Countries who’ve signed the Paris Climate Agreement are looking for ways to curb carbon emissions

Marija Kramer is Head of Responsible Investment Business at Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS). She is responsible for all aspects of responsible investing (RI) offerings, including policy development, as well as research and data screening services covering more than 13,000 global companies for institutions seeking to fully integrate ESG into their investment decision-making. Kramer also oversees new product development and strategic alliances in all regions of the world where RI solutions are delivered to ISS clients.

Christopher P. Skroupa: Have we reached a tipping point for mainstream investors on the issue of climate change?

Marija Kramer: I would say so. Unprecedented votes this year on climate change resolutions at some of the largest energy companies, including Exxon Mobil, would suggest mainstream institutions have crossed the Rubicon on the materiality of climate change. So it’s not just leading climate scientists who agree that the release of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere contribute to climate change.

What we’re seeing now is that investors are focused on how a changing climate brings two highly impactful risks: transition and physical. Transition risks are linked to the political commitment to curb greenhouse gas emissions. For example, a government may choose to introduce a tax on greenhouse gas emissions that could leave several companies with unburned fossil fuel assets but support the emergence of renewable energy technologies. These policy and technology-related changes could directly affect the value of an investor’s portfolio.

Physical risks are linked to extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts or hurricanes that arise as a result of global temperature rises, with proponents of this argument pointing to recent storms that hit Texas, Florida and the Caribbean islands as evidence of this. The financial losses that can be felt by these hurricanes, alongside the more obvious humanitarian and environmental devastation triggered by the events, are materially significant for global investors far more so today than ever before.

Skroupa: How does the landmark Paris Climate Accord affect investors?

Kramer: With the adoption of the Paris Climate Accord at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) in December 2015, there is a global consensus to combat climate change. It is the world’s first legally binding commitment to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with a stretch target of 1.5°C.

Part of the agreement includes ensuring that financial flows are consistent with the 2-degree target. Meeting this target requires a global effort to shift capital from carbon-intensive to low-carbon industries, but also heavily invest in energy-efficiency in the former. Significant investments in renewable energy, smart-grids and energy-efficient storage systems will be needed as well as a fade out of fossil fuel subsides.

Some countries are considering using carbon pricing, taxes and cap and trade systems as financial mechanisms to curb emissions. The net effect of this is that many investors are beginning to measure the carbon exposure of their portfolios and, where needed, rebalancing portfolios to offset the presence of high carbon-emitters with companies that have lower greenhouse gas emissions or are on a path to reduce them in the future.

Skroupa: How can investors manage climate-related risks and opportunities?

Kramer: Performing a carbon footprint analysis is the first step for investors who want to understand their portfolios’ impact on the climate and vice versa. A carbon footprint analysis shows a portfolio’s carbon emissions based on the ownership it has of the underlying investments.

For example, if an investor owns 1% of a company, the investor also owns 1% of the company’s carbon emissions and the portfolio footprint is the total of these ‘owned’ emissions. The analysis shows where the largest exposures are located (specific companies and sector-wide), which can in turn trigger an internal conversation around the strengths and limitations of the current investment strategy.

The next step would be to add more information to the analysis to determine if the investments are on a 2-degree pathway. Innovative tools, such as Climetrics, a climate impact rating for funds, also provide investors with much needed insight on the climate change impact of funds’ portfolio holdings, as well as asset managers’ own applications of climate impact as an investment and governance factor.

Skroupa: As an ESG data, analytics, research, and advisory provider, how is ISS supporting investors in the age of climate change?

Kramer: ISS-Ethix supports investors globally with developing and integrating responsible investing policies and practices into their strategy, and execute upon these policies through engagement and voting. Our climate solutions enable investors to understand what climate change means for their investments by providing timely data and actionable intelligence on climate change risk and its impact on investments.

ISS-Ethix can also provide reports that enable investors to understand their carbon footprint and wider climate impact, complying with disclosure frameworks such as the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, the California Department of Insurance’s Coal Disclosure, Article 173 of the French Energy Transition Law, the Montreal Pledge and specific guidelines for investors in other jurisdictions.

The transition to a low-carbon economy requires a massive transformation, including transition efforts to be made by global capital markets. Faced with this new reality, investors have to start asking themselves the following questions: Will my current investments make sense in a 2-degree world, and how can I spot the largest risks and opportunities in the transition to a low-carbon economy?