Meeting the Climate Crisis: Is Finance the Answer ?
At its offices, close to Lake Maggiore in the North-West of Milano, the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) gathered university academics and policymakers to explore the latest revelations of academic research on green or sustainable finance. The fact that the gathering occurred during a heatwave only accentuated the urgency of the debate.
The 4th JRC Summer School on Sustainable Finance had as its objective to explore new research to:
identify ways and means to optimise the impact of the EU Taxonomy within financial markets,
deepen understanding of the impact climate risk has on the financial system,
explore the importance and potential of green and sustainable financial markets,
discover which mechanisms exist to make markets more resilient to climate risk.
The Taxonomy: A work in progress
“Alas, we are only at the starting blocks of ensuring a reporting standard that will actually hold financial and
industrial actors accountable for their sustainability claims”
The elephant in the room did not stay hidden for long. Dr Gehricke confirmed that, as suspected, “greenwashing” is a problem. In addition, the study compared attitudes towards ESG reporting in three regions: the EU, the USA and Australasia. Distinguishing between (i) values-led (ethical) perceptions of the obligation to act on ESG and (ii) a purely legalistic compliance (with regulatory rules) mindset, the observations demonstrated the cultural complexities and divergences present in global financial markets. Whereas the moral argument was importan
t for EU and Australasia financiers, it was far less so in the USA. On the other hand, adherence to higher reporting standards was similarly high in the EU and the USA. In contrast, Eurasia produced a lower standard of reporting transparency despite their professed moral concern.
Brams van der Kroft further explained the strong temptation for financial actors to chase inflated ESG ratings. Borrowers identified as “ESG-oriented” experience a drop in their cost of capital. Alongside this incentive, the opportunity to fake or exaggerate one’s ESG credentials is also present. Without universal standards and the necessary data accessibility to track company performance, it is too easy just to change a name, or provide an empty promise. Even a form of cherry-picking of “green finance” is possible. By identifying and headlining “green” activities for fi
nancing yet failing to divest “brown” activities, the borrower distracts from its unsustainable practices and skews public perception of its ESG commitment. A price will eventually be paid when ESG halos are lost and ratings adjusted following inevitable “Controversy” events – such as a polluting accident or a media storm around “ungreen” practices. Indeed, indications are that the higher the ESG rating, the greater the likelihood that “Controversy Risk” will strike; a relationship that must be corrected if ESG ratings are to be at all credible in the eyes of investors and the public.
Alas, we are only at the starting blocks of ensuring a reporting standard that will actually hold financial and industrial actors accountable for their sustainability claims.
- Firstly, only parts of the economy are currently required to report on their ESG status. If we are truly in pursuit of the responsible economy, it is not only those subject to stock exchange rules which should be required to report, but all organisations. Platforms are being developed within the EU Commission to bring SMEs closer to the debate.
- Secondly, although the EU taxonomy is being expanded and specified, Scope 3 data (including the impact of supply and distribution chains) remains insufficient for transparency and disclosure purposes. Independent universal verification of ESG standards, therefore, is not yet practical.
The objective for sustainability knowledge, data, and literacy on the critical issues confronting all companies needs to be a target for all firms, not only the largest of them. Extensive, as much as Inclusive, initiatives are much in need. They cannot come soon enough.
Climate risk – A financial risk?
“Whereas individual climate catastrophes are not in themselves systemic, failure to deal with the transition to sustainability responsibly and urgently most certainly is”
To cut a long story short: Yes, it is. The question is whether the financial markets understand this sufficiently well to price in appropriate risk premiums? This time, the short answer is no.
At the macro-level,
studies are emphatic. Climate change represents a systemic risk for the world’s banking system(s). These conclusions were replicated by the researchers of Banque de France , who concluded that whereas individual climate catastrophes are not in themselves systemic, failure to deal with the transition to sustainability responsibly and urgently most certainly is – and warrants inclusion in stress-testing exercises. The message is clear – banks with cleaner / carbon-light portfolios are more resilient than those who are not.
At a micro-level, studies (see below) show unequivocally that organisations who dismiss ESG or continue to pursue unsustainable operations will not only suffer losses, but also pay a higher cost o
f capital due to the risk premium being incurred.
If we agree that the financial sector needs to take the lead on climate transition and ESG, it needs to fully understand and integrate climate in its risk assessments and pricing models. However, the pressures to slow transition are all too much in evidence, and the challenge is to find ways to encourage us all to “look up” and act in our best long-term interests. For example, oil and gas investments continue when, already, 20% of existing stock needs to be stranded if we are to meet the Paris Agreement. Yet, the financial markets continue to finance these projects when investors would be financially better served to invest in neutral or green industrial projects. 
Green and Sustainable Financing: Built on sand or stone?
“Retail investors who traditionally are untrusting of the capital markets are being drawn to investing in sustainable funds, enlarging the investor community”
How are we doing so far? With a global issuance of €1.5 tln, green bonds are the most high-profile form of sustainable financing. Green bonds differ from conventional bonds as their proceeds are exclusiv
ely used to finance green projects. This market is principally driven by a retail investor market willing to accept tighter spreads for moral or risk reasons. It is, in part, the potential of this “Greenium” cost advantage that persuaded the European Central Bank (ECB) to enter the market to assist their liquidity and market share. This controversial move caught the markets by surprise, but has shown itself to be a positive strategic move favouring sustainable finance. Since 2020, ECB calculations have established the Greenium as a fact, and it amounts to approximately 4bpts p.a. relative to conventional bonds.
Interestingly, this cost of capital saving is available only to credible issuers. A win for investors who care about the planet’s future, and with an interesting side-effect. Retail investors who traditionally are untrusting of the capital markets are being drawn to investing in sustainable funds, enlarging the investor community and representing new funds for sustainable projects. Studies evidence that people who are politically left of centre and consider themselves socially aware ar
e 23% more likely to invest in corporate equity if considered ESG credible and sustainable. In short, the offer of green or sustainable securities draws new investors to the capital markets.
Pricing climate risk
“The financial markets are not yet sufficiently educated on, or aware of, the potential impact of climate change on their investment or lending portfolios”
Whereas the ECB has shown that the “Greenium” exists, other studies evidence a hierarchy of pricing / cost of capital advantage. Wholly green firms are the most credible and get the optimum financial conditions. However, even amongst “brown” companies, there is a pricing differential (in order of improving pricing) between those who:
I. Do not report on ESG performance,
II. Report on their ESG performance, and
III. Report and commit to transition targets.
It is important to note that these pricing differences reflect short-term transition risk (i.e. the risk of regulatory impact resulting from climate change policies) rather than the actual, physical threat of climate change on the companies concerned. Financ
ial markets and the banks operating within it appear to be persuaded to differentiate climate change pricing on sentiment rather than cold analysis. For example, the risk facing a firm of the increased likelihood of their operations being flooded is only reflected in its risk pricing after the fact. The consequent reflection is that the financial markets are not yet sufficiently educated on, or aware of, the potential impact of climate change on their investment or lending portfolios. In effect, the Greenium on offer does not fully include the full severity of climate risk and should be larger.
It seems that the mantra of “what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get managed” still holds true in the financial markets. Unfortunately, suppose we expect these markets to lead the way out of our climate crisis. In that case, the levels of reporting currently remain insufficiently specific, and the markets are not yet mature for the task.
# Don’tLookUp – How to move the risk perception
“There is a possibility that AI can be developed to enable more immediate and independent judgement on the credibility of those promoting themselves as serious about their transition to sustainability”
The 2021 tragi-comedy is a story of willful blindness and the human preference not to contemplate threats that imply costs that are “too high”, such as impending doom. Pray that our financial markets react differently.
There are several organisations trying to educate and guide financial institutions down the right path. For example, financial market participants can sign up to and comply with standards set by organisations such as the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) or Climate Action 100+. These organisations seek to ensure greenhouse emitters take necessary action on climate change. To the uninitiated, both organisations appear serious and credible. Yet, reportedly, there is a significant divergence between the two on subsequent follow-through on climate change performance in favour of the latter, which requires higher levels of specificity. 
