Flickr CC License