Clearly there are costs in the move to less carbon-intensive and more-sustainable economies. These costs are real but are a focus for many vested interests and political groups opposed to a shift to renewable energy. In a world of higher energy prices, costs are going to be a significant factor in debate.
Offsetting this antagonism is the failure of existing measurement to fully factor in the costs of present-day emissions, what economists refer to as ‘negative externalities’ – the price societies pay which are not compensated for by the producers or other beneficiaries.
This is most obvious in developing nations where, for example, environmental damage or poor air quality are paid for by citizens but not explicitly by polluters.
However negative externalities are also evident in developed economies. For example, a fire at the Hazelwood coal mine in the Australian state of Victoria resulted in extensive rehabilitation costs and severe health impacts – which included costs to the state.
Japan had long been lowering the carbon intensity of its economy by shifting from fossil-fuel based generation to nuclear power. However the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, which resulted in one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents, resulted in not just the shutdown of the Japanese nuclear generation sector but multi-billion dollar, multi-generation costs for the Tohoku region in particular but the Japanese taxpayer in general.
Tepco, the Japanese generator and owner of the Fukushima Daiichi plant which melted down, will not be responsible for those costs.
That is not to ignore the real cost of shifting the carbon intensity of economies.
The TCFD report notes “for many investors, climate change poses significant financial challenges and opportunities”.
“The expected transition to a lower-carbon economy is estimated to require around $US3.5 trillion, on average, in energy sector investments a year for the foreseeable future, generating new investment opportunities,” the report says.
“At the same time, the risk-return profile of companies exposed to climate-related risks may change significantly because of physical impacts of climate change, climate policy, or new technologies.”
“In fact, one study estimated the value at risk to the total global stock of manageable assets because of climate change ranges from $US4.2 trillion to $US43 trillion between now and the end of the century.”
In its analysis, the TCFD sketches out the broad scope of potential costs – implying there may well be greater efforts to shift the costs of negative externalities away from the taxpayers towards emitters and/or their investors.
But according to the TCFD “much of the impact on future assets will come through weaker growth and lower asset returns across the board”.
“This suggests investors may not be able to avoid climate-related risks by moving out of certain asset classes as a wide range of asset types could be affected,” the study says.
“Companies that invest in activities that are susceptible to climate-related risks may be less resilient to the transition to a lower-carbon economy; and their investors may experience lower returns. Compounding the effect on longer term returns is the risk that present valuations do not adequately factor in climate-related risks because of insufficient information.”
The subtext here is a greater variety of regulators and investor groups will demand more and more precise information on a much broader range of climate change risks – including some kind of assessment of what is measurable and not measurable.
To date, although awareness might be relatively high, relatively few companies are taking actions to manage it as a key financial risk by, for example, linking it to board remuneration, based on 2017 Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) disclosures.
In financial services, the demand for clarity and action is already evident in positions taken by regulators such as the BIS, the Bank of England and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority – regardless of the policies of whatever government of the day.
As bluenotes outlined last week, investors are also demanding action.
But it’s not all stick: the TCFD notes “those companies that meet this need (by investors for greater information) may have a competitive advantage over others”.
Andrew Cornell is Managing Editor of bluenotes