Infographic: Visualizing the Sustainable ETF Universe
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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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Visualizing the Impact of Rising Sea Levels, by Country

Here’s a look at how people around the world could be impacted by coastal flooding by 2100, based on rising sea level projections.

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Climate change is already causing sea levels to rise across the globe. In the 20th century alone, it’s estimated that the mean global sea level rose by 11-16 cm.

How much will sea levels change in the coming years, and how will it affect our population?

In the below series of visualizations by Florent Lavergne, we can see how rising sea levels could impact countries in terms of flood risk by the year 2100.

These graphics use data from a 2019 study by Scott Kulp and Benjamin Strauss. Their study used CoastalDEM—a 3D graphics tool used to measure a population’s potential exposure to extreme coastal water levels—and examined rising sea levels under different levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Flood Risk By Region

Which countries will be most severely affected by rising sea levels?

If things continue as they are, roughly 360 million people around the world could be at risk of annual flood events by 2100. Here’s what those figures look like across each region:

Africa

Number of people in Africa that will be affected by rising sea levels in 2100

On the continent of Africa, one of the countries with the highest number of people at risk of coastal flooding is Egypt.

Over 95% of Egypt’s population lives along the Nile river, with some areas situated at extremely low elevations. The country’s lowest point is 133 m below sea level.

Asia

Number of people in Asia that will be affected by rising sea levels in 2100

Asia’s population will be more heavily impacted by flooding than any other region included in the dataset.

According to the projections, 70% of the people that will be affected by rising sea levels are located in just eight Asian countries: China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Japan.

Europe

Number of people in Europe that will be affected by rising sea levels in 2100

One of the most high-risk populations in Europe is the Netherlands. The country has a population of about 17 million, and as of 2019, about half of its population lives in areas below sea level.

The country’s lowest point, the town Nieuwekerk aan den Ijssel, is 6.8 m below sea level.

North America

Number of people in North America that will be affected by rising sea levels in 2100

In North America, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico are expected to see the highest numbers of impacted people, due to the size of their populations.

But as a percentage of population, other countries in Central America and the Caribbean are more greatly at risk, especially in high emission scenarios. One country worth highlighting is the Bahamas. Even based on moderate emission levels, the country is expected to see a significant surge in the number of people at risk of flood.

According to the World Bank, this is because land in the Bahamas is relatively flat, making the island especially vulnerable to sea level rises and flooding.

South America

Number of people in South America that will be affected by rising sea levels in 2100

As South America’s largest country by population and with large coastal cities, Brazil‘s population is the most at risk for flood caused by rising sea levels.

Notably, thanks to a lot of mountainous terrain and municipalities situated on high elevation, no country in South America faces a flood risk impacting more than 1 million people.

Oceania

Number of people in Oceania that will be affected by rising sea levels in 2100

By 2100, Polynesian countries like Tonga are projected to see massive increases in the number of people at risk of flooding, even at moderate GHG emissions.

According to Reuters, sea levels in Tonga have been rising by 6 mm each year, which is nearly double the average global rate. The reason for this is because the islands sit in warmer waters, where sea level changes are more noticeable than at the poles.

What’s Causing Sea Levels to Rise?

Since 1975, average temperatures around the world have risen 0.15 to 0.20°C each decade, according to research by NASA.

This global heating has caused polar ice caps to begin melting—in just over two decades, we’ve lost roughly 28 trillion tonnes of our world’s ice. Over that same timeframe, global sea levels have risen by an average of 36 mm. These rising sea levels pose a number of risks, including soil contamination, loss of habitat, and flooding.

As countries are affected by climate change in different ways, and at different levels, the question becomes how they will respond in turn.

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Energy

What Are the Five Major Types of Renewable Energy?

Renewable energy is the foundation of the ongoing energy transition. What are the key types of renewable energy, and how do they work?

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The Renewable Energy Age

This was originally posted on Elements. Sign up to the free mailing list to get beautiful visualizations on natural resource megatrends in your email every week.

Awareness around climate change is shaping the future of the global economy in several ways.

