Visualized: The Top Five Questions on Sustainable Investing
Today, the surge in green investing has been compared to the dot-com boom of the 2000s.
Back then, the internet was anticipated to radically reshape economies. Many companies fell to the wayside, and now 20 years later, tech stocks currently make up roughly 40% of the S&P 500 by market capitalization. Like the dot-com era, green firms are projected to structurally change the way businesses function.
Given the rising interest in green assets, this infographic from MSCI answers the most important questions advisers need answered on sustainable investing.
1. Which type of sustainable investing is right for my client?
First, let’s start with the basics—understanding the terms used to describe sustainable investing:
- Sustainable investing: An umbrella term that typically refers to all types of sustainable, impact, and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) integration approaches
- Impact investing: A type of investing approach that generates measurable social or environmental benefits
- Socially responsible investing (SRI): An investing approach that aligns with an investor’s ethical, religious, or personal values, while actively reducing negative environmental or social consequences
- ESG integration: Considers material environmental, social, and governance factors to enhance long-term risk adjusted returns through its investment approach
- Climate investing: Looks to reduce exposure to climate risk, identify low-carbon investment opportunities, or align portfolios with “net-zero” climate targets
Knowing the key terms of the sustainable landscape allows advisers to more accurately address client objectives, goals, and beliefs.
2. How can I start a conversation with clients about ESG?
Begin by asking what motivates clients. Typically, motivations fall into one of three core objectives:
- Can ESG factors improve my risk-adjusted returns?
- Can I have a positive impact on society through my investments?
- Are my investments consistent with my ethical, political, or religious beliefs?
Client priorities could include financial returns, impact, values, or a combination. Once these have been established, investors can choose from a universe of funds and investment vehicles that more strongly align with their goals.
3. What is ESG data and why is it important?
At the heart of ESG-focused strategies is data. In some cases, ESG analysis of companies is based on over 2,000 data points from a wide cross-section of sources. For MSCI ESG Research, they fall within these three categories:
- Mandatory company disclosures: 20%
- Voluntary company ESG disclosure: 35%
- Alternative data: 45%
Alternative data commonly makes up 45% of the total ESG dataset—constituting far beyond what a company publicly discloses. Still, ESG data can seem vague or elusive. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Rather, ESG data can be broken down and obtained from the following five sources:
- Company filings: Shareholder results, voluntary ESG disclosures
- Non-governmental organizations (NGOs): Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), UN Sustainable Development Goals
- Government: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), European Central Bank (ECB)
- Media sources: Major headlines
- Alternative data: Geo mapping, water scarcity data, flood risk analysis
Importantly, after ESG analysts identify the risks and opportunities most relevant to a company, multiple data points coalesce to inform a company’s ESG profile.
4. Why are environmental risks becoming more important?
Rising global temperatures and ecological disruptions pose imminent risks to humanity.
Along with this, other future risks could include: eroding shareholder value, blocked project proposals, regulation compliance costs, and higher borrowing costs. In response, national, corporate, and investor commitments to achieving net-zero emissions in alignment with the Paris Agreement have proliferated.
How does this affect the risk-return profile of investments?
According to research, climate change could erase $7.75 million in value over five years from a hypothetical $100 million portfolio that shared similar returns and volatility over a five-year period to the median global developed market fund as of December, 2019.
5. Will the consideration of ESG in a portfolio lead to underperformance?
Let’s turn our attention to performance, one of the most pressing questions surrounding ESG.
Companies with strong ESG profiles have an MSCI ESG rating of AAA or AA, meaning they lead their industry in managing the most significant ESG risks and opportunities. Studies show that companies with better ESG ratings have illustrated stronger performance, higher dividend payouts, and stronger earnings stability historically, on average.
They have also illustrated the following attributes:
- Lower cost of capital
- Less exposure to systemic risk
- Lower volatility
- Higher profitability
In addition, companies with strong MSCI ESG ratings may possess greater resilience. Stocks with high MSCI ESG ratings have had lower financial drawdowns during crises compared to their market-capitalization-weighted parent index.
Sustainable Investing: Shaping the Dialogue
Companies with higher environmental risks—including heavy carbon polluters, waste emitters, and poor water management—are facing greater scrutiny. At the same time, client demand is shifting to ESG, and the conversation is changing.
These questions can serve as a launching point for advisers to help clients seize new opportunities and mitigate investment risks.
Net-Zero Emissions: The Steps Companies and Investors Can Consider
More companies are declaring net-zero emissions targets, but where can they start? Find out the steps companies and investors can take.
The Steps to Net-Zero Emissions
To help prevent the worst effects of climate change, a growing number of companies are pledging to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. In fact, the percentage of companies declaring a net-zero target nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020.
With urgency building, how can companies and investors approach net-zero emissions? The above infographic from MSCI highlights the steps these two groups can take, from defining a strategy to reporting progress.
Net-Zero Emissions: A Clear Process
Setting a net-zero emissions target means reducing carbon emissions to the greatest extent possible, and compensating for the remaining unavoidable emissions via removal.
Companies and investors can take four broad steps to move toward their targets.
1. Define Strategy
To begin, companies can measure current emissions and identify priority areas where emissions can be reduced. For example, ABC chemical company determines that its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions far exceed those of its competitors. In response, ABC chemical company prioritizes reducing GHG emissions during material processing.
Similarly, wealth and asset managers can assess climate risks:
- Risks of transitioning to a net-zero economy
- Risks of extreme weather events
They can then map out a strategy to curb climate risk. For example, XYZ asset manager determines that 33% of its portfolio may be vulnerable to asset stranding or some level of transition risk. XYZ decides to lower its transition risk by aligning with a 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warming scenario.
