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Visualizing the Sustainable ETF Universe

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Sustainable ETF Universe

Visualizing the Sustainable ETF Universe

Globally, sustainable exchange-traded fund (ETF) assets hit $150 billion last year, vaulting 25 times higher than in 2015.

Yet despite this growth, sustainable ETFs—baskets of investments that focus on environmental, social and governance issues—account for roughly 5% of the entire ETF universe. What makes up this rapidly growing market? Where are the most common areas for investment?

To answer this question, this infographic from MSCI breaks down the sustainable ETF universe.

Sustainable ETFs: An Overview

By and large, the scope of sustainable ETFs can vary. One sustainable ETF may consist of clean tech companies, and another could focus on sustainable leaders in the S&P 500. Like the broader ETF market, they typically offer low fees.

Overall, the sustainable ETF universe can be broken down into four types of assets.

ETF Asset ClassGlobal Number of ETFsShare of Total
Equity33180.7%
Bond6916.8%
Mixed Assets82.0%
Alternative20.5%

As of Dec. 31, 2020
Source: MSCI LLC ESG Research (Feb, 2021)

Unsurprisingly, the majority of sustainable ETFs are equity ETFs, comprising 81% of the market as of Dec. 31, 2020.

Following equity ETFs are bond ETFs, at nearly 17% of the total universe. One growing subset, known as green bonds, are typically used to fund environmental projects such as water management and green buildings. Here, debt issuers generate fixed income for investors that target climate objectives.

Meanwhile, there are just eight funds globally, or about 2% of sustainable ETFs, that combine more than one type of asset. Alternative ETFs, which are assets outside of stocks and bonds, are the smallest part of the universe at 0.5%.

Sustainable ETFs by Approach

Next, let’s take a look at different sustainable investing styles. Generally speaking, there are four main approaches: integration, values & screening, thematic, and impact.

ESG ETF by TypeShare of TotalEuropeNorth AmericaAsiaAustralia
Integration40.5%30.8%50.1%57.7%28.6%
Values & screening43.9%60.6%22.5%34.6%71.4%
Thematic12.9%8.7%20.7%3.8%0.0%
Impact2.6%0.0%5.9%3.8%0.0%

As of Dec. 31, 2020
Source: MSCI LLC ESG Research (Feb, 2021)

Integration approaches, which make up 41% of the universe, are when investors use ESG factors to identify risks and opportunities that may enhance long-term performance. A best-in-class method, which invests in leaders in a given sector, is one form of an ESG integration approach.

In the U.S., the 24 largest equity ETFs following this approach hold roughly $25 billion in assets.

At the lower end of the spectrum, 3% of all sustainable ETFs follow impact approaches, which cover investments that provide solutions to environmental and social issues. Investments that fall under this approach may have frameworks that target the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Sustainable ETFs by Domicile

Where are the biggest markets for launching sustainable ETFs?

When it comes to the prevalence of sustainable ETFs around the world, Europe leads the way. With over half of all sustainable ETFs, Europe surpasses North America by a significant margin. Of the 40 ETFs with over $1 billion in assets, 26 are domiciled in Europe.

ETF by DomicileNumber of ETFsShare of Total
Europe20850.7%
North America16139.3%
Asia256.1%
Australia143.4%
Other20.5%

As of Dec. 31, 2020
Source: MSCI LLC ESG Research (Feb, 2021)

Despite covering about 6% of the total number of ESG ETFs, interest in sustainability investing is strong in Asia. Notably, one study found that 79% of institutional investors in Asia-Pacific “significantly” or “moderately” increased investment in ESG-linked assets.

Understanding the Carbon Intensity of Sustainable ETFs

Finally, let’s examine how the carbon intensity of sustainable ETFs breaks down. Carbon intensity measures the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted relative to a company’s revenue.

ETF Carbon IntensityShare of TotalAverage Carbon Intensity, Tons of CO2 Equivalent/USD Million Sales
Very Low5.7%0 to <15
Low18.4%15 to <70
Moderate50.1%70 to <250
High18.4%250 to <525
Very High7.4%525 to <2000

As of Dec. 31, 2020
Source: MSCI LLC ESG Research (Feb, 2021)

The carbon intensity of the average company varies significantly across sectors.

Interestingly, under 6% of sustainable ETFs exhibited the lowest carbon intensity levels of 0 to 15 weighted average tons of CO2 equivalent (WACI). Among the lowest carbon-intensive ETFs was one with a greater focus on banking, insurance and financials.

By contrast, sustainable ETFs with the highest carbon intensity levels accounted for over 7% of the total universe, with these funds holding higher shares of mining and utilities companies.

Across all sustainable ETFs, 58% fell within the moderate range of 70 to 250 WACI.

At the Crossroads

Sustainable investing may be one of the most critical movements over the last decade for the financial industry.

But at the same time, greenwashing concerns are rising. To offset this trend, the European Union has set in place new rules on what constitutes a sustainable fund. Here, investments will essentially be labeled as sustainable or not. This could become a global standard.

