Updated: Mar 6
Numerous climate conferences taking place this September are expected to influence international climate change solutions, and how to finance those solutions, for years to come. These include the U.N.-sponsored Climate Change Conference, the Global Climate Action Summit and Climate Week (including the One Planet Summit).
The outcomes will help focus minds ahead of the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) being held in Poland this December, where leaders are expected to finalise rules for implementing the Paris Agreement. A key topic of discussion at all of these gatherings will be the role of private capital in solving climate change, with divestment from fossil fuels being a part of the debate.
In this piece, SFi discusses how both public and private capital will be required to meet climate obligations. We look at DivestInvest as one strategy that investors can join to accelerate the clean energy transition, the current divestment status of Hong Kong, and finally, some practical tools for individuals who wish to take action.
The Challenge – Private and Public Capital Needed
The Paris Agreement is the only coordinated international attempt to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to prevent warming temperatures, extreme weather, and other climate change-related crises from becoming more catastrophic on a worldwide basis. Its stated goal was to stop global warming at no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. To reach that target, US$320 billion in low carbon and energy efficiency investment is needed.
We know public investment alone is not enough, and significant sums of private sector capital will be required to close this gap both globally and locally. Investors face a historic opportunity to support this transition to a low carbon economy and help governments meet their climate promises. Reaching these goals will require a radical shift of investments away from the burning of fossil fuels (which releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, and sulphur dioxide, which induces acid-rain) and toward renewables and energy efficiency.
The Solution – Divestment From Fossil Fuels
Fossil fuel divestment means withdrawing investments from companies, stocks, funds, and industries that contravene climate solutions. It makes a symbolic statement against unsustainable practices. Divestment campaigns began on college campuses in 2011, with students demanding their college endowments divest from energy sources driving climate change. While their call to action was primarily rooted on the moral argument that educational institutions should not be supporting or profiting from industries that harm the climate, the economic logic is equally powerful.
Research from organisations such as the Carbon Tracker Initiative have exposed the risk that fossil fuel asset valuations are inflated. Other fossil fuel investment risks are that reserves will become stranded assets, extraction costs will continue to rise and that renewables will become more cost competitive.
But fossil fuel divestment is only half of the equation. Re-investing those assets in climate solutions is the other fundamental step. DivestInvest, a well-established global investor movement, aims to support this shift away from fossil fuels and accelerate the sustainable energy transition. DivestInvest welcomes investors to pledge to sell their fossil fuel holdings over a five-year period, and invest instead in a sustainable and equitable new energy economy.
DivestInvest is now a widely adopted movement, with pledges from more than 900 organisations and nearly 60,000 individuals including educational institutions, faith-based organisations, governments, individuals, pension funds, and family offices. As of September 6, 2018, US$6.3 trillion in assets under management has been committed.
The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, Axa Insurance, Allianz Insurance, Oxford University and many others have been inspired by the DivestInvest movement and committed to the pledge. It is also backed by individuals such as Ban Ki Moon, Prince Charles, and Archbishop Tutu. More and more organisations and individuals are committing to DivestInvest each week, inspired to fight climate change with their dollars.
Other initiatives such as 350.org Fossil Free campaign (named after 350 parts per million – the safe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) are also working to promote 100% renewables and stop all new coal, oil and gas projects while advocating for fossil fuel divestment on college campuses. While 350.org started in the United States, it has since evolved into a global movement.
Divestment in Hong Kong The bulk (75%) of Hong Kong’s electricity and non-electrified transport comes from fossil fuels, with nuclear power supplying most of the remaining power needs. Hong Kong, as a part of China, is a signatory to the Paris Agreement, and it must therefore cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. Local environmental debate and sustainable policies in government and business are often framed in terms of plastic waste and air quality. While we do not deny these are important issues, we also need to take a more holistic long-term view.
Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan 2030+ is one step in the right direction. It highlights Hong Kong’s commitment to reduce carbon intensity by 65% to 70% by 2030, using 2005 as the base year. This will largely be achieved by shifting electricity generation from coal to gas. Action is also being taken to improve energy efficiency, promote low carbon consumption, reduce carbon emissions from transport, and generate 3% of Hong Kong’s electricity from wind, solar and waste-to-energy sources. More and more organisations, such as Friends of the Earth Hong Kong in its submission to the Policy Address 2018 Public Consultation, are urging the government to demonstrate leadership by investing in green projects while divesting from fossil fuels.
Private investors have an important role to play. A recent survey showed that private banking and private wealth management assets account for 32% of the total assets under management in Hong Kong, equating to US$1 trillion. This clearly demonstrates the power of Hong Kong private investors to make a difference with their capital, and contribute towards the estimated US$320bn needed to reach the Paris Agreement stated goal.
RS Group, a family office based in Hong Kong and the incubator of SFi, is one such example. In 2013, RS Group began its own journey, inspired by the DivestInvest movement, to divest from coal, oil and gas investments. With the proceeds, it invested in climate change related solutions, and asked its investment managers to engage with carbon intensive companies amongst underlying investments. (learn more here – ‘How to DivestInvest – A Guide for Institutional Investors’). “We are the first generation to experience the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” — Kristalina Georgieva, the Chief Executive Officer of the World Bank. More private investors need to join the DivestInvest movement in order to accelerate change and impact. However, there are also arguments against it, such as the argument that investors should engage with companies instead of divest from them. As shareholders of a public company, investors can exercise their vote and push the company towards change through shareholder activism. There is truth in this argument, and each investor must decide for themselves if they want to try to change the companies they are invested in through active engagement, or reinvest in different companies that are wholly focused on providing climate solutions. Other critics also question whether DivestInvest is an effective strategy, arguing that only economy-wide policies like carbon pricing can move the needle on facilitating the energy transition the world needs.
Regardless of one’s take on divestment’s effectiveness, it is clear that the fossil-fuel era is ending, giving way to the dawn of a clean energy economy. Smart investors need to get into the clean energy game now. Oil prices are in a multi-year slump and renewable energy companies are experiencing reduced costs and increased profits. Whether it is from an financial returns or an impact perspective, it is clear that a shift is needed and the time is now. Start on Your Own Journey Divesting from fossil fuels means taking action to align your investments with your values and protecting your investments from the financial risks of stranded assets. It’s an important step in using your assets to build a better future. To learn more about the steps you can take as an individual, visit DivestInvest or read this divestment guide. If you’re invested in mutual funds and want to know what you own, explore this Mutual Fund Screening Tool by As You Sow, an organisation that promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, as well as divestment.
Contact SFi to learn more.
SFi thanks Andy Behar, CEO of As You Sow and Dr.Eddy Lee Wai-choi from the Hong Kong chapter of 350.org, for their contributions to this article. #ClimateChange #InvestorAction #Divestment #ShareholderAdvocacy #FossilFuels