If membership in associations and adherence to joint institutional objectives do not guarantee focus and results, we must look for more independent references. These, however, do not yet exist. Applying machine-learning technology (loosely termed artificial intelligence) to the words, tone and sentiment used by borrowers and investors when addressing ESG is one response to meeting the demand for market players to be held to account for their ESG performance. In marketing, “social listening” techniques allow firms to understand the reputation and customer sentiment towards their brand and products. In organisations, similar techniques can be applied to detect, for example, the degree to which trust or inclusiveness is reflected in organisational culture. Several presentations reflected the growing application of such technology to test the genuine commitment of actors to resolving ESG topics.5,  The potential use of AI to assess ESG performance could result in ESG or SDG ranking systems that speak to the authenticity and credibility of performance claims. Such rankings are much needed to incentivise higher performance standards or a fair punishment for those attempting to game the ESG ranking system.
So far, the presentations discussed confirmed that firms and financial markets acknowledge the near-term risks of regulatory disruption. Moreover, transparency on ESG ambitions indicates good governance and management of the issues raised, thereby attracting a “governance premium”. However, we have also learnt that too many remain sustainability illiterates and believe that window-dressing is enough – that the real threats are exaggerated or can wait before performing on those ambitions. Perhaps we can comfort ourselves that when ESG controversy strikes these companies, their cynicism is punished, and their cost of capital rises significantly. However, there is a possibility that AI can be developed to enable more immediate and independent judgement on the credibility of those promoting themselves as serious about their transition to sustainability.
From Green Bonds to Sustainability-Linked Bonds
“SLB financing impacts the everyday operations of the firm, not only a ring-fenced portion of its capital expenditure investments”
Since 2015, approximately $1.5 trillion of green bonds have been issued. In 2019, Enel embarked on a financing that added another bond product to the arsenal of sustainability finance: the Sustainability-linked bond (“SLB”). In 2021, it was estimated that the total SLBs issued had reached $100 billion. Whereas green bonds provide borrowers with capital for developing new Capex investments that qualify as “green”, they do not impose any further ESG-related action on the borrower. For example, an oil company may obtain green finance to develop a wind turbine park. Still, nothing prevents the same borrower from using its cash flow to invest in its “brown” activities, such as developing new oil wells. The SLB, on the other hand, leaves the borrower free to use the funds raised for any purpose. However, they commit to specific ESG or SDG goals that are legally binding and can be measured, tracked, and reported on. If these objectives are not achieved, a step-up in coupon / pricing is triggered, rendering the cost of capital more expensive. In effect, SLB financing impacts the everyday operations of the firm, not only a ring-fenced portion of its capital expenditure investments.
Suppose we are to leverage the financial markets to be a driver of the transition to a net-zero or carbon-negative future. In that case, we must ensure accountability and develop ways to minimise the abusive practices we label the “tragedy of the commons”. Expanding EU taxonomies and finding ways to measure Scope 3 emissions and ESG impact are both essential to informing and educating the financier, the industrialist and the consumer on the effects of their decisions. Finally, these must be priced so as to provide the incentives that direct investment capital. SLBs may just be the type of financing that can push the economy in the right direction. As pointed out by the OECD, however, there are three significant obstacles to overcome if this is to succeed:
Lack of transparency from the absence of clear rules for disclosure or assessment of definitions and methodologies.
Lack of accountability due to weak monitoring ability and capacity.
Lack of coherence resulting from fragmented regulation across jurisdictions and inconsistent government policies promoting green investments, while still subsidising brown investments and consumption.
The financial markets: Friend or foe in the fight against climate change?
