Why BlackRock is Worried About Climate Change

This article was first published on the Huffington Post.

Why BlackRock is Worried About Climate Change

Climate Change: A Material Risk for Investors

While the Trump administration is trying to roll back climate policy in the U.S., concerns over climate change are mounting on financial markets. In September 2016, the largest asset management firm in the world, BlackRock, with $5 trillion under management, released a report where it stated climate change is a material risk and “climate-proofing portfolios is a key consideration for all asset owners.” A few weeks back, BlackRock doubled down in announcing that it expected companies in its portfolio to disclose their exposure to climate risk. BlackRock is not the only investor that has publicly voiced concern over climate risk in its portfolio.

State Street Corp, which manages $2.5 trillion worth of assets, sent a letter in January to the boards of corporations it invests in, asking the companies to disclose their plans to account for climate change and other social issues. Over the long-term, these issues can have a material impact on a company’s ability to generate returns,” State Street said in the letter. “Corporate scandals of the last few years around automotive emissions, food safety or labor issues have emphasized the need for companies to assess the impact of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) risks.”

The call for disclosures is rising from individual fund managers as well. Canadian pension manager OPTrust released details of its approach to climate considerations when investing, and asking for more standardized measures for disclosing these risks.

Why are investors concerned over climate risk, and how do they expect these risks to materialize in their portfolios?

Economic and Financial Impacts from Climate Change

Climate change is expected to have impacts on the natural environment, but also on human systems and global and local economies. From decreased crop yields to physical impacts on built infrastructure and labor productivity, impacts are predicted to be uneven but ubiquitous. Business leaders are well aware of this risk, and over the past years, failure to adapt to climate change has consistently been listed among the top five risks for economies in impact and likelihood in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report.

These impacts on the economy at large, on industry sectors, on infrastructure and on physical assets like manufacturing plants, corporate campuses or supply chains can in turn create financial risk for the investors who own equity or have loaned capital to these companies. Researchers from Cambridge and Oxford University estimate in a plausible worst-case climate change scenario (a 4°C-increase outcome), the value at risk of an equity portfolio in 2030 may be between 5% and 20% versus a no-warming scenario.

Regulatory Pressures

Financial regulators have also been raising the alarm, most famously Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England and Chair of the Financial Stability Board (FSB), who referred to the phenomenon as the “Tragedy of the Horizon,” citing outcomes like the impact of rising seas on the world’s coastlines and infrastructure as one of the largest risks to financial stability around the world. The FSB, under the authority of the G20, created last year a special Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which recently released its recommendations for investors and corporations on better assessing and disclosing climate risk.

Also in the fall 2015, France became the first country to pass a law introducing mandatory extensive climate change-related reporting for asset owners and asset managers, the Energy Transition Law and its Article 173. The European Union also passed a directive late 2016 requiring pension funds in Europe to assess and disclose climate risk. Financial markets are global, and regulations in Europe very much affect U.S. investors.

These recent regulatory efforts typically break down climate risk into two distinct categories: energy transition risk, and physical climate risk.

Energy Transition Risk

The Energy Transition risk refers to the potential large-scale impacts of rapidly decarbonizing our economies and energy systems—as might happen, for example, if policymakers decided to take climate science seriously. The sectors most exposed are, of course, the energy sector, in particularly fossil fuels, but also energy intensive industries like steel, cement, and chemistry. The entire value chain of the transportation sector, from airlines to car companies, could see their financial performance altered dramatically depending not only on their emissions, but also on how they have prepared and manage this transition.

To measure and compare the energy transition risks, a few methodologies have emerged. The 2 Degree Investment Initiative(2dii) released its methodology as well as a “Transition Risk Toolbox” on how to integrate energy transition risk into scenario analysis for corporations, and is continuing to explore in depth the implications for financial markets. CDP, a central player in the world of corporate climate disclosures, has also developed a pilot methodology on Assessing the Low Carbon Transition (ACT), in partnership with ADEME, the French Environment and Energy Agency.

Physical Climate Risk

Physical climate risk includes both shocks and stresses from climate impacts: shocks refer to extreme weather events, ranging from storms to drought, cold snaps, extreme precipitation and windstorms. Stresses encompasses physical conditions that change over time and can affect anything from agriculture to retail sales or real estate property values, such as a shift in season—as observed most recently on the East Coast, with an unseasonably warm, spring-like weather, changes in precipitation patterns, gradual increase in temperatures, depletion of water, as well as sea level rise.

A few research institutions have started developing methodologies to quantify the linkage between climate hazards and economic indicators, including most notably the Risky Business Project on the economic risk of climate change in the United States, and Norwegian think tank CICERO’s recent report on Shades of Climate Risk. However, as shown in the Global Adaptation and Resilience Investment working group (GARI) report published at COP 22 in November 2016, investors are concerned over lack of data and tools to better measure risk in a financial portfolio, and benefits of investing in resilience.

What Can Investors Do to Reduce Climate Risk Exposure?

Despite the lack of established tools and methodologies, investors and portfolio managers can significantly hedge climate-related risks by assessing exposure of their asset portfolio, rebalancing exposure across assets, sectors and geographies, and developing targeted engagement strategies.

1. Assessing Exposure in their Asset Portfolio

Climate impacts can be felt across all asset classes. Real assets (infrastructure, real estate) represent the most direct risk for asset owners, but also the easiest to understand and manage. Investors typically know the exact geographic location for these assets, which enables a direct exposure hotspot analysis, as well as direct engagement with asset operators on climate risk and potential risk mitigation measures. Equity and credit portfolios are more complex to screen for and assess physical climate risk. Specialized providers like Four Twenty Seven provide screening tools, benchmarked equity scores, as well as custom portfolio risk assessments focused on physical climate impacts.

2. Developing Targeted Engagement Strategy

Investors have a critical role to play in ensuring climate risk management and disclosures become the norm rather than the exception. Especially in the U.S., in a context of regulatory pull back from financial regulations and climate policy, market forces must impose the transparency and responsibility needed to price assets accurately. This engagement can take many forms, from supporting proxy motions from activist investors like As You Sow to engaging with working groups like the Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR) at Ceres, or direct engagement with portfolio companies.

Companies are also encouraged to develop climate competency in the boardroom so that at least one of the corporate directors has a technical understanding and direct responsibility for bringing climate science and climate change considerations to the Board during strategic and risk management discussions. This pressure was heeded by ExxonMobil, after an extensive campaign to demonstrate that ExxonMobil was not accurately accounting for climate change science in its asset and reserve valuation: the company’s board recently added Susan Avery, a physicist and atmospheric scientist, to its board of directors.

Change will be slow, but the growing recognition that climate change is an economic and financial issue is our best hope to drive meaningful, long-term policy change, as well as to increase resilience and our society’s ability to adapt to climate change. Contrarian climate policy in the U.S. may slow down the adoption of new standards, but it won’t slow down climate change, and the need to address its social and economic impacts.