Governments are planning how to reduce emissions, investors are scrutinizing companies’ environmental performance, and consumers are becoming conscious of their carbon footprints. But no matter the stakeholder, energy generation and consumption from fossil fuels is one of the biggest contributors to emissions.

Therefore, renewable energy sources have never been more top-of-mind than they are today.

The Five Types of Renewable Energy

Renewable energy technologies harness the power of the sun, wind, and heat from the Earth’s core, and then transforms it into usable forms of energy like heat, electricity, and fuel.

The above infographic uses data from Lazard, Ember, and other sources to outline everything you need to know about the five key types of renewable energy:

Energy Source% of 2021 Global Electricity GenerationAvg. levelized cost of energy per MWh
Hydro 💧 15.3%$64
Wind 🌬 6.6%$38
Solar ☀️ 3.7%$36
Biomass 🌱 2.3%$114
Geothermal ♨️ <1%$75

Editor’s note: We have excluded nuclear from the mix here, because although it is often defined as a sustainable energy source, it is not technically renewable (i.e. there are finite amounts of uranium).

Though often out of the limelight, hydro is the largest renewable electricity source, followed by wind and then solar.

Together, the five main sources combined for roughly 28% of global electricity generation in 2021, with wind and solar collectively breaking the 10% share barrier for the first time.

The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) measures the lifetime costs of a new utility-scale plant divided by total electricity generation. The LCOE of solar and wind is almost one-fifth that of coal ($167/MWh), meaning that new solar and wind plants are now much cheaper to build and operate than new coal plants over a longer time horizon.

With this in mind, here’s a closer look at the five types of renewable energy and how they work.

1. Wind

Wind turbines use large rotor blades, mounted at tall heights on both land and sea, to capture the kinetic energy created by wind.

When wind flows across the blade, the air pressure on one side of the blade decreases, pulling it down with a force described as the lift. The difference in air pressure across the two sides causes the blades to rotate, spinning the rotor.

The rotor is connected to a turbine generator, which spins to convert the wind’s kinetic energy into electricity.

2. Solar (Photovoltaic)

Solar technologies capture light or electromagnetic radiation from the sun and convert it into electricity.

Photovoltaic (PV) solar cells contain a semiconductor wafer, positive on one side and negative on the other, forming an electric field. When light hits the cell, the semiconductor absorbs the sunlight and transfers the energy in the form of electrons. These electrons are captured by the electric field in the form of an electric current.

A solar system’s ability to generate electricity depends on the semiconductor material, along with environmental conditions like heat, dirt, and shade.

3. Geothermal

Geothermal energy originates straight from the Earth’s core—heat from the core boils underground reservoirs of water, known as geothermal resources.

Geothermal plants typically use wells to pump hot water from geothermal resources and convert it into steam for a turbine generator. The extracted water and steam can then be reinjected, making it a renewable energy source.

4. Hydropower

Similar to wind turbines, hydropower plants channel the kinetic energy from flowing water into electricity by using a turbine generator.

Hydro plants are typically situated near bodies of water and use diversion structures like dams to change the flow of water. Power generation depends on the volume and change in elevation or head of the flowing water.

Greater water volumes and higher heads produce more energy and electricity, and vice versa.

5. Biomass

Humans have likely used energy from biomass or bioenergy for heat ever since our ancestors learned how to build fires.

Biomass—organic material like wood, dry leaves, and agricultural waste—is typically burned but considered renewable because it can be regrown or replenished. Burning biomass in a boiler produces high-pressure steam, which rotates a turbine generator to produce electricity.

Biomass is also converted into liquid or gaseous fuels for transportation. However, emissions from biomass vary with the material combusted and are often higher than other clean sources.

When Will Renewable Energy Take Over?

Despite the recent growth of renewables, fossil fuels still dominate the global energy mix.

Most countries are in the early stages of the energy transition, and only a handful get significant portions of their electricity from clean sources. However, the ongoing decade might see even more growth than recent record-breaking years.

The IEA forecasts that, by 2026, global renewable electricity capacity is set to grow by 60% from 2020 levels to over 4,800 gigawatts—equal to the current power output of fossil fuels and nuclear combined. So, regardless of when renewables will take over, it’s clear that the global energy economy will continue changing.

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