For investors who wish to invest in sustainable ETFs, the importance of research and data providers will play a more concrete role, especially as the universe continues to expand.

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Environment

The Most Polluted Cities in the U.S.

What are the most polluted cities in the U.S. according to data from the American Lung Association’s 2024 State of the Air Report?

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Teaser image for an infographic showing the most polluted cities in the U.S. according to the American Lung Association's 2024 State of the Air report.

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The following content is sponsored by National Public Utilities Council

The Most Polluted U.S. Cities in 2024

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths annually, and could cost the global economy between $18–25 trillion by 2060 in annual welfare costs, or roughly 4–6% of world GDP.

And with predictions that 7 in 10 people will make their homes in urban centers by mid-century, cities are fast becoming one of the frontlines in the global effort to clear the air.

In this visualization, we use 2024 data from the State of the Air report from the American Lung Association to show the most polluted cities in the United States.

What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is a complex mixture of gases, particles, and liquid droplets and can have a variety of sources, including wildfires and cookstoves in rural areas, and road dust and diesel exhaust in cities. 

There are a few kinds of air pollution that are especially bad for human health, including ozone and carbon monoxide, but here we’re concerned with fine particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns, or PM2.5 for short. 

The reason for the focus is because at that small size, particulate matter can penetrate the bloodstream and cause all manner of havoc, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and chronic pulmonary disease. 

The American Lung Association has set an annual average guideline of 9 µg/m³ for PM2.5, however, the World Health Organization has set a much more stringent limit of 5 µg/m³.

The 21 Worst Polluted Cities in the U.S.

Here are the top 21 most polluted cities in the U.S., according to their annual average PM2.5 concentrations:

RankCity, StateAnnual average concentration, 2020-2022 (µg/m3)
1Bakersfield, CA18.8
2Visalia, CA18.4
3Fresno, CA17.5
4Eugene, OR14.7
5Bay Area, CA14.3
6Los Angeles, CA14.0
7Sacramento, CA13.8
8Medford, OR13.5
9Phoenix, AZ12.4
10Fairbanks, AK12.2
11Indianapolis, IN11.9
12Yakima, WA11.8
13Detroit, MI11.7
T14Chico, CA11.6
T14Spokane, WA11.6
15Houston, TX11.4
16El Centro, CA11.1
17Reno, NV11.0
18Pittsburgh, PA10.9
T19Kansas City, KS10.8
T19Las Vegas, NV10.8

Note: The American Lung Association uses Core Based Statistical Areas in its city and county rankings, which have been shortened here to the area’s principal city, or metro area in the case of the Bay Area, CA.

Six of the top seven cities are in California, and four in the state’s Central Valley, a 450-mile flat valley that runs parallel to the Pacific coast, and bordered by the Coast and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. As a result, when pollution from the big population centers on the coast is carried inland by the wind—cities #5 and #6 on the list—it tends to get trapped in the valley. 

Bakersfield (#1), Visalia (#2), and Fresno (#3) are located at the drier and hotter southern end of the valley, which is worse for air quality. The top three local sources of PM2.5 emissions in 2023 were farms (20%), forest management / agricultural waste burning (20%), and road dust (14%). 

Benefit to Economy

While the health impacts are generally well understood, less well known are the economic impacts.

Low air quality negatively affects worker productivity, increases absenteeism, and adds both direct and indirect health care costs. But the flip side of that equation is that improving air quality has measurable impacts to the wider economy. The EPA published a study that calculated the economic benefits of each metric ton of particulate matter that didn’t end up in the atmosphere, broken down by sector. 

SectorBenefits per metric ton
Residential Woodstoves$429,220
Refineries$333,938
Industrial Boilers$174,229
Oil and Natural Gas Transmission$125,227
Electricity Generating Units$124,319
Oil and Natural Gas$88,838

At the same time, the EPA recently updated a cost-benefit analysis of the Clean Air Act, the main piece of federal legislation governing air quality, and found that between 1990 and 2020 it cost the economy roughly $65 billion, but also provided $2 trillion in benefits

Benefit to Business

But that’s at the macroeconomic level, so what about for individual businesses?

For one, employees like to breathe clean air and will choose to work somewhere else, given a choice. A 2022 Deloitte case study revealed that nearly 70% of highly-skilled workers said air quality was a significant factor in choosing which city to live and work in.

At the same time, air quality can impact employer-sponsored health care premiums, by reducing the overall health of the risk pool. And since insurance premiums averaged $7,590 per year in 2022 for a single employee, and rose to $21,931 for a family, that can add up fast. 

Consumers are also putting their purchase decisions through a green lens, while ESG, triple-bottom-line, and impact investing are putting the environment front and center for many investors.

And if the carrot isn’t enough for some businesses, there is the stick. The EPA recently gave vehicle engine manufacturer Cummins nearly two billion reasons to help improve air quality, in a settlement the agency is calling “the largest civil penalty in the history of the Clean Air Act and the second largest environmental penalty ever.”

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