2. Set Target
With a strategy set, companies can pledge their net-zero emissions commitment and set interim goals. They can also specify how their pledge will be achieved. For example, ABC chemical company could set a net-zero emissions target by 2050. To increase short-term accountability, they set an interim target to halve carbon emissions by 2035.
Wealth and asset managers can also set targets and interim goals, as they apply to their portfolios. For instance, XYZ asset manager could set a goal to decarbonize its portfolio 5% by 2025, and 10% by 2030. This means that the companies within the portfolio are reducing their carbon emissions at this rate.
|Business as usual||3.6℃ (6.5℉)|
|10% decarbonization||1.5℃ (2.7℉)|
As shown above, a 10% year-on-year decarbonization will align XYZ asset manager’s model portfolio with a 1.5 degrees Celsius warming scenario.
ABC chemical company takes immediate action consistent with its interim targets. For instance, the company can start by reducing the carbon footprint of its processes. This approach carries the lowest risks and costs. But to take larger strides toward its net-zero emissions goal, ABC could draw on renewable energy together with carbon-removal technologies as they are developed.
In the same vein, XYZ asset manager can move toward its decarbonization targets by adopting a benchmark index and reallocating capital. This could include:
- Increasing investment in clean technologies
- Re-weighting securities or selecting those that are “best in class” for ESG metrics
- Reducing risk exposure and targeting companies for shareholder engagement
- Selling holdings in companies with the greatest exposure
All of these actions will help XYZ become better aligned with its investment strategy.
4. Track and Publish Progress
Here, the actions for companies and investors converge. Both groups can measure and monitor progress, disclose results, and adjust as necessary.
For example, XYZ asset manager shares the following year-end results of its decarbonization strategy. The results compare the portfolio and its benchmark on their implied temperature rise and exposure to low-carbon transition categories.
(Portfolio - Benchmark)
|Implied temperature rise||3.2℃ (5.8℉)||3.4℃ (6.1℉)||-0.2℃ (-0.4℉)|
|Exposure to companies classified as:|
Asset stranding is the potential for an asset to lose its value well ahead of its anticipated useful life because of the low carbon transition. Companies with product transition risk may suffer from reduced demand for carbon-intensive products and services, while companies with operational transition risk may have increased operational or capital costs due to the low carbon transition.
XYZ asset manager’s portfolio has less risk than the benchmark. XYZ has also significantly reduced its exposure to transition risk to 11.3%, down from 33% in step 1. However, with an implied temperature rise of 3.2 degrees Celsius, the portfolio is far from meeting its 1.5 degrees Celsius warming goal. In response, XYZ begins to intensify pressure on portfolio companies to cut their GHG emissions by at least 10% every year.
A Climate Revolution for Net-Zero Emissions
The time to drive the transition to net-zero emissions is now. By the end of this century, the world is on track to be up to 3.5 degrees Celsius warmer. This could lead to catastrophic flooding, harm to human health, and increased rates of mortality.
As of July 2021, just 10% of the world’s publicly listed companies have aligned with global temperature goals. Preventing the worst effects of climate change will demand the largest economic transformation since the Industrial Revolution. Companies, investors and other capital-market participants can drive this change.
Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface
This detailed map looks at where humans have (and haven’t) modified Earth’s terrestrial environment. See human impact in incredible detail.
Mapped: Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface
With human population on Earth approaching 8 billion (we’ll likely hit that milestone in 2023), our impact on the planet is becoming harder to ignore with each passing year.
Our cities, infrastructure, agriculture, and pollution are all forms of stress we place on the natural world. This map, by David M. Theobald et al., shows just how much of the planet we’ve now modified. The researchers estimate that 14.6% or 18.5 million km² of land area has been modified – an area greater than Russia.
Defining Human Impact
Human impact on the Earth’s surface can take a number of different forms, and researchers took a nuanced approach to classifying the “modifications” we’ve made. In the end, 10 main stressors were used to create this map:
- Built-Up Areas: All of our cities and towns
- Agriculture: Areas devoted to crops and pastures
- Energy and extractive resources: Primarily locations where oil and gas are extracted
- Mines and quarries: Other ground-based natural resource extraction, excluding oil and gas
- Power plants: Areas where energy is produced – both renewable and non-renewable
- Transportation and service corridors: Primarily roads and railways
- Logging: This measures commodity-based forest loss (excludes factors like wildfire and urbanization)
- Human intrusion: Typically areas adjacent to population centers and roads that humans access
- Natural systems modification: Primarily modifications to water flow, including reservoir creation
- Pollution: Phenomenon such as acid rain and fog caused by air pollution
The classification descriptions above are simplified. See the methodology for full descriptions and calculations.
A Closer Look at Human Impact on the Earth’s Surface
To help better understand the level of impact humans can have on the planet, we’ll take a closer look three regions, and see how the situation on the ground relates to these maps.
Land Use Contrasts: Egypt
Almost all of Egypt’s population lives along the Nile and its delta, making it an interesting place to examine land use and human impact.
The towns and high intensity agricultural land following the river stand out clearly on the human modification map, while the nearby desert shows much less impact.
Intensive Modification: Netherlands
The Netherlands has some of the heavily modified landscapes on Earth, so the way it looks on this map will come as no surprise.
The area shown above, Rotterdam’s distinctive port and surround area, renders almost entirely in colors at the top of the human modification scale.
Resource Extraction: West Virginia
It isn’t just cities and towns that show up clearly on this map, it’s also the areas we extract our raw materials from as well. This mountainous region of West Virginia, in the United States, offers a very clear visual example.
The mountaintop removal method of mining—which involves blasting mountains in order to retrieve seams of bituminous coal—is common in this region, and mine sites show up clearly in the map.
You can explore the interactive version of this map yourself to view any area on the globe. What surprises you about these patterns of human impact?
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