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Look who’s ponying up for climate change

More private investors see gold in going green, a reflection of larger trends in financial institutions to invest in society’s broad goals.

AP Photo
Wind generators are seen near a coal-fired power plant in Jackerath, Germany.

To the hundreds of delegates gathered in Poland this month for the latest United Nations conference on climate change, the financing numbers look daunting. The world needs investments of $5 trillion to $7 trillion every year to meet the UN climate goals for 2030.

Finance ministers at the meeting are scratching their heads, looking for answers. Despite commitments made in Paris three years ago to lower greenhouse emissions, governments have yet to pony up nearly that kind of cash.

One answer may lie in a dramatic shift in private financial institutions to see gold in going green. “Awareness of climate risk in the financial sector has increased over the past few years,” states a UN report prepared for the conference. From 2013-14 to 2015-16, climate finance increased by 17 percent.

Most of the new investments were in renewable energy and energy efficiency, such as smart buildings and precision irrigation, while much of the financing has been through bonds. The fastest change may be in Europe. Earlier this year, the European Commission set targets for banks and other financial institutions to engage in “sustainable finance.”

The shift toward climate-related projects reflects a broader trend among investors to redefine the metrics used to calculate long-term risks. The “bottom line” has shifted toward what is called ESG: environmental concerns, social goals, and governance issues within corporations. Activist shareholders who once demanded a focus on ESG are becoming more welcome in boardrooms.

ESG investing is growing about 12 percent per year, according to Pictet Asset Management, and will make up about two-thirds of assets managed by global funds by 2020. Driving the shift is a sudden interest among institutional investors to take ESG seriously.

In a survey released last month of 500 investment officers in five countries (United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan), 63 percent reported that this change has taken place in the past year. Nearly 90 percent have changed their voting procedures with shareholders to be more attentive on ESG.

“Investor ESG focus is now pervasive,” concludes Edelman, the communications marketing firm that conducted the survey.

The world’s political ambitions to set goals on climate change are being “matched by an equal level of commitment and determination from the world’s financial communities,” finds the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group of the world’s largest economies.

It is still unclear how much private money will help meet the UN goals on climate change. One purpose of the Poland gathering was to push governments to put hard numbers on their spending for national climate goals. But for now, investors have put their finger to the wind and decided they have a stake – and an opportunity – in solving the issue.

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