As nations bicker, a greener future evolves in finance industry

LONDON • Away from the toxic atmosphere at United Nations climate summit talks, in boardrooms, banks and trading houses, a transformation in green finance is under way.

Its backers hope it could help save the planet profitably .

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 said.

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 in London on climate finance organised by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

"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.

Mr 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.

The investment community more broadly is running ahead of climate politics, which have been stymied by the refusal of the US 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. It does feel we have reached a tipping point," said Mr Nick Anderson, board member of International Financial Reporting Standards, which is crafting new climate guidance for company accountants.

  • US$258b

  • The amount the green bonds market worldwide expanded to last year, according to the Climate Bonds Initiative.

Last year, 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 Ms Alexandra Basirov, global head of sustainable finance for financial institutions at 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 Ms 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 given the array of catastrophic outcomes in store as temperatures rise.

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 Mr 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.

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

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

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

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE