Investors and Climate Change: Navigating Complexity

Dr Lars Kaiser, Head of Group Sustainability
Reading time: 5 Min
The upcoming 2023 UN Climate Change Conference will take place from November 30 to December 12, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). Once again, the world will be paying close attention to the discussions at the COP and the changes to come. The informal consultations of the COP 27 Presidency and the upcoming COP 28 Presidency lay the foundation for "a successful COP 28 that advances the global transition towards a low-emission and climate-resilient world, promoting ambitious climate action and implementing it, including the support associated with it."

In a world that is rapidly coming to terms with the undeniable consequences of climate change, many industries are being forced to rethink their roles and responsibilities. As concerns about climate change grow feverishly, industries and countries are recalibrating their strategies. And in the midst of this change, the financial sector faces the challenge of recognising and promoting credible commitments to sustainability. Financial institutions today face the urgent question of how they can best play their role in mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Mitigation: Directing capital towards a sustainable future

Mitigation is primarily concerned with measures to reduce emission sources or improve carbon sinks. Investors can contribute to these efforts by financing green technologies, supporting sustainable companies and adjusting their investment priorities.

For example, investors have the opportunity to provide companies in carbon-intensive industries (e.g. oil and gas) with capital for an environmentally and climate-friendly transformation. However, in the worst case scenario, this can lead to the maintenance of a status quo that exacerbates the climate problem. On the other hand, excluding these sectors from the investment universe can put companies under pressure and encourage them to make a timely change.

The ideal approach is difficult to define and academic studies show a mixed picture. Many investors are currently choosing to finance carbon-intensive companies that are actively transitioning to greener operations, ensuring that they do not exclude an entire sector (portfolio concentration), but promote and support its sustainable development. After all, many of these industries remain essential to global energy security. 

Adaptation: Preparing for the inevitable

While mitigation focuses on curbing climate change, adaptation accepts the reality of some global warming and seeks solutions to minimise its impacts. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts requires robust financial systems that can financially support individuals and companies as they recover and adapt.

Banks, investors and insurers play an important role in adaptation by offering insurance products, loans and other financial instruments tailored to address climate risks. For example, they finance the construction of resilient infrastructure in flood-prone areas or offer insurance packages that cover crop losses due to unpredictable weather patterns.

Companies with better environmental management systems and strategies to convert to greener operations could be preferred.

Dr Lars Kaiser Head of Group Sustainability

The dilemma: to invest or not to invest??

Providing capital to carbon-intensive industries can be seen as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, investors have a duty to their shareholders and the economy as a whole to invest in profitable sectors, and at the moment, sectors such as oil and gas are still important players. However, these investments can be short-sighted and jeopardize long-term ecological stability and ultimately economic viability.

Complete exclusion of such sectors does not seem to be a panacea. Such exclusion could lead to significant economic disruption, higher prices and further societal challenges. At the same time, it is not clear whether the resulting increase in companies' capital costs actually leads to a change in their business model towards sustainability or whether, in contrast, even more short-sighted decisions are made in order to exploit profit opportunities.

For many investors, the solution lies not in an either/or scenario, but rather in a transitional concept. This could involve gradually reducing funding for carbon-intensive industries and giving them time to refocus or evolve. For example, oil companies can develop into broader energy companies and invest more in renewable energy. At the same time, financial products can be offered that are specifically designed for sustainable projects, such as green bonds, which are used to finance projects with positive environmental impacts. Banks can also carry out more stringent environmental impact assessments when granting loans. Companies with better environmental management systems and strategies to convert to greener operations could be preferred. 

Credibility and progress tracking are key to ensuring that change actually happens and that companies that announce a green transition follow their words with action. Finally, financial market participants can integrate climate risks into their general risk management. By analysing how climate change affects the assets they finance, investors can make more informed decisions.

Conclusion: No black and white thinking

As outlined in the “EU Action Plan: Financing Sustainable Growth”, financial institutions play an important role in their influence on global capital flows. It remains to be seen in what form and to what extent they will shape our ecological future. While the challenges of climate change are vast and complex, a proactive financial sector that understands its role in both mitigating and adapting to climate change can be a critical player in shaping a more sustainable future. What is clear is that there will not be just one way that financial institutions can contribute. 

As we gain more knowledge from science and practice, we will have to be prepared for the fact that measures that are considered beneficial today will be judged differently tomorrow in terms of their relevance to impact. Accordingly, the topic does not require black-and-white thinking, but rather open-mindedness, reflection and a willingness to adapt in order to deal with the complexity and dynamics of the topic in a goal-oriented manner. 

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