“All agree that finance cannot escape its vital role in avoiding climate disaster”
In his keynote address, Director General Petriccione (EU’s DG for CLIMA) made the case for immediate climate action. He linked that action to new, imperative investments to be completed, and identified the financial markets as central to a successful transition to net-zero targets. It seems that all agree that finance cannot escape its vital role in avoiding climate disaster. Yet, engaging with the financiers themselves - although they may agree with the principle of prioritising sustainable finance - there will be a discussion as to how to prioritise objectives relative to a just transition; to being fair and considerate of all stakeholders. The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment argues that there are clear strategic incentives for financial firms to act in support of a “Just Transition”.
· It is the right thing to do
· It is the necessary thing to do
· It is the smart thing to do
Noble, but naive?
The Summer School focused on sustainable finance – yet the reference benchmark is ESG standards, the SDG spectrum, and fairness. Financial actors, be they individuals or institutions, have free will, and their decisions reflect their perspectives of priorities and fairness. From whence, then, will come the discipline required for joint and common action on climate transition. Despite their idealism, Grantham agrees that, in the final analysis, governments are primarily responsible for delivering a just transition.
In his keynote address, Professor Peydró of Imperial College explained why. He highlighted the obstacles in the way of financial institutions leading the change by channelling funding sharply towards sustainable objectives. In addition to the continued lack of sustainability literacy amongst decision-makers, financial markets are built on long-term trust relationships that cannot be ignored. Although high emission firms receive less funding than previously, brown projects still get funded; financing relationships are maintained in exchange for promises and commitments, which are too frequently not kept or monitored.
“The next steps must be taken to marry the conclusions of this summer school with the reality of real-world incentives”
This summer school educated me in one dramatic aspect. The role of the financial markets in promoting and driving climate action is clear. Finance is a pivot point for all new investments, and we must do what we can to ensure that green and sustainable finance is prioritised. However, amongst the speakers and presenters, there appeared (to this participant) that the majority view banks and investors as primary rather than secondary actors in the transition process. Sadly, my career-long experience in the financial industry does not make me confident that this can be the case. Despite regulation, the capital markets are generally free, and the actors dispersed. In negotiating a sustainable bond, we have several parties: at a minimum, the issuer, the arranging institution, the underwriters, the stock exchange, and the investors – institutional and retail. Each one will have differing priority objectives, competitive pressures, not to mention mandated goals and financial incentives.
All of these will not agree on what is “right, necessary or smart”, and progress to transition will be too slow. Nevertheless, the advent of the EU taxonomy, green finance, the promise of more specific sustainability-linked bond issuance, and the introduction of ESG and SDG standards are all pushing the attention of decision-makers in the right direction. But, as with horses – they can be led to water but not made to drink.
Europe is in the midst of another record-breaking heatwave. Yet, governments are speaking more of how to adapt and live with higher temperatures, droughts, and forest fires than how to avoid worsening conditions in the future. Suppose we are to have a sustainability-literate financial sector or even an informed populace. In that case, the governments and their regulators need to take drastic action – and not through more promises of net-zero futures, but of how effective milestone objectives are to be met year on year. The next steps must be taken to marry the conclusions of this summer school with the reality of real-world incentives. Without direct accountability and transparency, policy objectives will be ineffective. We could do worse than to use the advances shown in AI to independently track, report and rank financial actors on their ambitions, commitment, and performance on sustainable financing. Investment bankers like few things more than to top league tables. We need to provide one that incentivises them to lead the charge on transition finance, amongst other ESG/SDG objectives.
The academics have done sterling work in showing us the still non-sustainable condition of the financial markets. It is now for policymakers and their governments, in collaboration with the financial sector, to rapidly agree on the path of transitioning to a sustainable future; to decide on what is right, necessary and smart.
The author participated in the JCR 4th Summer School on Sustainable Finance as the Executive Director of the Institute for Financial Integrity and Sustainability, Luxembourg.
This article shares the author’s understanding of the presentations made of the talks and source references cited below and not from a detailed study of them. The studies were presented at the 4th JRC Summer School on Sustainable Finance in July 2022. Recordings of proceedings and downloads of presentations are available on: https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/events/4th-jrc-summer-school-sustainable-finance-2022-07-07_en.
The cover photo is downloaded under creative commons from Pixabay. The image is by Ralf Vetterle.
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