Staying on course for the climate

Addressing climate change was always going to require a once in a lifetime shift in behaviour and resource allocation at a personal, corporate, government and global level. Is it any wonder that we are encountering resistance?  

Difficult economic conditions caused by rising energy prices and other pressing problems such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine are causing us all to review our priorities. This is pushing the ultimate goal of climate change mitigation and adaptation down the agenda.  

Society has hit a junction in the road with some financial institutions questioning their long-term stance on ESG initiatives. It’s an unnerving question, but should we be focusing on short-term economic solutions at the expense of action against climate change?  

Maintaining climate commitments 

Earlier this month the BlackRock Investment Stewardship team was widely reported as backpedalling on firmwide climate commitments, seemingly at odds with their CEO’s open letter and call to arms of just two years ago. Recently, a number of listed company climate transition plans have also been challenged by shareholders at AGMs due to their lack of coherence with the wider corporate strategy.  

Several global financial institutions have been fighting well-publicised public relations battles to retain goodwill with allocators in the US where the local economy is still heavily vested in emissions-intensive sectors.  

Everyone seems to have read about Stuart Kirk’s recent keynote speech, which ultimately led to his suspension. Mr Kirk, Head of Responsible Investment at HSBC Asset Management, asked the controversial question, “who cares if Miami is six meters underwater in 100 years?”  

Without going into a broader discussion, the most obvious answer to the question is probably those people who own homes in Miami and for whom those homes aren’t just a place to live but also a store of value for them and their children.

In the same speech, Mr Kirk made an interesting point: the average term length of loans on HSBC’s books stood at six years, so climate stress tests (which model a bank’s physical and transitional climate risks) that play out in year seven or onwards would be of limited interest. However, just because HSBC’s average loan term is six years it doesn’t mean that their clients and investors are only worried about the future over such a short time period. To put that into context, the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate model physical climate impact up to 2100, 72 years beyond the HSBC view. 

Although part of Mr Kirk’s argument was that we should focus on adaptation as much as mitigation, we share concerns that comments like these could put the brakes on the positive momentum we have achieved so far to battle climate change.   

It’s not just financial institutions but also governments that are revisiting their priorities as interest in the green agenda fades. In my last article, I touched on the benefits of promoting biodiversity for farmers. Last year, the UK government announced a post-Brexit scheme that would pay farmers up to £800 million a year to transform agricultural land into nature-rich forests, coastal wetlands, peatlands and wildflower meadows. However, in early June it was reported that the landscape recovery scheme has been slashed to just over £50 million over three years.    

While this U-turn may have been welcomed by those in the farming community who opposed diverting money from food production to the more significant issue of our climate, this is a backwards step.      

Is this sustainable? 

Ultimately, sustainability is still, and always will be, the main goal. It’s all about withstanding change and this has been tested significantly in recent times. The war in Ukraine has thrust energy security into the spotlight. If the world had acted on climate change sooner and deployed renewable energy technology on a grand scale, either when there was first agreement to act at the Rio conference in 1992 or when clean-tech emerged a little later, then it would be in a much more sustainable position – each country would certainly be more energy secure.  

Taking a step back, my view is that we haven’t taken the wrong path yet, we’re just not far enough down the right one. Far from 2022 being the year that unpicked the momentum in ESG integration, we may look back and see 2022 as just a stalling in the concerted efforts to turn the tide for climate change.  

2025 will be a milestone year to decide whether we have travelled down the right path as we’ll know whether the 1.5° Paris agreement target has been met. In the meantime, we look ahead to COP27 in November to assess progress on the Glasgow Climate Pact.  

We may be heading into uncertain economic times and there may be nervous fingers ready to press more triggers to slow down the sustainability momentum. Some of those actions may be necessary evils but let’s at least be honest in calling them what they are and acknowledge that they are likely to hurt in the long term. 

At Downing, we are committed to investing with ESG and sustainability in mind, please click here if you would like to find out more about Downing’s approach to sustainability and how we can help you.